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