Aging Infrastructure Plagues Airline Industry

By: Albert McKeon| - Leave a comment

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It might be nothing but blue skies in the air this summer, but the air travel industry’s aging infrastructure is looking gray. Airlines of all sizes have no choice but to delay and ground flights whenever their complex computer systems malfunction.

According to USA Today, a technical glitch caused the cancellation of hundreds Delta Air Lines flights over the course of a single weekend back in January. But that was just a blip on the radar compared with the transformer surge at the airline’s technology hub in August 2016 that halted 2,300 flights over three days and cost $150 million in revenue.

Keep your seat belts fastened: It will continue to be a bumpy ride until airlines commit to overhauling their IT infrastructure. This change will come with a big price tag and some anxiety that new technologies might fail. However, the cost of this undertaking pales in comparison to the risk of continued system failures and disrupted air travel.

Aging Infrastructure Can’t Keep Pace

Of course, major airlines aren’t entirely in the stone age. They do purchase new technologies. However, they often stack modern technology on top of old infrastructure. The many complex systems that handle flight and crew schedules, gate assignments, ticketing and other consumer-facing programs are so intertwined that a problem with one drags into the others, tech experts noted to USA Today.

For example, the biggest airlines run their reservation systems on an operating system that was designed in the 1960s. Fortune reported that even though the OS received a major rewrite and is still updated, whenever it shuts down because of a power outage — as with the Delta transformer surge — new technologies placed on the core become isolated and ineffective, and flight schedules are disrupted.

Fear of Failure Hangs Like Dark Clouds

It’s one thing for a business to perform IT maintenance or change cloud servers over a long weekend — it’s an entirely different thing for a schedule-driven airline to implement new technologies across major travel hubs.

Airlines have delayed making major network upgrades out of fear that systems could crash during the transition. They believe they can’t afford to replace old technologies and test new equipment, according to Reuters.

Testing not only costs money but also can mean periods of time. Ideally, to ensure new technology works, testing must be performed on every system layer and every business service, some of which aren’t controlled by airlines.

The cost of a technology overhaul also gives airlines pause — especially after seeing their financial health improve after last decade’s recession. U.S. and Canadian airlines were projected to spend an average of 3 percent of their revenue on information technology last year, compared to 8 percent by banks and 4 percent by health care firms, according to Fortune. A systems upgrade, meanwhile, would probably cost an airline at least $75 million, reported USA Today.

Potential Hiccups Better Than Expected Failures

By many measures, the sky is the limit with upgrading IT infrastructure. Tech experts say airlines must first have a full view of their IT infrastructure so they can spot and fix glitches before they spread. They should also institute automatic failovers and failover testing and spread out disaster recovery sites.

The good news is some airlines recognize the need to stay current. For example, American Airlines made IBM its cloud provider last year to achieve greater enterprise flexibility, scalability and reliability.

Even though integrating new technology might seem daunting under the demands of serving such a large customer base every day of the year, the slow, layer-by-layer testing process won’t seem as painful as the larger headache of widespread travel delays caused by old technology. A one-time $75 million upgrade is surely better than a $150 million revenue hit.

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About The Author

Albert McKeon

Freelance Writer

Albert McKeon covers technology, health, business, politics and entertainment. He previously worked as a newspaper reporter for 16 years on the staffs of The Telegraph (N.H.) and Boston Herald, winning the New England Press Association’s Journalist of the Year award and other honors. He now writes as a freelancer for several magazines and news outlets, and creates content for organizations such as Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston College.

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