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US Air Travel Disruptions: The Rule Instead of the Exception?

The airline industry has taken major hits since December 2022, and customer anxiety is on the rise over booking new reservations.

In December—during the peak of the holiday season—Southwest Airlines cancelled over 13,000 flights due to an antiquated and unreliable flight scheduling system.

In January, a nationwide ground stop imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over a computer issue forced a 90-minute halt to all U.S. departing flights, leading to over 10,000 delays in one day alone.

January’s grounding did not affect just one carrier, but all carriers. The January grounding has been compared to that which occurred immediately following the attacks on America on 9/11/2001.

The issue in January arose from a systems issue that prevented airports from notifying pilots of potential safety issues such as runway closures, severe weather, etc. As such, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded all flights until the issue could be resolved. FAA administrators shared the systems issue arose from a damaged file, which impacted not only the main communications system but also the backup system, leaving no path forward except grounding flights until the issue could be resolved.

Many legislators have called for airline customers to be compensated for flight cancellations and extended delays due to system issues. Many airline customers now say flight interruptions have become “the rule rather than the exception,” with others commenting that the overall US airline industry is in need of major technology overhauls and investments at both the carrier and Federal government levels.

Video Spotlight:  

This post is based on the Reuters article, Airlines hope for return to normal Thursday after FAA outage snarls U.S. travel , by David Shepardson, Rajesh Kumar Singh, and Abhijith Ganapavaram, January 11, 2023, and the YouTube video in the Spotlight. Image source: Burben/Shutterstock

Discussion Questions:

1. Widespread computer/system outages seem to be regularly disrupting thousands of flights. What can specific carriers do to lessen the likelihood of these events occurring?

Guidance: Suggestions include new ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems with enhanced technology for flight sequencing (arrivals and departures), improved and redundant (i.e., backup) customer service processes, and investments in employee training.

2. Widespread computer/system outages are regularly disrupting thousands of flights. What can the Federal Government do to lessen the likelihood of these events occurring?

Guidance: The Federal Government can allocate a larger percentage of spending to improving existing technology infrastructure, including back-up systems, scenario modeling, and network design and optimization.

3. What are some financial implications to major flight disruptions?

Guidance: One financial implication is lowered future revenue streams, as customers look for alternatives to flying. Other implications include higher costs from inefficiencies associated with re-booking flights, lower asset (airplane) utilization, customer compensation, and employee overtime. These issues highlight that operational impacts have a direct effect on overall financial performance of the industry and individual airlines.

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