Old-tech mass flight cancellations are more common than you think

Old-tech mass flight cancellations are more common than you think

Old-tech mass flight cancellations are more common than you think

Skift grip

Old technology is a big part of mass flight cancellations. Perhaps the extreme episode of Southwest and the technical problem on Wednesday is a wake-up call for aviation.

Justin Dawes

Southwest’s debacle late last year was extreme, but mass cancellations are not unheard of in the industry. In fact, they seem to be somewhat common.

Last year alone, Spirit Airlines canceled 2,800 flights over 10 days due to technical issues and a lack of staff in bad weather. American Airlines and Southwest also canceled 2,000 flights each in a short time last year. Delta Airlines canceled more than 3,500 flights over five days in extreme weather conditions in April 2017, as another notable example.

To top it all off, thousands of flights across the United States were grounded this week due to a computer glitch in an element of the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control technology.

What leads to these issues is always extremely complicated, especially right now with staffing shortages during the pandemic recovery, but a common thread is that the industry as a whole is running on outdated technology.

Delta’s problem in 2017 was due to plane crews calling on the phone to be reassigned and lines jamming, which is similar to one of Southwest’s recent problems.

“I think if you look behind the scenes in an airline, there are still a lot of operational processes that are human beings interacting with a siled system, as opposed to fully automated business processes,” said Samuel Engel, senior vice president of innovation for the board. ICF International. Prior to his current role, he led the company’s aviation group.

When it comes to flight operations, much of the industry has focused more on modernizing legacy systems than on digital transformation.

“That way they left value on the table,” Engel said.

Other industries have been able to transform business processes as they modernize technology. There has been some of it, especially with airport operations, customer communication, merchandising and sales. But outdated operations and associated technology create an integrated problem for the entire air transport system.

In response to this week’s computer problem, the US Travel Association called for technology upgrades to what is known to be outdated air traffic control technology.

“We call on federal policymakers to modernize our vital air transportation infrastructure to ensure our systems are able to meet demand safely and efficiently,” President and CEO Geoff Freeman said in a statement.

There is no simple solution as the industry is all about flying living people through the air so innovation takes a long time as certainty of safety is most important. Any kind of redesign can really take years and involve pairing new technology with old technology, as some experts have said.

“A big part of the digital modernization revolution comes from this ability to design, engineer, prototype and deliver a point solution that overlays existing technology,” Engel said. “I think airlines have been so focused on upgrading their legacy behemoths that they haven’t had as much bandwidth to take advantage of the inherent opportunity of low-code, no-code platforms and overlay solutions.”

Another Undo Lesson

By some standards, going through a certain kind of operations and technology meltdown is part of an airline’s growing pains. Another thing that all the cases mentioned above had in common was that canceled flights affected plans in other cities, leading to a snowball effect of mass cancellations.

Engel said many airlines have learned that, when possible, it’s best to cancel early – before passengers are seated at the airport and waiting. The other big reason to cancel early is that it gives airlines more control over the positioning of planes and crew, and their operational systems are then less likely to fail.

“The way every airline learned about this practice was through a meltdown. Experiencing a meltdown teaches you to cancel ahead of time,” Engel said.

“That’s what other airlines did in this situation – they canceled ahead of time. Southwest says they did – I guess the numbers back it up – but clearly not enough.

And the situation in the South West, because of its importance and the attention it has generated, may lead to other problems later. The US Department of Transportation is reportedly investigating the Southwest situation and now that of the Federal Aviation Administration.

“The last thing you want is for government to step in because politicians will impose regulations that sound good to consumers but aren’t necessarily positive or beneficial to operations,” Engel said.

Relating to aerial technology

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