Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Computer "outage" disrupts Delta flights

An outage of some computer systems or components on Monday led to cancellations and delays of Delta Air Lines flights.

Once planes and crews are out of position, it takes time to get them back to where they are needed. New crews and/or planes may have to be sent out if the original planes and/or crews have exceeded their safety time limits for periodic equipment maintenance or crew rest. Only today, Wednesday, are Delta flights getting back on schedule and back to their normal capacity.

Last month Southwest Airlines flights were similarly cancelled, delayed, and disrupted for several days after a computer system component failed.

What caused the problems with Delta flights? The “outage” that affected Delta operations has been attributed to an equipment failure that cut power to some components of Delta’s computer system. But neither the nature of the problem nor the specific component(s) that were affected have been clearly identified. My guess is that the equipment that lost power was part of the interface between some components of Delta’s in-house IT systems including its departure control system (DCS) and flight management system, and the Worldspan computerized reservation system (CRS).

Was this a result of problems with Delta’s reservation system? No. Other airlines that use Worldspan had no problems. One thing we know for certain is that this was a problem internal to Delta’s own systems (or those of some other Delta service provider) or related to the Delta-Worldspan interface, not to any core or shared Worldspan functionality.

Where would you point the finger of blame? I don’t yet have enough information to be sure, but the underlying cause is likely to turn out to be a combination of (1) over-reliance on technology (see more on that below) and (2) the inability of airlines like Delta to make a clear, long-term commitment either to outsource their operational IT systems or keep them in-house. The interface between in-house and outsourced IT systems that failed only existed because Delta chose take some parts of its systems in-house while outsourcing others. Prior to that, Delta’s IT systems had been integrated, first wholly in-house and then wholly outsourced to a single company, Worldspan.

Delta has an unnecessarily complicated relationship with Worldspan. Worldspan was originally developed in-house by Delta, but was spun off and eventually acquired by Travelport, a holding company which also bought the competing Galileo/Amadeus CRS. Throughout that time, Delta’s systems continued to be operated by essentially the same team of people in the same facilities. But recently, Delta has taken some IT functionality in-house, while continuing to outsource database hosting to Worldspan. Given the changes back and forth between Travelport’s Worldspan division and Delta over operational and legal responsibility for elements of the airline’s IT systems, it’s scarcely surprising that the interfaces grafted on to connect but separate Worldspan and Delta (a digital corpus callosum between the halves of its logical brain) are among the least well-tested and most vulnerable components of the complex and formerly unified system.

Was this a result of airlines using “old-fashioned” computer equipment? No. There’s no basis to claims like the headline today in the Wall Street Journal, Delta Meltdown Reflects Problems With Aging Technology. One of the biggest advantages of “mature” software and systems is that they have had time for bugs to manifest themselves and be corrected. Legacy systems are often kept around and preferred because of their reliability. The major CRSs are no exception, and one of the many reasons most airlines outsource reservation hosting and other functions is the extreme reliability of the CRSs.

Can modern airlines operate flight even when their computers are down? Yes. Delta could, and perhaps should, take lessons from the best practices of more reliable airlines like Ethiopian (long one of the world’s standouts for operational efficiency and reliability). As I’ve written about before, I travelled without incident with e-tickets on Ethiopian flights and connections that operated on time with a full passenger load even when the power had been out for almost two days at the place where we started our trip. Not having manual backups such as printed passenger manifests and paper tickets is a deliberate cost-cutting (and reliability-cutting) choice by airlines like Delta. This week’s events show why I think it’s the wrong choice, even if it saves a couple of dollars a ticket. And whatever the reasons for Delta’s choice to take that risk, the airline has to take responsibility to passengers for its consequences. Delta gambled that its computers would never go down, and it lost. Now it needs to pay up.

Do government “security” or passenger permission requirements prohibit airlines for operating flights when their computers are down? No. Since 2006 airlines have, by default, been required to get permission from the US Department of Homeland Security before issuing each boarding pass. But while some of the permission procedures are secret, the Consolidated User Guide issued to airlines makes clear that there are multiple levels of fallback “outage” procedures (beginning on page 89 of the user guide) that allow airlines to operate flights and board passengers even when their computer systems are down — as long as the airline still have access (e.g. through printed backups of passenger manifests, or through paper tickets) to lists of names of ticketed passengers by flight. (An unredacted version of the extremely interesting DHS Consolidated User Guide was apparently leaked and posted online without fanfare in 2010 by, but I only recently noticed it.)

Why couldn’t Delta “endorse” my ticket to American Airlines, if Delta’s flights were cancelled and American had empty seats? (1) Because Delta couldn’t retrieve your electronic ticket in order to endorse it to another airline if Delta’s reservation system was down (the ability to have paper tickets endorsed to another airline is one of their major advantages over e-tickets), and (2) because Delta and American ended their decades-old interline ticket acceptance agreement in 2015. As I predicted in 2005 when the process was just beginning, airlines have been steadily cutting back on interline agreements, retaining only those within “alliances” and deliberately making themselves unable to interoperate with members of other “alliances” or assist their passengers in case of disruptions to flight operations. Airlines lie and claim that alliances allow them to offer more flights to more places, but the termination of interline agreements between members of rival alliances is clearly detrimental to passengers’ interests. This week’s events were the first major demonstration of the consequences.

What are my rights if I had tickets for a flight that was cancelled? Delta wants to keep your money, of course. So it is urging passengers to apply the “credits” for cancelled flights to future Delta flights. But you are legally entitled to more: According to Delta’s own domestic and international conditions of carriage, you have the absolute right to a full and unconditional refund which you can then use to buy new tickets on Delta, new tickets on a competing airlines, or anything else. You are entitled to a refund in the same form of payment you used to pay for your tickets (cash, credit, or debit card), and not just a “refund” in airline scrip limited to use with Delta and within a limited time:

In the event of flight cancellation, diversion, delays of greater than 90 minutes, or delays that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta will (at passenger’s request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment.

Note that to get a refund from Delta, you have to request it. It might take some time, so make your request, in writing, as soon as you are sure you want a refund rather than just airline credit (“scrip”). Keep copies of documentation of your ticket, flight cancellation, and refund claim. If the airline refuses to give you a full refund, you can sue them for it in small claims court.

The travel consumer advocacy group Travelers United as well as some members of Congress are already calling on Delta to better inform ticket holders about their right to a full cash or credit card refund, and not to pressure them into accepting restricted credits in airline scrip usable only on Delta and only for a limited time.

For more advice, see my FAQ About Changes to Flights and Tickets and my previous commentary on CRS and other airline IT outages:

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 10 August 2016, 12:49 (12:49 PM)
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