Terry Anzur, a TV news consultant from Los Angeles who was also stranded in Dallas, said American Airlines gate employees were doing everything the old-fashioned, manual way because their computers were useless.
“No one at the counter can do anything. They can’t check people in,” Anzur said. “The airline is at a dead halt.”
Theoretically, an airline could do the same work as the reservation system manually for any one flight. But doing it for hundreds of flights isn’t practical. American and Eagle operate about 3,300 flights a day.
Now, if the reservations systems go down, “most airlines would be pretty much without the ability to fly more than a very limited number of flights,” said Scott Nason, American’s former technology chief and now a consultant.
Nason said airlines find and fix the problem, but the next time something else causes an outage. One time, a possum chewed through a cable in Tulsa, Okla., bringing down the whole system. Another time, a worker in the airline’s data center used a metal tool instead of an insulated, rubber-coated one — a short-circuit crashed much of the system, he said.
Brent Bowen, a professor of aviation technology at Purdue University, said massive system failures are inevitable as airlines grow increasingly reliant on technology.
“As those systems get bigger and more complex, at some point you’re going to have a systemic failure,” Bowen said. He added that financially strapped airlines may have underinvested in technology during the past decade, making the computer systems more vulnerable. AMR has lost more than $10 billion since 2001 and filed for bankruptcy protection in late 2011.
American’s problems on Tuesday were reminiscent of what United Airlines passengers endured for several days last year. After merging with Continental, United experienced computer glitches in the combined reservation system. On one day in August, 580 United flights were delayed, and its website was shut down for two hours. Another outage in November delayed 636 flights.