United Airlinessuffered a major computer outage Friday night that caused the delay and cancelation of 31 flights and delays of 105 world-wide, says an AP story. Another AP story says that the outage, which mostly affected the last flights of the day, lasted five hours and that it would take several days for United to clear up the passenger backlog.
"United Airlines is in the process of resuming normal operations following a temporary computer outage Friday night. The airline experienced a network connectivity issue at about 7:15 p.m. CT which was resolved through troubleshooting procedures and restored at midnight. The airline has issued a waiver policy permitting customers on affected flights to cancel or rebook their itineraries without penalty."
"United apologizes for the disruption caused to travelers at affected airports and is reaccommodating travelers where necessary. "
According to a story at WLS-TV Chicago also from Saturday afternoon, even though United said that things were returning back to normal by 0300 Saturday morning, system problems persisted into the afternoon, at least at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, United's second largest hub. The WLS-TV story states that:
"Although the electronic flight boards indicated that most flights are running on time, many passengers fear they won't even be able to get onto their planes. It appears the self-check in kiosks, which are used by most people these days, are not working many travelers, including those who rebooked from Friday night and those who were originally scheduled for Saturday. Passengers say they are getting error messages from the kiosk machines, telling them their flights are not recognized, which means they have to get in line to check in. So, huge lines have formed inside the terminals for both domestic and international flights."
In addition, WLS-TV says that passengers are complaining that there are not enough United representatives to deal with the growing crowd of passengers and ensuing confusion. The first AP story I mentioned said that United passengers were complaining Friday night about the same problem, and reported that the United staff who were working seemed in the dark about the computer problems as well.
United has so far not explained what it meant by - or the reason for - its "network connectivity issue." An article at International Business Timesspeculates it might have to do with United's merger with Continental Airlines in May and the problems involved with integrating their two computer systems. The IBT story notes that a number of reservation system changes were made earlier this month, as well as said there was a problem with United's web site that cropped up on Thursday.
Continental flights for the most part were not affected by United's reservation system problem, but once the two airlines computer systems are fully merged, any similar glitch will likely have increased flight and passenger consequences.
The first AP story quotes airline analyst Robert Mann as saying this about United's reservation system problem:
"They're infrequent, but the fact that they happen at all is puzzling. These [IT systems] are mission-critical... The idea that they would fail is troubling."
However, in contrast, there is a story at Reuters by David Parker Brown at AirlineReporter that argues the 5 hour outage is not a big deal, and that severe thunderstorms in the summer can cause almost as many problems. Furthermore,
"... it seems the airline industry gets unfairly picked on when they are operating the most complex transportation system in the world. This is a multifaceted business and when you have an airline operating over 3000 flights and managing almost 700 aircraft, things will go wrong - that is just the nature of the business. It seems most people are willing to forgive other businesses that are far less complex for their mistakes, but rarely the airline business."
The first AP story noted that about 15 to 30 United flights (out of 3,000) get canceled on any particular day.
So, do any of you think Mr. Brown is correct in saying that United is getting picked on unfairly about this outage by analysts like Mr. Mann?
By the way, before you answer, US Airways suffered a 30 second power outage at its Phoenix, Arizona data centers a week ago Friday at about 1500 MST that took out its IT systems. According to a story at AZCentral.com last week, at exactly that moment US Airways was doing maintenance on its uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system. The story goes on to say that:
"Because the UPS was being worked on, it did not act as an emergency power source. It took 30 seconds before the backup generator began working... By that time, all systems, including US Airways' web site and nationwide airport-computer systems, had gone offline and had to be rebooted."
It took about three hours to restore all the computer systems, and about 300 US Airway flights were delayed as a result of the outage.
US Airways Chief Operating Officer Robert Isom was quoted in the story as saying that:
"It's obviously something we would have rather not encountered, but it's [the flight delays] a number that is equivalent to a big thunderstorm hitting our system."
So again, is the United (or last week's US Airways) outage a big deal or not?
[Update: 19 June 2011]
There are news reports today that US Airways suffered a computer outage starting at 0750 EDT and lasting for about three and a half hours at its Charlotte, North Carolina hub Sunday morning. No flights were reported as being canceled, although US Airways flights into and out of Charlotte Douglas International Airport are expected to be delayed through a good part of the day.
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.