The Airline Industry’s Problem with Absolutely Ancient IT

by SharonKurheg

The advent and modernization of computers have probably been one of the most important things that ever happened to businesses. Computers have undoubtedly made processes easier, faster and more efficient, albeit at the expense of hundreds of careers and millions of workers over the decade. I mean, it’s not as if you see many switchboard operators, typesetters or door-to-door Fuller Brush men anymore (FUN FACT! My dad was a real, live door-to-door Fuller Brush man for over 30 years. He made a good living at it, back in the day!).

Unfortunately, many businesses using computers don’t update their IT the way they probably should. Sometimes it’s an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” flavor, but it’s more often because such overhauls are expensive and they don’t want to spend too much money at one time. Therefore, many of the big banks, for example, still rely on technology that’s evolved over 20-30-40 years, written in ancient languages such as COBOL, RPG and assembler. More than one nationally-known retail company still runs on Windows systems that are nearly 10 years old. Part of the reason the U.S. government is so slow to change is because of its ancient IT infrastructure.

You can see (and hear!) a small slice of that ancient computer technology almost any time you’re at any gate at an airport. Yep, most airlines still use dot matrix printers. They mostly have good reasons for still using these ancient printers, not the least of which is that their IT is as old as the hills and dot matrix printers will work with the ancient software they use.

…which brings us to Southwest Airlines.

As you remember, Southwest had an epic meltdown during the Christmas/New Year’s season of 2022 leading into 2023. More than 16,700 of its flights were cancelled between Dec. 21-31, which will cost the company as much as $825 million.

The issues started because of some epic snowstorms across the country. Because of Southwest’s oddball way of scheduling flights (they use a point-to-point method instead of a typical hub-and-spoke), the cancelled flights led to flight crew who timed out. That snowballed (no pun intended) into a meltdown of epic proportions, where the computer system couldn’t keep up with reality.

The thing is, the meltdown probably wouldn’t have happened, and at least definitely not to the level it did, if Southwest had updated its plane and staff scheduling software on a regular basis.

“We have long been aware of the limitations of our current tool and have plans to invest in improvements in a phased approach. I am committed to addressing needed automation that can handle Crew reassignments quickly and efficiently,” the airline’s vice president of Crew Scheduling, Brendan Conlon, wrote in an internal message to employees in the midst of the meltdown.

We can only hope.

And they’re not the only ones.

  • IT meltdowns hit British Airways in 2017, 2019 and 2022.
  • Delta had to cancel thousands of flights in 2016 and 2017 due to software issues.
  • American Airlines was forced to cancel over 1,000 regional flights due to computer-related mishaps.

All because they still use IT systems that were never intended to handle the volume and type of industry growth that’s occurred since they were introduced decades ago.

Ancient IT even affects ordinary airline customers who want to make reservations. A person can make certain reservations on one airline, and that airline can make SOME reservations on a partner airline, but not all of them. Why? Old technology.

Wendover Productions just produced an amazing information video about the airline industry’s not-so-secret problem with ancient IT. As someone who is most decidedly NOT a techie, I found myself able to understand and appreciate all the concepts. And yet one of the comments was from a self-described airline consultant who said the footage included information even THEY didn’t know.

Here’s the video, in case you’d like to learn more.

Want to comment on this post? Great! Read this first to help ensure it gets approved.

Want to sponsor a post, write something for Your Mileage May Vary, or put ads on our site? Click here for more info.

Like this post? Please share it! We have plenty more just like it and would love it if you decided to hang around and sign up to get emailed notifications of when we post.

Whether you’ve read our articles before or this is the first time you’re stopping by, we’re really glad you’re here and hope you come back to visit again!

This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

Leave a Comment