Is 2017 the Year of the Airline Computer Crash?

Airlines have relied heavily on computer systems for decades but how reliable are today's systems?

By Jonathan Spira on 31 January 2017
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This may be the Chinese Year of the Rooster but to frequent travelers, it seems more like the Year of the Airline Computer Crash.

Airline computer crashes snarl air traffic across the country and leave tens of thousands of passengers stranded on airplanes that are not taking off. At the same time, they also cause very long lines in airport terminals and leave travelers unable to make or change reservations.

In an age where social media makes or breaks candidates for national office, airline computer disruptions result in tens of thousands of posts on Facebook and Twitter by unhappy passengers who are desperate for any information about their flights.

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This past Sunday, January 29, as hundreds of thousands of people were trying to return home at the end of the weekend, Delta’s computer system crashed at approximately 6:30 p.m. EST, stranding tens of thousands. Perhaps somewhat optimistically, Delta agents were answering phones in the call center saying “Thank you for calling Delta but our systems are down. Could you call back in an hour?”

FBT Associate Editor Jesse Sokolow was on a plane at the gate in Portland, Oregon, getting comfortable and enjoying a pre-departure beverage, when the flight attendant announced that the flight would be delayed due to the computer system issue and everyone had to disembark. Gate agents were able to manually enter information into their terminals and reboard passengers (including our editor) about two hours later but Delta’s systems weren’t fully up and running for several more hours.

Exactly one week earlier, on January 22, United was forced to ground all of its domestic flights when it experienced a systems failure. Officials told Frequent Business Traveler that the problem had to do with its Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, known as ACARS. ACARS sends and receives messages between planes that are in the air and an airline’s operations team.

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