How to Protect Yourself from Antiquated Airline Computers That Could Ruin Your Trip

Jason Steele Flying with Daughter

This flight almost didn’t happen.

In 2012, United Airlines experienced three major crashes.

Fortunately, it was their computer systems that crashed, not their airplanes.

Nevertheless, hundreds of flights were delayed or cancelled and tens of thousands of passengers were inconvenienced during the systems failures of August 29th, June 15th, and on November 15.

But it doesn’t take a major systems failure for an airline’s computer system to keep you from where you want to go. Airlines continue to offer some of the most faulty, out-dated, and dysfunctional computer systems of any major industry. Here are just a few examples:

Brian Kelly, The Points Guy, and United Airlines Miles

Brian Kelly was all set to travel from Miami to Nice France via Zurich Switzerland. He had redeemed his United Airlines miles for the ticket on their partner, Swiss Airlines. But for some reason that has yet to have been discovered, Swiss was unable to honor his ticketed reservation.

Brian is not simply a random unlucky passenger, he is a prominent travel writer who blogs as The Points Guy.You can read his full account here. (Note: I am an occasional contributor to his site.)

Delta Airlines Award Availability

In 2010, the Wall Street Journal printed a report about frequent flier award availability, which found that Delta Airlines had some of the worst frequent flier mile award availability. The study the cited found that only 12.9% of the requests made were able to be filled for the lowest mileage amount, 25,000 miles for a domestic round trip flight in economy class.

At the time, Delta blamed their 2009 merger with Northwest Airlines. Yet at the time of this writing, their award calendar is still broken. But if you read the comments from Delta’s own blog in March of 2009, you can see that their IT managers have been aware of these issues for nearly four years!

Brett Snyder, the Cranky Flier, and United Airlines

Brett Snyder blogs as the Cranky Flier and started a business called the Cranky Concierge that is helps to assist travelers navigate the often byzantine computer systems that the airlines use. Yet even he was nearly stumped when a client needed to be rebooked after a cancelled flight from China to the United States.

After a comedy of computer system errors on United’s part, Brett’s client was only able to check in for his flight by stalling the gate agents who were about to close the flight. You can read the whole sad story here. Brett notes that these problems occur quite frequently.

My Recent LAN Airlines Experience

Just last month, my family and I were trying to check into a flight from Miami to Buenos Aires using British Airways miles for business class tickets on LAN airlines. We used additional miles and paid the required taxes and fees for my 5 month old daughter to be issued a ticket as a “lap child”. As usual, I took the extra step to confirm all of the ticket numbers and reservations numbers with the operating carrier a week before our flight.

Nevertheless, the LAN representative at the Miami airport was unable to print a boarding pass for our infant. The explanation we received was that LAN did not allow children to be carried on their parent’s lap in business class, and that due to a computer error, British Airways should not have even issued the ticket. Thankfully, LAN and British Airways were willing to issue us tickets to Buenos Aires on American Airlines flight leaving later that evening.

Antiquated Airline Reservation Systems

Finally, consider the vast inefficiency of airline reservation and ticketing systems. Setting aside the frequent errors that travelers receive when trying to purchase a ticket online, consider what their systems aren’t even designed to do.

Let’s say you want to take a vacation some place warm this winter, but have a limited budget. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could sort airfares for your travel dates by price, narrowing your focus to warm weather destinations in Mexico, the Caribbean, and perhaps Florida?

Google can search the entire Internet in a millisecond, yet customers would need to perform hours of research on each airline’s web site in order to find a low fare to a warm destination. Try to use your miles, and the task is much harder.

Why is This Such a Problem?

Based on these experiences and our own observations, it would be tempting to conclude that most airlines are run by incompetent people who have no regard for their customers. Yet the problem with that theory is the outstanding safety record that has been recorded by scheduled passenger airliners in the United States. In fact, the NTSB reports that there have been no fatalities on U.S. commercial flights in 2012 or in four of the previous five years.

Clearly, these organizations can do something right. So then why can’t these companies get their act together when it comes to their customer facing computer systems? Here are some of my theories:

1. Mergers. US Airways merged with America West, Delta merged with Northwest, United with Continental, and Southwest with Airtran. American is currently mulling a merger with US Airways. When these mergers occur, large organizations are forced to integrate disparate computer systems. Airline personnel are often forced learn these complex systems on the job with inadequate training. The result is that airlines spend years completing a complex merger instead of refining their own operations.

I attended a recent event at United’s headquarters for frequent fliers. There, the CEO of United, Jeff Smisek was asked about his thoughts on the possible merger of American Airlines and US Airways. He replied, “After going through a merger myself, though, I can say that I would enjoy watching that.”

2. Perverse Incentives. When it comes time to helping customers redeem their frequent flier miles for award flights, many airlines don’t actually want you to get where you are going for the least amount of miles. These companies would prefer to spend their limited IT budget on other functions.

For example, Delta recently redesigned their entire web site for the second time since 2010, and introduced an enhance mobile application, yet still can’t seem to find a way to fix known problems with their award calendar that prevent customers from finding tickets at the lowest award level. It is like restyling a car without making any changes to a faulty engine. The only conclusion that I could reach is that they simply don’t want to fix this problem.

3. Partnerships. Nearly every airline is in a partnership with one or more other carriers. Airlines love the opportunities for revenue that these partnerships represent, but they are unwilling or unable to do the work to seamless integrate the passenger experience. Many of the IT problems detailed here can be traced back to poorly implemented partnership agreements.

4. Failure of Leadership. The airline industry is very insular. A seniority system gives employees the incentive to work their way up within an organization and makes it difficult to attract new talent from other industries. As a result, there are many airline practices that this industry finds normal that would be bizarre in other industries.

Perhaps the leadership of most airlines just believes that, like weather delays, it is normal to have computer failures frequently disrupting passenger’s travel plans. For example, I was seated next to Brian Kelly at United headquarter’s when he asked managers of their Mileage Plus program about the problems he experiences. They still have not reached a resolution.

An Industry Insider’s Opinion

I contact Brett Snyder, an industry expert who has previously worked at several different airlines before starting his airline industry blog and concierge service. He agreed with much of my analysis, but also blames the airline’s third party technology providers. According to Snyder,

“There is plenty that the airlines would like to do but the reservation systems are run by third parties that have little incentive to actually do something that would change the experience for the better.”

These companies have names like Amadaeus, SHARES, and Sabre, which have been owned by larger companies such as HP and EDS. “It’s a very tangled web” he concludes.

Snyder does point out that once small airline, Cape Air, has recently migrated its reservations systems to ITA Software, a division of Google, with fantastic results. Hopefully, transitions like this can serve as a model for larger carriers to clean up their IT act, but I won’t be holding my breath.

How To Avoid These Problems:

1. Be Skeptical. When you deposit money into a bank account, you don’t need to keep checking the account to make sure it is still there. But with an airline reservation, it is not a bad idea.

For example, blogger Gary Leff was one of many discovered that When You Purchase a United Award Ticket, That Doesn’t Mean You Actually HAVE a Ticket. Confirm every ticket that you book, and when you book a ticket many months in advance, double check it once a month for any changes. Do your own research and find backup plans for when the airline can’t get you there.

2. Get Help. The airline’s computer systems are so bad, that there has been a cottage industry set up to help travelers overcome the obstacles that the airlines have erected. Brett Snyder’s Cranky Concierge is an example of a service that will provide crucial assistance if your flight is delay or cancelled, or if a computer just eats your ticket.

In addition, Gary Leff runs a service called Book Your Award that will find scarce award seats for the least possible miles, and he has several other competitors.

3. Blow the Whistle. If airlines act as if they take your business for granted, they probably do. But at the same time, they do take you seriously when a formal complaint is filed with the Department of Transportation. Filling out this form here, can cause the airlines to take notice of your grievance.

Once you have reached your seat and the doors are closed, you can be thankful for the airline’s nearly impeccable safety record. But from the moment you book your ticket, until your boarding pass is accepted at the gate, travelers need to take every available precaution to avoid being affected by airline’s dreadful computer systems.

Have you experienced an airline computer failure that affected your travel? How did you overcome it?

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About Jason Steele

Jason Steele is a travel and credit card expert. He contributes regularly to The Points Guy and a variety of notable travel and finance publications. Jason lives in Denver and enjoys traveling with his family and cycling. Follow Jason on Twitter @realjasonsteele.


  1. Hi Jason,
    I am surprised to know that IT departments of most of the airlines are poorly managed and equipped. And I think, I have to agree with one of the reasons mentioned i.e Mergers and Acquisitions. It is disheartening to know that though all these mergers represent enhanced revenue and greater customer base but no serious effort is made to integrate the computer systems. I think this integration should be the top priority because with out this important backbone, today no big business or airline can function smoothly.
    Especially considering the fact that computer system of the airlines works on a real time mode, so it is important it should be equipped with best of hardware running the most sophisticated software.
    I have found airlines operating out of gulf, to be better in this regard.

  2. Thomas Jaeger says

    Hi Jason,
    I have been managing airline passenger servicing system products for two of these types of vendors you have mentioned (although a bit smaller then the ones on your list). I think the biggest issue with airline IT is that the industry is very interconnected and still working with standards that have been developed years before something like Google even existed. Delta or United probably have close to 300 interline agreements with other carriers, connect to 7 GDSs, all sorts of different departure control systems and e-ticketing databases and hubs etc. all based on a long list of different IATA standards. Then you have the revenue accounting systems that all talk to each other behind the scenes to deal with money flowing from travel agents to airlines via IATA’s Billing and Settlement Plans and ARC and between the different airlines. That is what slows development in the industry down. You cannot just radically change the industry over night because of the huge amount of dependencies and many big PSS development projects have failed despite large investments for some of these reasons. I would not (yet) call Google/ITA’s PSS a success yet either because they have yet to find a major customer willing to have the faith in cutting over from what they have to what Google/ITA theoretically might be able to offer.
    If United decided tomorrow to come up with a great system that would be radically different than what they have now with mainframe based Shares provided by EDS, that would be great. But they would still need all of the legacy functionality to deal with their interline partners, ground handlers etc. etc. using the same IATA standards. So unless everyone would implement the same radical changes, it is unlikely to happen for some years. IATA is working on concepts but that will obviously take years. And often because of the complexity, changes that are implemented, have to be implemented with a lot of constraints (i.e. e-tickets were a great step forward from paper, but restrictions had to be maintained that one e-ticket could only have a maximum of four coupons, then you need conjunction e-tickets for additional coupons, could name many other examples like these …). Not that simple unfortunately :(.