Travel chaos in the US illustrates the importance of up-to-date technology

by | Jan 12, 2023 | Digital Transformation, Travel Tech

Travel chaos in the US illustrates the importance of up-to-date technology


Within weeks of one another, the United States’ aviation industry (US) experienced two severe disruptions causing travel chaos for passengers. Each of these had outdated technology as a crucial factor in the operational breakdown.

Between 22 and 28 December, there were over 16,000 cancelled flights, 90 per-cent of which were from Southwest Airlines. This was reported in newspaper headlines: “Southwest’s outdated technology is to blame for travel chaos” and “Southwest meltdown shows airlines need tighter software integration.”

On Wednesday this week, thousands of flights across the US were grounded again, disrupting approximately 10,000 flights. This time, headlines read: “All flights in the USA grounded due to computer glitch.”


Source: SkyNews. A map showing flights across the US at the time of the outage. Pic: Flightradar24


Upon examination, the main problem causing the delays at Southwest was its outdated optimisation technology, SkySolver. SkySolver assigns crew to flights. The system fell short, and its failure was heightened by the absence of front-end technology for inputting flight crew locations. Combined with a storm and staff shortages, the mass cancellations ensued. Southwest Airlines is one of the largest carriers in the US and the operational meltdown is predicted to cost the airline up to $825 million.

This week’s disruptions were the product of a corrupted file causing a glitch on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) computer system. The corrupted file affected both the primary and backup systems causing an outage to the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system that provides safety information to flight crews.

Airline Weekly reported that:

“The FAA’s air traffic control technology is known to be outdated. Agency administrators and legislators on Capitol Hill have repeatedly pushed for funding of the agency’s proposed NextGen upgrades to air traffic control but, as yet, most of the program remains pending until further funding from Congress.”

In both incidents, failing technology caused severe disruptions. These cases highlight the importance of having updated, well-maintained technology, and the consequences of not doing so.

It must be noted, these two incidents of mass cancellations and disruptions do not stand in isolation. Skift has reported that last year, Spirit Airlines cancelled 2,800 flights over 10 days due to technology problems and staff shorages. American Airlines and Southwest also cancelled 2,000 flights each within a short timeframe last year. Moreover, Delta cancelled over 3,500 flights over five days during severe weather conditions in April 2017.

The need to having updated, efficient, and reliable technology has been put in the spotlight in recent weeks. Significantly, the financial and reputational consequences of failing to do so have also been reiterated.


Article by Jess Brownlow