The airline industry has been setting a lousy example regarding system availability and resilience recently; examples all organizations could learn from – if they care to watch.
Most recently, in January of this year, the Federal Aviation Administration suffered a significant ground stoppage that triggered nearly 7,000 flights to be delayed and 1,000 canceled. The cause? According to the FAA, it was a damaged database file in an essential system. That corrupted database file made the FAA’s NOTAM, Notice to Air Missions, system unavailable. NOTAM alerts flights and airports to potential hazards, such as closed runways or natural weather-driven disruptive events.
Just weeks prior, Southwest Airlines cancelled thousands of flights due to an outdated scheduling system malfunction. The woes at the FAA and Southwest have been widely blamed on technical debt or the continued reliance on outdated or inefficient systems due to the cost of upgrading or improving. Like monetary debt, if debt keeps accumulating there’s a reckoning sooner or later.
Regarding the FAA system breakdown, blogger Richi Jennings provides some reactions on DevOps.com.
Technical woes aren’t new to the FAA. In its 2021 report, the Transportation Department Office of Inspection General (OIG) identified critical challenges within the FAA’s multi-year, multi-billion dollar “Next Generation Air Transportation System (Next)” infrastructure initiative. The OIG said the FAA had suffered delays due to integration issues with NextGen.
About one year ago, the FAA initiated spending the $5 billion earmarked for infrastructure upgrades in the 2022 infrastructure package. The initial $1 billion will be spent to reinforce navigation systems, weather and tracking equipment, power systems, en route flight centers, and long-range radars, replace towers, improve towers and approach and departure facilities, environmental and safety, personnel and travel, and facility security. It’s hard to find where IT technology infrastructure systems will make the list in upgrades.
While harsh weather was the spark for Southwest Airlines’ outage during December holiday travel, aging systems and the associated technical debt ultimately proved to be the reason behind the delays. During its Q4 earnings call, the airline cited an estimated $410 million loss of revenue attributed to the operational disruptions.
On February 21, Nelda Z. Smith, assistant inspector general for the Office of Aviation Audits, announced the office would audit the cause of flight delays and cancellations throughout 2022. “In June 2022, air carriers scheduled more than 600,000 flights, resulting in more than 100,000 delayed flights and over 18,000 canceled flights. Similarly, delays and cancellations were a challenge in the 2022 holiday season. According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), over 30,000 delayed and canceled flights were attributable to issues in the National Airspace System, such as heavy traffic and air traffic control. Given the demand for air travel, delays and cancellations may be exacerbated by factors such as industry-wide staffing challenges and disruptive weather events,” Smith wrote.
Fortunately, the 2022 Air Transport IT Insights report from air transport communications and information technology consultancy SITA shows airlines will increase their technology budgets during the next two years, but not by much. The SITA report states airlines spent 4.66% of their revenue on IT in 2021 and spent 4.73% in 2022. This year, 96% of airlines believe their IT budget will remain the same or increase. But their priorities aren’t infrastructure enhancements. They are cybersecurity initiatives (95%), mobile applications for passenger services (94%), and cloud services (91%).
According to the SITA report, three new IT services are rising in priority. “With most airlines investing in major programs for IT service management enhancement (92%), disruption warning systems (90%), and in-house virtual and remote IT services (90%). Airlines’ digitalization remains crucial for streamlining operations and as they focus their investments accordingly to drive efficiencies.”
We hope to see increased reliability and resiliency from airlines with an increased focus on IT service management. Also last week, IT infrastructure services provider, Kyndryl announced that Delta Air Lines extended its 5-year contract to “enhance IT resiliency and scalability.”
“Flexible and reliable systems deployed at scale are critical to serving customers with the best service, support and experiences that make Delta different,” said Rahul Samant, Delta’s EVP and Chief Information Officer.
Through the extended agreement, Kyndryl will continue to help Delta run the core systems that power the airline’s essential operations, including crew rostering and scheduling, as well as the system that supports Delta’s maintenance documentation process. Kyndryl also supports Delta’s major customer relations and loyalty programs and Delta’s software for rebooking passengers from canceled flights.
“Air traffic control facilities are the nerve centers of our airspace system, and a big part of the reason why flying is the safest mode of transportation,” US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said at the time of the signing of the infrastructure bill. “The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will repair, replace and modernize the infrastructure that our air traffic control system relies on to keep the traveling public safe for generations to come.”
While air traffic control systems are the “nerve centers” for our airspace system, information systems drive those systems’ intelligence. And none of it works without an adequate technology infrastructure. It’s about time the industry also pays down its debt in these areas so that the airlines become more resilient than they are currently.
Enterprises have also invested heavily in the customer-facing side of their IT systems in recent years. They must look at what’s going on in the airline industry and ensure they’re paying down their technical debt and have an infrastructure ready to take them to where they need to be. Digital transformation must include technologies that directly drive revenue and customer experience and the IT infrastructure that supports these applications and services.