Outdated technology puts a drag on US airlines

More disruptions likely as carriers avoid cost of rebuilding ageing reservation systems

BOSTON • Airlines will likely suffer more disruptions like the one that grounded about 2,000 Delta flights this week because major carriers have not invested enough to overhaul reservation systems based on technology dating to the 1960s, airline industry and technology experts have said.

Airlines have spent heavily to introduce new features such as automated check-in kiosks, real-time luggage tracking and slick mobile apps. But they have avoided the steep cost of rebuilding their reservation systems from the ground up, former airline executives said.

Mr Scott Nason, former chief information officer at American Airlines Group, said long-term investments in computer technology were a tough sell when he worked there.

"Most airlines were on the verge of going out of business for many years, so investment of any kind had to have short payback periods," said Mr Nason, who left American in 2009 and is now an independent consultant.

The reservation systems of the biggest carriers mostly run on a specialised IBM operating system known as Transaction Processing Facility, or TPF. It was designed in the 1960s to process large numbers of transactions quickly and is still updated by IBM, which did a major rewrite of the operating system about a decade ago.

A host of special features, ranging from mobile check-ins to seat selection and cabin upgrades, are built on top of the TPF core, or connected to it.

CLASH OF OLD AND NEW

They have surrounded that old industry infrastructure with modern technology. Those systems have to always reach back into the old core technologies to retrieve a reservation or to figure out who flies between Dallas and New York City.

MR BOB EDWARDS, United Continental Holdings' chief information officer until 2014, on how a host of special features have been built on top or are connected to the old reservations systems which date back to the 1960s.

"They have surrounded that old industry infrastructure with modern technology," said Mr Bob Edwards, United Continental Holdings' chief information officer until 2014.

"Those systems have to always reach back into the old core technologies to retrieve a reservation or to figure out who flies between Dallas and New York City."

When a power outage shuts off that reservation system - as happened on Monday to Delta Air Lines' "Deltamatic" system - TPF falls out of sync with the newer technologies that passenger service agents use to assist travellers, Mr Edwards said.

Airlines are then forced to cancel flights as demands from stranded customers flood their employees - who meanwhile are handling bookings on an older platform without their familiar, modern tools, he said.

Several years ago, it took United six hours to recover from a test shutdown, thanks to complications with the many add-ons built atop TPF, Mr Edwards said.

Other recent disruptions include one in July that prompted Southwest Airlines to cancel over 2,000 flights and two outages last summer at United Continental.

Yet it can be hard to convince airline management that the cost-benefit analysis justifies the major investments to make their computer systems truly fail-safe, said Mr Edwards.

"When fuel prices are low and there's extra cash on hand, they want to spend it on the cool shiny things like planes and mobile apps," he said.

"Nobody gets excited about the data centre."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2016, with the headline 'Outdated technology puts a drag on US airlines'. Print Edition | Subscribe