Traveling during the holidays is, by definition, no fun. If you caught a flight over Thanksgiving this year, you got lucky—everything ran more or less to plan. No freak winter storms, no striking baggage handlers, no collapsing computer systems. Expecting the Christmas travel rush to go just as smoothly is a bit like expecting lightning to hit twice.
Indeed, trouble has already arisen. Today, American Airlines revealed it accidentally told too many of its pilots they could take time off the week of Christmas. Now, it faces a manpower crisis that could leave an estimated 15,000 flights with nobody to sit in the cockpit.
The airline blames some sort of computer glitch. It looks like the scheduling system it uses to assign pilots to flights indicated that there were plenty of captains and first officers to go around. Meanwhile, a separate system, which assigns holiday leave based on seniority, got carried away with the festive spirit and gave way too many people time off.
To get their aviators back to work—and avoid mass cancellations—American is offering time-and-a-half pay to pilots who pick up certain flights. In a statement, it said it has reserve pilots to cover the uptick in flying time during December, and it’s working with the pilot’s union to smooth everything out. Representatives for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents nearly 60,000 pilots in the US and Canada, say the airline should have consulted them over the extra pay. But with weeks left before peak travel times, it’s hard to imagine they won’t find an acceptable solution.
Still, the tussle highlights just how complicated the process of getting an airplane into the air is—and how easy it is for something to go wrong. Airlines operate control centers you could mistake for a NASA setup, with thousands of computers running hundreds of software systems to book and monitor everything that goes into a successful flight: planes, ground crew, meals, fuel, de-icing equipment, baggage handlers, cleaners, airport gates, and so on. It doesn’t take much to derail the whole system.
“These are really complicated systems, they’re huge, and testing them for every potential interaction is almost impossible,” says Bill Curtis, the chief scientist at CAST, which finds software flaws for large corporations. He’s also the executive director of the Consortium for IT Software Quality, which works to design better software standards.
Much of the time, airlines can deftly cope when bad weather grounds planes, leaving crews in the wrong location, or when someone’s luggage misses a connection. But a glitch in software that affects planes, pilots, or passengers en masse is a lot harder to handle.
Airline IT systems are particularly complex—and vulnerable—because the industry is so enamored of mergers and acquisitions. When American Airlines joined with US Airways in 2015, it had to integrate distinct computer programs that governed hundreds of planes and thousands of people, systems that may well have been dated and incompatible.
“If they have legacy systems, it may be time to rebuild them on a more modern language,” says Curtis. But in an industry that operates on profit margins tighter than an overhead bin, it can be hard to find the time and resources for a project of that magnitude.
American isn’t the first airline to be too generous with time off. In September, European budget operator Ryanair booked too many crew members for vacation. It had to cancel 2,100 flights, messing with some 315,000 customers trying to get to, or home from, summer vacations.
And it’s far from the first time a computer problem has grounded planes. In September, a check-in system failure at several European airports had world-wide ramifications. In May, British Airways had to deal with a server being unplugged, halting 75,000 passengers. In August of last year, an IT outage took down all of Delta.
According to Bloomberg, American’s latest problem affects flights scheduled to depart from from Dallas-Fort Worth, Boston, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Charlotte, North Carolina. The glitch has come to light with enough notice for AA to, hopefully, fix its schedules, protect its reputation, and get ready for the next problem.
Fasten Your Seatbelt