- Many airlines and the FAA rely on old technology.
- When computer glitches happen, they can throw the entire air travel system into chaos.
- Experts say an IT upgrade is needed to make the industry more resilient.
When Tallie Davis’ flight was delayed, the situation created a difficult choice.She and her varsity bowling team were scheduled to return on a Southwest Airlines flight around noon Wednesday From Las Vegas to Louisville, where they’ve played. But when their first flight was delayed an hour and a half, leaving just five minutes to connect in Chicago, they had to consider other options.
They considered going, and hoped they could “get a pilot who’d wait a few minutes,” or try to drive the rest of the way from Chicago. But the 20-year-old said after speaking with the airline they decided to postpone the flight by a day for free.
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Davis, who was also a mental health technician at a psychiatric hospital, had to miss work and she and her teammates had to pay for an extra night in a hotel. But there are some benefits to extending the visit. “We actually had more time to go out (in Las Vegas), so it was more of a team experience for us than a rush to get home,” she said.
Davis was one of Wednesday’s lucky flyers.
The outage in the FAA’s systems caused more than 10,000 flight delays and more than 1,000 cancellations, causing a day of headaches for passengers and crew across the country. For part of the morning, the FAA suspended flights nationwide for the first time since 9/11.
While the agency on Thursday “determined that data files were corrupted by personnel who failed to follow procedures,” experts told USA TODAY that old technology is often the cause of problems on the nation’s aviation network.
Old Technology in the Aviation Industry
From Wednesday’s FAA outage to Southwest Airlines’ computer crash earlier this winter, experts say it’s clear the IT systems behind air travel are overwhelmed, especially as demand for flights continues to rise.
Alex Cruz, former chief executive of British Airways and current board member of Fetcherr, an artificial intelligence company that focuses on airline pricing and revenue, said: “The systems are getting old. At some point, they may be more vulnerable to hacking. They have more points of failure.” Management.
Cruz added that airline IT infrastructure has performed particularly well during the pandemic, when few people were traveling, but now demand is picking up and systems are strained under new pressures.
“This is an unexpected test of IT going on across the industry,” he said. “If passenger traffic continues to rise, it would not be surprising to see additional cases in the coming months.”
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Are passengers entitled to compensation when aviation technology fails?
It’s hard to be sure.
When an airline cancels a flight for any reason, the Department of Transportation requires the airline to refund passengers who choose not to travel, even if they purchased non-refundable tickets.
In the case of delays, the rules are less clear and policies vary by airline.
When Southwest had problems earlier this winter, it voluntarily agreed to compensate passengers not only with refunds, but frequent flyer miles and incidental reimbursements.
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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he would do everything in his power to hold Southwest and other airlines accountable.
It’s unclear, however, whether the FAA will be similarly caught up in keeping affected passengers intact, though some industry watchers, including Brett Snyder, who runs the Cranky Flier blog, are calling on the agency to put money into its proverbial mouth Yes yes, and pay for your own system errors.
“(W) Who is to blame for the FAA causing all these cancellations and delays?” he wrote in a Thursday post. “It should be the federal government.”
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Passengers shouldn’t hold their breath, though. Buttigieg disagreed Wednesday with a suggestion that the FAA should compensate travelers for problems caused by the outage.
But for most travelers, it doesn’t matter who pays. The frustration of a delay or cancellation is enough to feel bitter.
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Chris SE and his wife were in Boise for his father’s funeral and were scheduled to board a United Airlines flight to Dulles, Virginia, which was scheduled to depart at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. They ended up sitting on the tarmac for three hours.
The couple missed their connecting flight to Dulles by 15 minutes and spent the next few hours trying to rebook that night’s flight with “zero help from United.” They ended up spending about $2,500 on new tickets.
“I want United to go all out,” SE said. “Clearly a flying nightmare is coming and they should be ready by the time we get off the plane. Every route we’re trying to do with United is on them. It failed miserably. We are left to fend for ourselves.”
SE said he wants United to refund the “years of accrued points” he used to buy the original flights, which he and his wife never took.
How can this be solved?
Fetcherr’s Cruz said airlines and the federal government need to commit to investing in technology upgrades, or these kinds of problems could become more prevalent.
“This is the biggest unspoken project and challenge facing the aviation industry post-(COVID) recovery and as it continues to address sustainability issues,” he said. “It can’t go unresolved forever.”
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After this winter’s problems, he expects airline boards — and the FAA’s Congress, when it reauthorizes the FAA later this year — to take a closer look at their IT spending to see if they’re actually investing They need something in order to make things up to standard.
“If you change the skin around the heart, change some of the muscles around the heart, what happens over the years, that’s fine because the heart keeps beating, but the original (technical) heart is still the same,” he said. “It is in the interest of most airlines working in the airspace to assess whether their hearts are in good shape.”