Repeat airlines IT outages raise congressional queries

Two US senators yesterday sent letters to 13 major airlines expressing concerns that their information technology systems were vulnerable to outages that could leave thousands of passengers stranded after a string of such incidents.

Senators Richard Blumenthal and Edward Markey sent letters to the carriers in the wake tech failures at Southwest Airlines  and Delta led to thousands of flight cancellations  across the country. The two senators have called for ''specific safeguards and backups'' to prevent airline IT systems from failing.

Delta had to ground 2,000 flights last week after a small fire caused a ''massive failure'' at the airline's technology centre (See: Delta Air still struggles to cope with systems crash on day 2). ''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% of domestic capacity, all it takes is one airline to experience an outage and thousands of passengers could be stranded.''

Computer outages have plagued the aviation industry as never before this year.

According to commentators, an industry dependent on finicky information systems, is bound to see more incidents of the kind. Meanwhile, customers are left  wondering how to avoid getting stuck in another IT collapse, and what, if anything, an airline could do to make up for such an event.

They say the collapse of Southwest systems points to how fragile even the best-run airlines could be.

The senators also want carriers to answer whether they would rebook passengers on a rival carrier or compensate passengers in the event of delays or cancellations caused by an IT outage. They have also posed questions about the cybersecurity efforts at the airlines.

Meanwhile, the US transportation department said in a statement last week the ''responsibility to manage IT systems for airlines' internal operations - like flight scheduling - falls on the airlines themselves.''

According to the department that airlines must follow laws ''protecting consumers' rights and compensation, and that includes instances of extensive flight cancellations and delays.''