With all the flights that United operates each day, is 15 really that big of a deal?

With all the flights that United operates each day, is 15 really that big of a deal?

Most times I won’t cover stories that are picked up by the mainstream media, but I couldn’t help myself with this one. Yesterday late afternoon, United experienced a computer outage at their Phoenix facility. If you read most of the stories on this you would have thought hundreds of flights were cancelled and many lives were ruined.

According to the AP, the power outages lead “to widespread cancellations Friday night,” creating, “thousands of stranded travelers.” Hmm really? Well Friday night saw 15 flights cancelled and then today there have been an additional 16. United operates over 3000 flights per day and 15 out of 3000 would not really be my definition of “widespread.” Yes, many folks were delayed and still inconvenienced but the world was still spinning. I think when thunderstorms rolled through Chicago recently more flights were cancelled than this.

Of course, this matters more to someone if you are one of the stranded people. It just is troublesome when it seems the airline industry gets unfairly picked on when they are operating the most complex transportation system in the world. This is a multifaceted business and when you have an airline operating over 3000 flights and managing almost 700 aircraft, things will go wrong — that is just the nature of the business. It seems most people are willing to forgive other businesses that are far less complex for their mistakes, but rarely the airline business.

When I am frustrated by the airlines I try to stop and remember two things: 1) Lois CK video on airlines and 2) What my trip would have been like just 100 years ago. Things can always be worse.

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: [email protected]

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42 Comments

Much better in recent days. Much appreciated. -C.

whaambulance

Oh, give me a break you obnoxious whiner. Weather delays are part of normal operations and out of the airlines’ control. This is of note because it is an unusual and somewhat surprising cause for delays and cancellations. Nobody implied the world stopped turning because of this, and widespread just means that they weren’t concentrated in one particular location, not that there were huge numbers. You read this into the reporting because of your own personal psychological defects, which are obviously quite extensive.

I agree with you 100%… he sides with the airlines every time. It’s such a shame that people don’t see computer failure as a problem. If you run a business and chose not to have an insurance policy to save money, you have to deal with the consequences. If you chose to run a computer network through 1 provider without redundancy, when that data center goes down, you’re responsible for the consequences. Not sure where the AR is getting his info. There’s tons of cancellations here in SF today, and United has been on the news several times claiming many cancellations are because of displaced crew last night and insufficient reserve levels to cover. There’s absolutely cause for concern when an airline has computer failure. This is a big deal. End of the world, no? United’s responsibility? ABSOLUTELY. When people plan vacations 6 months in advance and pay $2000 for a flight to Sydney and pre-pay for hotels and day trips and lose thousands because United choses to delay the flight for 18 hours to not have to get replacement crews in, that’s their decision, and as a result of their negligence, the customer is owed financial compensation for their loss, just like if the plane breaks down and they don’t have a replacement. Part of doing business is to have backup plans for when your own process fails. How is it that people seem to think the banks are horrible people for GIVING too much money, yet you don’t see an issue that the airline takes money, fails to deliver the service as provided, causes additional financial loss as a result of their negligence, and it’s not a big deal? Yeah, the AR is a bit out of touch.

The best way to make your point is always to insult the person you are discussing with. Classy. Real classy.

You’re missing the point. Had it been weather, no biggie. Had it been weather, no biggie. It was computer system failure. I’ve been in the business of providing backhaul network support for large companies like this for ages. Most companies will run a primary and secondary network, but there are some companies out there that take a calculated risk and don’t opt for the expense of keeping a parallel network running. It’s not cheap, but most large multinational corporations see it as necessary. United will go after their network provider, and get reimbursed, but passengers generally won’t… so in effect United makes money off this situation, and customers suffer. There’s nothing airlines can do about weather, but the cheap comes out in the end when they opt to not have a parallel backup network for failover, and this demonstrates what happens. United doesn’t care, nor would any of the other airlines in this country… that’s why people hate US Airlines, and why you see more and more foreign airlines carrying passengers on long-haul flights. Listen to the UA or DL financials, they all act like the economy is still slow and travel isn’t recovering… if that’s the case, listen to an Air France or Lufthansa, or Korean Air financials call, and they’re talking about how amazingly fast the US Air Industry is recovering. When you have an industry that has dubbed themselves public transportation, and is controlled by unions protecting FA’s who should have been retired 20 years ago, it’s no wonder why there’s so much hatred for the industry in this country. I see a day where we have 2-3 domestic airlines and they will have low-cost international divisions. Anyone who flies internationally today flies a non-US airline if they want any shred of customer service. The industry in this country is so backwards compared to the rest of the world, and people just accept it… such a shame for the USA.

Andy,

Any sort of failures when dealing with business is not a good thing. It would be great if every company that works with computers never had problems. Even when you have redundant computer systems, sometimes multiple system failures can cause a lot of problems. Sometimes machines mess up, sometimes computers mess up.

United is a very large company and the biggest airline in the world. The bigger an airline is, the more that can potentially go wrong.

There are a lot of things airlines do wrong and have much room for improvement. All it takes it one or two bad employees to make an entire company look negative. Most Americans care about price and less about service. Most airlines are just meeting the demand of consumers and not just trying to make everyone’s lives worse.

David

Since when is being bigger a reason to provide less service per dollar paid? We’re not talking about a Government run organization here that’s handing out freebies to people in need, this is a company like any other, who contracts with customers to provide a service, and if the service is not what is promised, the contract is breached. You’re making it far to emotional, and it’s not emotional, it’s business. If United’s vendor turns out at fault, they have SLAs in place that compensate United for the downtime\lost revenue, so you sure as hell better hold United accountable if you suffered a loss (time is loss, by the way) as a result of their (or their sub-contractor) lack of fulfillment of contract.

Let me put it this way. If you have a cell phone w\ AT&T.. and you pay for a monthly service, and you go on a business trip for a week. During that week, you travel to a city where they are having a major technical failure, and you’re unable to use their wireless broadband service you paid for. Do you think it’s unreasonable for them to credit you back for their failure to provide service? Do you think it’s irrational for a customer to ask them to also cover the cost of the hotel WiFi that they had to pay for as a result of the failure to provide their contracted service? My guess is you’ll say absolutely to the first half, and maybe maybe not on the second half. So why is it when an airline contracts a service, do you not hold them accountable for delivering the service as promised, when promised? It’s because airline travel in the US is seen as a public transportation mechanism, and we’ve grown so numb to tolerating the crappy service provided by the unions that run public transportation systems like busses, trains, planes, etc, that we just accept things, when in fact we’re paying customers that have a right to on-time delivery.

If you ship a box FedEx overnight and there’s weather delays and it takes 3 days, that’s not something Fedex can control, so you aren’t entitled to compensation. If you ship something overnight and their sort system misroutes it to the wrong city and it takes a day extra to deliver, you better believe they owe you compensation. You paid for one thing and got another due to negligence on their part. It’s not to say they meant to do wrong by you.

Again, stop defending based on emotion and look at it as business. If you don’t show up on time, there’s a penalty for the breach in contract. If they don’t show up on time, the same is to be said. Your entire perspective on this situation just encourages people to tolerate sub-par service in all areas. It’s unfortunate because people like you encourage the industry to under-perform.

Andy,

I think you might have missed my point and I apologize for that. United should be held accountable for this — no question. Someone messed up and even if it was just a fluke of multiple computer systems, they should still be held accountable.

What I do not agree with is all the constant hate for the airlines. I am trying to remind people they are a business, not a charity. Things go wrong, they should fix it and people should move on. There are a thousand negative voices out there for the airlines and yes, I try to provide one of few positive voices.

I have very high expectations for airlines, but I also do not think they are evil if things get messed up. I try to make people pause for a moment and remember the bigger picture here. However, some people just are too caught up in their minute by minute lives to realize a delayed flight is not the end of the world — very, very annoying, but worse things can happen.

David

Understood. But traveling sucks to begin with on Domestic Carriers. I have flown 500k miles in the last year and a half, and it sucks to be delayed. Sometimes it’s weather, which doesn’t suck any less, but I can’t fault the airlines (altho proactive cancellations in response to overbearing US regulation is not “weather” but that’s a topic in itself for another day)… but any delay sucks. When it’s something that’s within the control of the airline (ie computer systems), it’s unfortunately the fault of the airline. The media teaches us to sensationalize everything, so it’s only natural that we tend to blow things out of proportion regardless of the severity.

End of the world? No. Is it finding out you have cancer, or getting a call that your dog got hit by a car? Certainly not, and when things are put into perspective against those scenarios, it pales, you’re right.

Air travel in the US is among the lowest quality and highest price anywhere in the world. Our airline industry is dominated and destroyed by the labor unions that make it impossible for airlines to operate profitably, buy cutting edge aircraft, and offer outstanding customer experience on board. The US population has realized this and support for labor unions has plummeted, but the airline industry is one of the few remaining stronghold industries the unions have. It’s very sad for us as a country. We’re home to Boeing, yet people from around the world think flying on our US Airlines is disgusting. How is that for representative of our nation? Horrid.

You bring up many good points. I also think there are a lot of new carriers out there that are not bogged down by unions. Many of the legacies need to do something about many of their flight crew’s attitudes or they will lose market share. That is not to say there aren’t many who fly for legacies who do not love their jobs and do a great job of it, but you see way too many folks who should have been put out to pasture long ago. Delta has tried to send folks to “school” to be better flight attendants, which is at least something.

Problem is the token US domestic carrier, Virgin America, provides an amazing product, but currently is not making money. If that model can succeed and still make money, older airlines are going to have to change and change fast.

I think we have more opinions we agree on that disagree :).

David

Yep, I agree 100% with all of your comments in your last post. I think it stems from us being such a politically correct country. Find me a flight attendant on Asiana, or Korean Air, or any Asian or Middle eastern carrier, who doesn’t have a 20 inch waist and is 18-25 years old. They have to be, it’s in the job description. Even budget carriers like Cebu Pacific, Tiger, Air Asia, etc, they all have the requirement. They pay their workers a wage commensurate to the work they perform. However in the US, the Unions have protected the aging flight crews that should have retired years ago. What other industry can you think of where customer service comes second to tenure? None. Can you imagine going to a restaurant, being treated like crap, and since the server has been a server for 20 years it’s okay?

Don’t get me wrong, there are many “old-school” FAs who are outstanding at all of the legacy carriers, but it’s not the norm. The young generation of flight attendants are absolutely the only thing that can save the legacy airlines.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Virgin. I think as fast as they’re growing it’ll be a bit of time before they start making money, but they’re heading in the right direction. This combined with the growth of foreign customer-service-oriented carriers landing in the US, the industry is going to have to change if the shareholders at the legacies ever want to make money. Of course they haven’t made money for years, so who knows. Just another industry that’s being outsourced a little more each day. 🙁

When it’s an airline’s computers that are the problem, there’s usually a question why they’re not flying when others are. Until more information is out, it’s normal to wonder if they mismanaged something. United made a news story that was going to be reported. I think you hit the nail on the head that this is mainly a big deal to the people who were in it. Otherwise, it didn’t get far above the average daily flight cancellations.

I have been affected by computer problems when traveling, though not the airlines’ systems. I saw in 2000 when the FAA Air Traffic Control computers went down for the SF Bay Area (covering SFO, SJC and OAK). By a quirk of my employer’s reservation system, four co-workers and I were all boarded on different planes departing SJC at 6:30AM when the ATC computer outage occurred. My plane sat at the gate for 2 hours before getting pushed back for departure – I later found out that I got out first. Even if I had tried, I couldn’t have designed a better experiment to compare how different airlines handle missed connections. The results are no longer relevant today – but Delta won on that day. When I arrived in Cincinnati, a Delta agent was at our arrival gate with a list of flights we had already been rebooked on and which gates to go to. Easy. Everyone else had some variation of being sent into lines to fend for themselves (in Denver, Newark, etc) and our boss was stuck overnight in Chicago. It wasn’t until I got to the hotel in Raleigh (RTP) that I realized I was first to arrive.

Nobody that I heard blamed the airlines that day since it was clearly an FAA problem. I think in this case United made themselves somewhat of a lightning rod on that story because it was their system that wasn’t working and it was only them.

I agree with many of the posters above. YES, this is a different sort of problem than a weather delay. YES, it is in the airlines control, unlike weather. So, Andy I agree with you on that front, is that this problem is completely United’s fault, and they should deal with it accordingly. If they don’t, they stand to make a lot of people angry.

Whaambulance, I completely respect your point, and I agree that “widespread” has more to do with concentration than the number of people affected. However, this AP article (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/06/18/ap/national/main20072297.shtml) starts off with “A five-hour computer outage that virtually shut down United Airlines.”

In my opinion, that is a dramatic exaggeration. The article goes on to say later that the outage canceled 36 flights and delayed 100 worldwide, which is a HUGE inconvenience for many people. But that doesn’t mean that UA was “virtually shut down.”

I’m not attacking you or your point, I’m more attacking the AP for using such sweeping and dramatic language in their article.

Bottom line, IMO, is that United needs to compensate people for the huge inconvenience that was caused to them. United is COMPLETELY responsible for this. I have noticed the “not caring” attitude that Andy points out at United all the time. United needs to fix this problem to the satisfaction of the passengers and not sweep it under the rug.

I am so tired of mentally ill drama seekers, who have nothing better to do with their lives than thrive on who screwed up this week. Why must people be so miserable and hateful? More than half of the jargon you are spewing is fabricated in your own delusional mind. If you don’t know what you are taking about, you should keep your mouth shut. This isn’t the first time an airline has experienced an outage, and it won’t be the last. Do a google search within news archives and see for yourself. It’s been happening since the age of technology, and each airline has had their own woes now and again. between the media and the haters, it’s no wonder why America is in the shape it’s in. Such a sad miserable society.

Really Steve? This is a pretty kick ass society in my opinion. If a few delays and cancellations of an airline can make you feel so negative about our society, I encourage you to read a bit of history. Or heck, read about how most people live in the world today…

David

David – I’m not sure that you even heard what I’m saying. The delays and cancellations are NOT making me feel negative about our society. I believe that honest mistakes happen, and I try to be understanding and forgiving when I am put in such a situation. It’s how our people are so quick to jump on the bashing bandwagon that upsets me. Mistakes happen in all industries. I just don’t understand why people must be so quick to aim and fire without knowing all of the facts FIRST.

I apologize Steve, I think I was getting too worked up and mis-read what you were saying :).

David

Thanks 🙂

I hope that you didn’t mistake my comments as an attack on you. It was anything but that! I fully agreed with your article.

Songstar

Folks, In my humble opinion only… I recall the same types of demands on the infamous Sept,11,2001. ALL of the North American airspace had shut down in a short 2 hour time span. Everything over the US was escorted to the ground, International flights overhead Oceans were turned back or rerouted to remote islands with a suitable landing strip. Airline crews were left with irate passengers in school gymnasiums in some cities where up to 17 B747 aircraft were parked for many hours, unable to crack doors being international arrivals and waited for off loading of luggage and customs clearance. I was the Inflight Service Manager at an operation control center on that day, and we got 279 aircraft halted,landed,or expressed on the ground in about an hour and 150 minutes. It was a miracle how it all unfolded to NOTHING. It took about 3 days to get aircraft airborne again, and several weeks to get all the customers to their final destinations. The ones who were cancelled in the USA, opted of course for a bus, train, or rental car if it were to be available. In all, EVERYONE came together in a remarkable way.

Songstar

Indeed, most of the domestic airlines in the USA and the Internationa trips of such, are filled with either very spunky and fun, or very expirienced with no smile, sense of humor, or space to move thru the aisleway without taking someones arm or shoulder with them. Cybu airlines is indeed one on which flight attendants dance to lady gaga doing the predeparture safety demo… draws a great crowd and yes, they do look amazing in lycra! One of the most embarassing layovers I had was in Amsterdam..sitting in the lobby having coffee/donuts before heading back to the airport and USA and here came the girls/guys of Cathay Pacific preparing to get their rooms. WOW! 14 of them looking like they just stepped out a beauty salon.. hair,faces,finger tips all perfection. They have a sterling repution, alike with Cebu Air because their training is 4 years.. including 6 months just on hair,makeup and physical fitness programs.

Juergen Schmerder

David, you’re missing the point. Probably because you were not there and you’re just reading the news and seeking the facts. Yes, in terms of cancellations, the outage probably caused less trouble than a bad weather. And yes, I agree with what has been said before about liability, as a computer outage CAN indeed happen, but then is the responsibility of the company that relies on these computer systems to provide their services. All of this has been discussed, and there seems to be vast agreement that United is reponsible for the trouble they caused, but the world is still spinning.

But that’s not the point. The point is, how does a company deal with an issue caused by malfunction of their infrastructure. How do they treat customers, how do they treat people? For 5 hours, United indeed came to a complete halt, causing thousands of customers not being able to check in, not being able to learn about their options, not being able to depart while they were already at their gates or on the planes. And what did United do? Did they try to inform people about what was going on, did they try to work with people to get them where they needed to be, did they even provide any help or meaningful information?

Non of the above.

Until now, I have not heared from any United representative that my flight UA 926 from San Francisco to Frankfurt was cancelled. Nor was is announced at the airport. They had hundreds of people waiting at the gate with NO United agent present. When they finally showed up, accompanied by a police officer (!), it was just to announce we should all go and see customer service. That’s it! “Please go to customer service between gates 80 and 82”. End of message. Now guess what: we were not the only ones. At customer service, there were hundreds of stranded – yes: STRANDED – passengers in line, waiting to get flights rebooked, refunded or just learn what was going on. It took me nearly 8 hours of waiting for finally hear about my options. Could they have done this directly at the gates? Sure. But they didn’t want to. Hundreds, if not thousands of paying customers just gave up, and I suspect that’s exactly what they wanted.

Hundreds of customers also missed connecting flights because they had to wait for up to 12 hours before they were allowed to speak to a United agent. And that is the points for me. The outage is unfortunate, this one was probably avoidable but a certain risk remains, even with redunancy and properly operated data centers. Shit happens. But when shit happens, I expect a big company such as United to get on their feet and manage the crisis. What they did is hope that as many customer as possible would just give up. And as far as I can tell, it even worked for them. Shame on you United, for treating people like this.

–Juergen

Tim Meadows

Juergen,
I was also there trying to catch a plane to London. Your account is accurate. I agree that stuff happens. While it is somewhat inconceivable that the computer failure happened (mission-critical systems should have enough redundancy/backup to stay up 100%), the lack of customer service throughout was appalling. We waited until 4 am when we were told that a new crew of agents would appear. 2 showed up. On on of the messiest days in United’s recent history, where were all the employees to help customers? And not a supervisor/manager to be seen. Does the management understand how the front lines of their airline interface with customers? There seems to be a systemic lack of process and customer service, driven, in my opinion, by bean counters intent on cutting costs in precisely the areas needed to support customer loyalty. Classic.

[In my opinion] this article reads like it was written by a 12-year old.

Jesse S.

That because you no how to read in Engrish.

Do you have any actual ideas or you just looking to insult? I feel that it is at least the writing of a 15yr old (joking David).

I don’t necessarily want to insult, but I arrived here from the Reuters page and was surprised they syndicate what appears to be a conversational piece written offhandedly.

“Many lives were ruined” – really ?
“Hmm really? Well Friday night saw 15 flights…”

I would not want to see that in any news or opinion paragraph. I just felt it necessary to highlight how there could be better ways to highlight the fact that the airline business does seem to suffer more than its fair share of criticism. Additional insights about how people expect more from the prices they pay, or the fact that the computer systems airlines use are very antiquated, or the fact that airlines already overbook flights – things of that kind of perspective would have been more useful and interesting to digest.

This is a blog about airlines. It is going to read quite a bit differently than a front page story on the New York Times. Honestly, I find that most bloggers actually have better journalistic integrity than most in the main stream. Yes, there might be a little too much opinion, but he is backing it up by facts.

Those stories you mention are overly covered all over in media. One thing David tries to do is show the other side of the airline business and show they are evil. Doesn’t mean they don’t mess up from time to time.

Jim

mawestpac

I was wondering, why emergency generator is not installed at airport handle as hub. Airline executive must look into to must propose airport to allocate emergency generator space at leased space to prevent power outage.

I think it is hard to know until United actually gives more details on what happened and what caused this. Hopefully some lessons will be learned.

United Does not own the servers it operates on, that is contracted out to another company. I do be leave for normal circumstances they would have had backup, but the systems for UAL/CO are at the time, trying to be merged, so most of the extra was already shut down.

Is it just me or does it seem like when anyone mentions United Airlines there are always a bunch of imature airline haters that want to hate on an airline just because they are an airline?

I think David is just trying to show the positive side of this event. Where most everyone else always wants to concentrate on what is always negative, it is refreshing to read someone trying to show the other side of the story.

R Lopaka

….FA’s who should have been retired 20 years ago…So writer wants to set age limits.OK. What next.Maybe you’re not happy with their race?Sex?Religion?Appearance? Hair color? Breast size? Some should just take the bus….or better yet drive.PLZ!!!

Flight attendants should be fired if they do not do a good job. Problem is that unions protect flight attendants who should have been let go years ago. This is not to say that all older flight attendants should be fired.

Remember, the mainstream media knows almost nothing about everything. When it comes to airlines or aircraft, to them, terms/models/facts are interchangable so as to gain the most hype.

Bob True

United representatives at Dulles told passengers there that both United and Continental were completely shut down WORLD-WIDE. They had no information other than that, for more than 5 hours, and could not get any info from management. They were advising people who were starting travel from Dulles to GO HOME and hope for a refund. There were dozens of flights scheduled to leave Dulles that night — so that’s thousands stranded in that one airport. Terminals C & D were wall-to-wall with people, with no food or beverages available — all the concessions closed at 9:30 and 10pm, even the bars!

After more than 5 hours of no information, a guy in a suit, not a uniform, finally started making rounds, gate-to-gate, instructing gate staff on procedures for boarding without computer assistance — something he could have and should have done hours earlier. The LAX flight I was waiting for got priority because fully half the pax had elite status.

As a career network admin, I need to explain something very crucial to you: computers don’t screw up — people screw up. In this case, all signs point to a major system change implemented without adequate planning. Specifically, management did not insist on, or did not fund, a back-out strategy, so there was no way to back out when the change blew up. And there was no planning for failure mitigation. So this was an enormous failure of management, displaying a disgraceful lack of regard for their employees as well as their customers.

This is comparable not to thunderstorms in Chicago, but to JetBlue’s meltdown caused by a few snow storms. The only saving grace for United was that most of their crews were somehow still legal to fly when they were able to start moving planes. If United doesn’t fire their CIO, none of us should ever rely on them again.

“that big a deal”, NOT “big OF a deal”. I see this more and more – what is it with Americans and English?

PaulieV

Mistakes do happen that’s a given though I would not be surprised if United have the cheapest backup processes in place possible.

The issue here however is how you cope with a situation once it arises and how you treat your customers. By all accounts United were appalling. They left my wife in SFO for 13 hours with no help, no information and no real plan of what to do. At the very least they should have drafted in more workers to help the situation instead of the two hapless UA representatives on the ground all night.

Even worse, they told an English family of four who knew nothing of the City to “Go find your own hotel and don’t spend more than $60”. I certainly wouldn’t be wantto take my kids into a city I don’t know at 5am looking for a place to stay with a budget of just $60.

United service is a disgrace to all that is reasonable and treat their customers with utter contempt. That is the problem here, not the fact that the failure occurred in the first place.

Thank you for the good writeup. It actually was once a amusement account it. Look complex to far introduced agreeable from you! However, how could we keep up a correspondence?

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