US airlines quizzed by senators over IT outages

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US airlines quizzed by senators over IT outages

Delta among those in the firing line.

Two US senators have sent letters to 13 major airlines expressing concerns that their IT systems are vulnerable to outages that can strand thousands of passengers.

Senators Richard Blumenthal and Edward Markey sent letters after Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines experienced technology issues that resulted in thousands of flight cancellations across the country. They want details on "specific safeguards and backups" to prevent airline IT systems from failing.

Delta was forced to ground about 2000 flights last week after a small fire resulted in a "massive failure" at the airline's data centre.

Further outages are likely because major carriers have not invested enough to overhaul systems based on technology dating to the 1960s, airline industry and technology experts say.

“We are concerned with recent reports indicating that airlines’ IT systems may be susceptible to faltering because of the way they are designed and have been maintained,” the Democratic senators wrote.

"Now that four air carriers control approximately 85 percent of domestic capacity, all it takes is one airline to experience an outage and thousands of passengers could be stranded."

The airlines that were sent letters included Delta, Southwest, American Airlines, United and JetBlue Airways.

Delta, American and Southwest said they had received the letter. United referred questions to a trade group.

Southwest said it has invested "significant effort and financial investment to ensure the technology that supports our business and our operation has back up/recovery capabilities".

The senators also want airlines to answer if they will rebook passengers on a rival carrier or compensate passengers in the event of delays or cancellations caused by an IT outage. They also want answers about airlines' cybersecurity efforts.

The US Transportation Department last week said the "responsibility to manage IT systems for airlines’ internal operations - like flight scheduling - falls on the airlines themselves".

The department noted that airlines must follow laws "protecting consumers' rights and compensation, and that includes in instances of extensive flight cancellations and delays".

Other recent disruptions include one in July that prompted Southwest to cancel over 2000 flights, and another two outages last summer at United.

The reservations systems of the biggest carriers mostly run on IBM's Transaction Processing Facility, or TPF, operating system. It was designed in the 1960s to process large numbers of transactions quickly and is still updated by IBM, which did a major rewrite of the platform about a decade ago.

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