What Delta's tech troubles tell us about reliability of airline IT systems

Posted August 28

Even with the major outage of Delta causing thousands of cancelled flights as the tenth airline technological failure, no regulation is planned and airline consumers are reported as less unhappy with airlines this year than last year. (Deseret Photo)

The massive outage that recently forced Delta to cancel hundreds of flights was proof of how exposed airlines' aging technological systems are to disruptions and glitches.

On Aug. 8 around 2:30 a.m. Delta’s flights were grounded globally from a power outage, NPR reported. Some flights resumed around 8:40 a.m., and hourslong lines and general chaos at airports were reported by Twitter users worldwide, it continued.

And it won’t be the last such incident, USA Today reported.

“It’s not like the airline can say, ‘We’ll invest in this, and by Christmas we’ ll guarantee reliability.' These are multiyear endeavors,” Daniel Baker, CEO of flight-tracking website FlightAware, told USA Today. “In general, the airlines are like a wristwatch. Every little piece has to work perfectly or it all falls apart."

Upgrading to buffer against tech glitches is entirely on the airlines. The U.S. Department of Transportation has no plans for any regulation to get the airline industry technologically fit, Quartz reported.

A DOT spokesperson told Quartz that the agency believes that to “avoid losing revenue, keep performance metrics high and have happy customers” are more effective incentives to upgrade than regulation would be, Quartz was told.

Outside of systems that deal directly with aviation safety, the DOT “does not inspect or regulate airlines’ IT systems,” according to Quartz.

Quartz counted 24 major disruptions to airlines, all due to some sort of technological failure, since February 2015, with all of the largest U.S. airlines experiencing at least one. Ten of these failures occurred in 2016, including the recent Delta outage.

These glitches suggest that the U.S. aviation systems, some decades old, are showing their signs of age, Quartz continued.

But complexity has a part to play as well, Lance Sherry, director of the Center for Air Transportation Systems Research at George Mason University, told USA Today. Airlines run at least six systems that must be flawlessly synchronized, regardless of differences in vendors or software language.

“So many systems are layered on top of each other that we don’t always know who’s talking to whom,” Sherry said.

Despite this evidence of continued problems, reported complaints from airline customers were down by 12 percent for the first six months of 2016, compared to last year, according to the DOT. Complaints about customer service, ticketing, fares, delays, cancellations and missed connections were all down, but complaints about treatment of disabled customers and discrimination based on race, religion or national original had risen from 2015.

But those tabulated consumers complaints are likely to rise with troubles from Southwest Airlines in July and Delta Air Lines in August, with thousands of flights canceled and delayed because of computer problems, The Los Angeles Times noted.

“I would think they will spike back up again,” Paul Hudson, president of, a nonprofit passenger advocacy group. Hudson also noted that the number of complaints his organization receives has not seen “a significant change.”

Email:, Twitter: @Sarahsonofander.


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