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Why there is no quick fix for airlines’ IT problems

When Antony Knights and his wife, Louise Firth, first noticed that their British Airways flight to Berlin from London’s Heathrow airport was listed as delayed, they were neither surprised nor very concerned.

But shortly afterwards they and others waiting for the flight, on May 25, were shocked to be told to leave the airport terminal. Their service, like around 80 other British Airways departures that day, had been cancelled because of a computer fault leading to misery for thousands of travellers as knock-on disruption forced the cancelling of more departures the following day.

The experience of the couple — who had planned the trip to Berlin since September — has become increasingly common for airline passengers as the companies have been hit with repeated IT failures.

Carriers in Germany’s Lufthansa Group in February had to cancel around 200 flights after construction workers severed a fibre optic cable vital for the group’s booking systems.

Southwest Airlines in the US last year had to cancel around 15,000 flights in a week in December thanks to a mixture of severe weather and IT and telephone systems that crumbled under the extreme demands. British Airways has suffered repeated similar incidents, in February and March last year.

The incidents highlight how ageing electronics across the airline industry have combined with some carriers’ operational issues to make systems’ fragility an urgent concern. John Strickland, a London-based aviation consultant, said airlines depended on computer systems whose oldest elements were sometimes decades old. Many now need very sensitive handling.

“Over the years, new updates in stages have been bolted on to make very complicated systems,” Strickland said.

Yet the question, according to Becrom Basu, a partner at the management consultancy LEK, is whether airlines can introduce wholesale changes in an industry that never fully shuts.

“I think if you ask someone in the industry, they would say it’s like open-heart surgery while you’re still trying to run,” Basu said of introducing new, more reliable systems. “It’s one of those things most people don’t want to tackle if they can avoid it.”

Airline staff told Knights and Firth to rebook themselves on another flight. But the pair, both marine biologists at the University of Plymouth, found other departures filled up faster than Heathrow’s overtaxed WiFi connection would let them grab seats. Realising they had no chance of reaching Berlin for the concert they intended to attend, they drove 200 miles home instead.

While the couple are awaiting possible compensation from the airline, Knights said the trip had so far been only an expensive waste of time.

“At the moment, it’s cost us £2,000 to drive to Heathrow and back,” he said.

The technology at traditional, network airlines like British Airways is particularly vulnerable because it is generally older than that of newer, low-cost competitors. They also have to manage complex transactions such as baggage transfers at hub airports that low-cost carriers usually avoid.

On top of that, many older airlines have systems partly integrated with parent groups while also serving a single airline brand. British Airways is part of the wider International Airlines Group with Iberia, Aer Lingus, Vueling and Level. Lufthansa Group encompasses Austrian, Swiss, Brussels Airline and Eurowings as well as the core German flag-carrier.

Besides the airlines’ own problems, some flights over the past year have been affected by IT failures of public-sector organisations.

On May 27, two days after the start of British Airways’ most recent problems, automatic ePassport gates at multiple UK airports stopped working due to a computer failure. On January 11 this year, 1,300 domestic flights around the US had to be cancelled after a Federal Aviation Administration system warning pilots of hazards to aviation was unavailable for nearly two hours. Almost no flights could take off.

“The IT is so diverse in the airline business and it goes back many decades, particularly when it comes to . . . the complexity of getting one airline system to talk to another,” Strickland said.

Basu said the capacity of many systems was constrained because they were hosted entirely on airlines’ own computer systems. More modern systems tended to be based on the cloud — a network of remote servers operated by third parties offering far greater access to capacity at peak times.

“If you take it all together — capacity, legacy and the complexity of the interfaces — that’s why they become fragile,” Basu said.

Some of the issues are being addressed. Southwest has promised this year to invest $1.3bn — 25 per cent more than last year — in information technology. It has acknowledged that during Winter Storm Elliott in December its “crew optimisation” software became overwhelmed, losing track of who should be flying where. A telephone-based alternative quickly backed up.

The airline, a pioneer of budget aviation, is unusual among low-cost carriers in facing such issues. However, it sends crews and aircraft on complex, multi-day itineraries across its network. Other budget airlines including Ireland’s Ryanair follow a simpler pattern of basing aircraft in one city, flying them out to a destination then straight back to their base.

Southwest is investing in an upgrade of the crew software and crew telephones. Andrew Watterson, the airline’s chief operating officer, said when announcing the “prioritised actions” that he was confident in the airline’s “path forward”.

Yet even the airlines hold out little prospect that Knights, Firth and the other passengers held up in late May will be the last to fall victim to the sector’s technology issues.

British Airways said it was rolling out a “robust investment plan” aimed at improving its information technology infrastructure. It said it had already moved a third of its IT systems on to the cloud, to take advantage of such systems’ greater flexibility.

The airline was building “more resilience” into its existing systems, it added. One insider pointed out that the failure on May 25 led to the cancellation of only around 10 per cent of total flights on May 25 and 26 — a figure that was lower than in past such incidents.

Nevertheless the airline also warned that its investments and migration to the cloud would not be accomplished immediately. “This does take time,” it said.

Knights, a regular traveller because of his work, doubted the company’s commitment to customer services on the occasions when its systems went down.

“I’m not sure what their business model is,” he said of BA. “But it doesn’t seem to be working.”

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