Large U.S. airlines had 34 IT outages from 2015 through 2017, including 29 that resulted in flight disruptions, according to a new General Accounting Office (GAO) report. 

However, the GAO was unable to determine exactly how many flights or passengers were affected by such outages, since carriers are not required to report that data.

For the study, the GAO investigated outage records for Alaska, American, Delta, ExpressJet, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, SkyWest, Spirit, Southwest, United, and Virgin America. 

Lacking specific public data, the office reviewed open-source information and conducted interviews with airlines, GDSs and other industry stakeholders. Eleven of the 12 airlines agreed to be interviewed for the report and 11 of the 12 airlines had outages from 2015 to 2017. The GAO did not identify which airline declined to speak with investigators. 

The report said that five outages caused more than 800 delays or cancellations. Along with delays and cancellations, outages cause other inconveniences for passengers, including difficulties with purchasing tickets, updating reservations, checking flight status and checking in for a flight. IT outages also sometimes cause long wait times at boarding and ground stops or tarmac delays. 

Causes of the IT outages ranged from underinvestment by carriers in IT systems to increasing requirements on aging systems to introductions of new platforms and services. 

In interviews, airlines told the GAO about IT system investments they've made in response to outages. 

"For example, five airlines have sought to reduce vulnerability by expanding IT operations beyond a single data enter or moving them to the cloud, which allows for the delivery of computing services through the internet," the report says. "Likewise, two airlines described efforts to ensure connectivity and reduce the effects of IT disruptions by using multiple telecommunications network providers."

However, an IT risk expert told the GAO that carrying out major IT upgrades can be challenging for airlines because the systems are always in use.

Investigators weren’t able to identify the specific number of flights that were canceled or delayed due to outages over the 2015 to 2017 study period because IT disruptions aren't among the categories that carriers can list when they report such data to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. 

The GAO found that airlines are reporting that cancellations and delays caused by IT outages were caused by other things -- namely, late previous flights or the National Airspace System, which would include factors under the control of airports and air traffic controllers.

For the five outages that caused more than 800 cancellations or delays during the study period, carriers blamed 44% of the disruptions on the previous flight arriving late.

The GAO also that airlines have varying policies and practices about providing hotels and meals to passengers whose flights have been canceled. Notably, Southwest and Frontier are the two carriers examined by the GAO whose contract of carriage documents don't provide for hotel stays.

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