Wednesday, 29 August 2012

United Airlines grounded by CRS outage

For several hours yesterday afternoon (US time), United Airlines was unable to check in or board passengers on most of its scheduled flights because of an outage affecting the computerized reservation system (CRS) that hosts United’s database of passenger name records (PNRs).

This wasn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened, and it won’t be the last.

In March of this year, as part of its merger with Continental, United migrated its reservations (PNR) hosting from Travelport’s “Galileo” CRS to the HP (formerly EDS) “SHARES” system. There were lots of problems with the migration, as there usually are with such a major change that has to be accomplished without interruption while a large system is running and while data can’t be “frozen” for more than a few minutes without disrupting operations.

I’ve managed CRS migrations for a travel agency, and even on that much smaller scale and without 24/7/3565 operations there have always been unexpected problems, such as functionality in the old system — perhaps including undocumented features or uses of the data structures that the CRS vendors didn’t realize were being used in those ways — that turns out not to be fully replicated, or not in obvious ways, on the new system.

But even without recent CRS migrations, United experienced major CRS outages affecting flights, which I reported on with their lessons for travellers, in 2006 and 2011.

Two things seem especially noteworthy about yesterday’s incident:

  1. The flight delays were caused solely by inability to access, print, and process reservations, tickets, and boarding passes. At one point United itself asked the FAA to hold all departures of United flights bound for United hubs, even if passengers were already checked in and boarded. But that was merely to limit congestion of United terminals and gate slots, not because of any problem with air traffic control or flight operations. This incident highlights the drawbacks of e-tickets, especially in the absence of backup plans by airlines like United. Some other airlines, as I’ve noted previously, have paper backups that permit seamless operations even during power cuts and computer outages. US airlines could, but don’t, do likewise. Federal regulations require all airlines operating in the US to provide actual “tickets”, but few do, and the Department of transportation has ignored calls to enforce these rules like these I submitted in a 2010 regulatory proceeding. Yesterday’s events should be a wake-up call to the DOT to crack down on airlines that don’t provide tickets.

  2. United was able, in some cases, to issue hand-written boarding passes and process passengers, despite the “network outage”. And nobody seems to have attributed any of the delays to the TSA. These details suggest that despite the default “No”, and the requirement of Secure Flight for affirmative per-passenger, per-flight TSA permission to board (tpyically delivered through bidirectional messaging and control links between the CRS and the TSA), there are some exceptions in which airlines can be “permitted” to board passengers without transmitting their reservations to the TSA or receiving individualized permission based on black box processing of those reservations and other (secret) data. But the procedures and the standards (if any) for those exceptions to the permission-to-board requirement remain secret and likely to continue to evade judicial reeview.
Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 29 August 2012, 10:08 (10:08 AM)

"The flight delays were caused solely by inability to access, print, and process reservations, tickets, and boarding passes." - Is there a way to avoid such delays? Don't they have at least a backup plan in case such things happen?

Posted by: OJ, 30 August 2012, 19:27 ( 7:27 PM)

The way to avoid these delays would be to have a backup plan. But most US airlines don't appear to have a Plan B for CRS outages

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 30 August 2012, 20:37 ( 8:37 PM)

That sucks. Oh well, I just hope the management would see this and be creative enough to come up with something. :)

thanks Edward!

Posted by: OJ, 30 August 2012, 20:48 ( 8:48 PM)

Ethiopian Airlines was able to handle e-tickets and reservations even when the power had been out for 18 hours before the flight! Why can't United?

Posted by: Ruth, 7 September 2012, 16:26 ( 4:26 PM)
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