Wednesday, August 29, 2012

United Airlines dissects slowdown

Faulty computer hardware and a defective backup system are being blamed for bringing down United Airlines' entire system Tuesday afternoon, delaying hundreds of flights and shuttering the carrier's website.

The Chicago-based carrier said Wednesday that the "network outage" that led to 580 flight delays was sparked by malfunctioning "communication equipment," which severed communication ties between its airports, website and reservation system.

The backup equipment that should have taken over also failed.

"We are working with the manufacturers to determine why the backup equipment did not work as it was supposed to," United spokesman Charles Hobart said in an emailed statement.

While working to get its systems back online, United instituted ground stops at its hub airports in Newark, N.J., and San Francisco and at Houston's Bush Intercontinental, its largest hub, where United flights were running about an hour behind Tuesday evening, according to the Houston Airport System.

United, which became the world's largest airline when it merged with Continental Airlines two years ago, has been grappling with technical issues since it switched to Continental's reservation system in March.

The problems have dragged down its on-time performance. However, Tuesday's computer hardware failure did not stem from glitches within the reservation system.

'Catastrophic failure'

The systemwide outage is something more unusual and serious, industry observers said Wednesday.

Analyst Henry Harteveldt, lead researcher and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, which specializes in airline technology, described the outage as "nothing short of a catastrophic failure." He said he hasn't seen anything like it in the past few decades.

"It's one thing for the airport system to go down, but apparently everything became unavailable from this network outage … and that is a serious, grievous error, and it could cause some people to lose confidence in flying United," said Harteveldt, noting that systemwide failures usually last for a few minutes rather than a few hours.

Previous problems

According to, United's computer system shut down for several hours in June 2011, "causing widespread cancellations." United also experienced a brief website outage earlier this summer.

United Continental Holdings' stock price dropped 1 percent for the day, to $18.33 per share.

Harteveldt said Tuesday's incident "brings to light the extremely complex, highly interconnected nature of airline technology systems," and technology teams at airlines usually go above and beyond to make sure that there are sufficient backups in place.

"To me, it shows that there is a lot of strain on the various United systems without an adequate amount of redundancy," said Harteveldt, noting United deserves credit for getting its system up again within a few hours. "In other words, if the primary servers for the website go out, you want to make sure there's something in a backup location at least to keep basic functionality going."

A 'nightmare'

Independent airline consultant Darryl Jenkins, also chairman of the American Aviation Institute, described the outage as a "nightmare" and said United needs to quickly get a handle on it.

"I think we've had so many problems with United … that I think it's at the point now where it's going to start costing them a lot of money in terms of losing passengers," Jenkins said.

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