I wonder if Alaska Air Group's enterprise risk management team had this risk on their watch list.
At 0730 Pacific Time yesterday, Alaska Airlines (and its sister carrier Horizon Air) started experiencing what it termed at the time to be a “software outage” that brought down its SABRE reservation system, forcing the airline to go in to manual operation mode. As you can expect, chaos soon took hold at its check-in desks.
It took a bit of time for Alaska and SABRE to discover that it wasn’t a software issue at all but a network connectivity-related one: a Sprint fiber-optic network cable was accidentally cut during maintenance work being performed on a railroad track someplace between Chicago and Milwaukee.
The severed Sprint cable also affected other airline users of SABRE, including American, Frontier and Southwest Airlines. However, after about 45 minutes, these airlines were able to once again access SABRE as reservation and other passenger data was automatically rerouted over another portion of Sprint’s network. Few flight disruptions were reported by these airlines because of the outage.
Unfortunately for Alaska Air, another Sprint fiber-optic cable, this one an aerial cable located somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Tacoma, Washington was mysteriously cut as well yesterday morning Pacific time. This second severed cable happened to be the one that was supposed to reestablish communications between Alaska Airlines and the SABRE system. Alaska Airlines and SABRE were unable to communicate for over five hours until Sprint finally got the first cable cut repaired.
Alaska and Horizon Air ended up having to cancel 78 flights, affecting nearly 7000 passengers in the process. Thousands more passengers were inconvenienced, as their flights were delayed up to four hours. In addition, an untold number of Sprint customers in California, Oregon, Minnesota, and Washington also lost service for several hours because of the cable cuts.
As of this morning, Sprint still hasn’t explained the reason for the second cable cut. Yesterday, Sprint said it could not rule out sabotage.
I would be happy to hear from someone who specializes in network reliability analysis who can tell me the odds of Alaska Airlines losing connectivity with SABRE by having these two exact cables being accidentally severed at nearly the same time.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.