Be on the lookout for broken airline IT systems this holiday travel season

As we eat our turkey this Thanksgiving, let’s cross our fingers for the 2017 holiday season—usually, brittle systems fail during peak volumes

airport checkin reservations
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I attended some meetings and the NESMA seminar in Germany last week, and as I was looking at flight options from New York City, I saw one on Singapore Airlines. Of course, I jumped on it. Singapore might be one of the only airlines where I don’t feel like livestock for transport. And my theory is proven yet again as I’m writing this article from 37,000 feet above sea level. 

The large domestic airlines and the major European carriers tend to take a lackadaisical approach towards quality of service. There’s sort of a minimum standard, like you get peanuts with your drink and you can shut the bathroom door when in use. But Singapore goes above and beyond. Its flight crew really tries to be friendly and attentive: They still hand out toothbrushes and sleep aids, every seat has a power plug and a large TV, and they treat you with respect even if you’re not paying $5,000 for the flight. Singapore runs a safe and efficient operation, but you can also tell it tries to make the flying experience as positive as possible. 

It always makes me smile a bit when I’m on a domestic flight and I hear the announcer telling us about the safety features of this airplane and reminding us yet again that the airline’s “number one priority is your safety.” It’s hard not to take that as code for saying that “the quality of our service is of secondary importance.” 

Well, that may not be an explicit statement on the part of the airlines, but it’s a strong implicit one. Often, it’s not what you say, but what you don’t say and don’t do that counts. In fact, there are multiple ways the airlines indicate to us over and over that they don’t care that much about our comfort and convenience. 

One of those ways is the way they manage IT. IT is a core part of the fragile airline service infrastructure. The software on which airlines conduct operations is as much a part of the service they provide as the check in counters, baggage conveyer belts, travel agent networks, and airports. Maybe even more: The IT systems keep track of who we are, when our flights are, where we’re booked, where the airplanes are at any given time, what seats are assigned to us, what our earned miles are, which flight attendants will be caring for our safety, and myriad of other things. 

A glitch in any of those systems, and travel networks get snagged up, flights get confused, reservations get lost, and thousands of flights get cancelled. We’re heavily inconvenienced, but at least we’re still safe. 

When it comes to safety, we know the airlines take that seriously. The aircraft are on a rigorous maintenance schedule, the flight crews are trained, and pilots have thousands of hours of experience. When it comes to the software component of safety, the autopilot software and the onboard avionics control software are rigorously black-box-tested, white-box-tested, security-tested, and assessed for structural quality. That’s the software the keeps you safe. 

But when it comes to convenience and quality of service, software in the air travel industry is in shambles. Legacy systems, some dating back to the 1980s or earlier, are cobbled together from past mergers and are widely distributed to support websites and mobile apps on all sorts of devices. It’s actually pretty impressive that these systems work at all, let alone are mostly glitch-free. But, we at CAST know that the level of investment by airlines around software structural quality is the lowest of any industry. That means these systems will continue to deteriorate from the inside out unless action is taken to modernize the software up to 21st century standards. 

If the airlines paid anywhere near the attention they do to safety-critical systems, we would never have IT-related flight delays, airport outages, or glitchy customer experiences. But unfortunately, they really don’t care as much about the quality of their IT. Ask any airline executive if they keep track of the quality of their IT systems. I can tell you right now that they don’t. For anyone who’s been stuck at the airport during one of Delta’s, United’s, British Airway’s, American’s, or Southwest’s systemwide IT outages, this issue is pretty stark. For the rest of us, we can just hope the same fate does not befall us before the airlines clean up their software. 

So, as we eat our turkey this Thanksgiving, let’s cross our fingers for the 2017 holiday season. Usually, brittle systems fail during peak volumes. I hope I don’t have to come back to this post and say “I told you so.”

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