Mon, Jun 20, 2011 - Page 10 News List

United increasingly dependent on networks

MAJOR GLITCH:A still-unexplained computer outage caused the cancelation of 36 flights, and delayed scores more, stranding thousands of passengers around the world


A five-hour computer outage that virtually shut down United Airlines is a stark reminder of how dependent airlines have become on technology.

Passengers saw their flight information vanish from airport screens on Friday night and early Saturday, and thousands were stranded as United canceled 36 flights and delayed 100 worldwide.

The airline still had no explanation on Saturday afternoon for the outage, but things could have been much worse.

A blizzard in the Northeast wiped out more than 10,000 flights over three days in December, a mid-January storm led airlines to cancel nearly 9,000 flights.

Friday’s shutdown occurred late enough in the day that many of the canceled flights were the last planes out for the day, said Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Forrester Research. On a Monday morning, the results could have been catastrophic.

“It happened as a lot of the airline was going to sleep for the night,” Harteveldt said.

That doesn’t mean affected travelers were happy.

“I’m just amazed at how catastrophic the failure was,” said Jason Huggins, 35, who was trying to fly home to Chicago after a week working at his software company’s San Francisco headquarters. “All the computer screens were blank, just showing the United logo.”

Huggins paid US$1,200 to book one of the last three seats left on an American Airlines flight home.

Social workers Penny Nordstrom, 57, and Emily Schaefer, 42, who were trying to get home from Cancun, Mexico, to Spirit Lake, Iowa, said their delays started with a computer problem at midday on Friday in Mexico.

“We’re way past 24 hours now,” Nordstrom said about noon on Saturday before she boarded a rebooked flight from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Detroit, Colorado, for a connection to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

She expected to get home about midnight, but hoped her travel insurance would offer some compensation.

United spokesman Charles Hobart said late on Saturday afternoon that the airline didn’t expect to cancel any more flights this weekend because of the computer problems, though delays might continue.

On a typical day, United, a subsidiary of United Continental Holdings Inc, cancels 15 to 30 flights for reasons ranging from fog to maintenance problems or staffing shortages. Those are understandable. Passengers and others said a computer glitch should not have grounded the airline.

“They’re infrequent, but the fact that they happen at all is puzzling. These are mission-critical,” airline analyst Robert Mann said. “The idea that they would fail is troubling.”

Mary Clark, a United spokeswoman, said she couldn’t say how many passengers were delayed or how many still needed to reach their destination by midday on Saturday.

About the outage itself, she and other airline personnel said only that it was caused by “a network connectivity issue.”

Airlines rely on computers today more than ever. Reservations and customer service are largely automated, even flight paths are increasingly computer-generated. Most passengers are asked to check-in online, at airport kiosks or via mobile phone — not with an agent — and paper tickets are a thing of the past.

Airplanes also are flying fuller this summer than ever before. United’s were 86.8 percent booked on average last month, which in reality meant many flew without a single empty seat. So rebooking passengers from canceled flights is much trickier and more time--consuming than in the past.

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