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.
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
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
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.