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Mounting Airline IT Issues Get Scrutiny from GAO

Of some 34 IT system glitches over three years, 85 percent resulted in steep delays and flight cancellations, says GAO

Last weekend GPS issues were blamed for causing delays and cancellations on some 400 flights in the US. From June 9 to June 12 a glitch in positioning systems was blamed for interrupting regional flights on mostly smaller aircraft but the incidence of such occurrences is not rare.

On April 1 of this year, many travelers will recall a hot mess if they happened to be aloft or awaiting flights as an IT failure grounded at least five major airlines and left travelers hanging while fixes were installed.

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) has taken note of frequency of these occurrences and, because Federal agencies that collect data this data cannot use the numbers to identify airline IT outages, the office compiled publicly available sources of information and interviewed airlines to find and confirm 34 airline IT outages in a 3-year span. Of those incidents, 85% of these led to flight delays or cancellations.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) and, within it, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have limited roles overseeing or addressing the effects of outages from information technology (IT) systems that airlines rely on to schedule and transport passengers. At an airline’s request, FAA may  agree to halt the operation of all or part of that airline’s flights during an outage and work with the airline to reintegrate flights upon recovery. The GAO found that  Airline IT outages are not specifically addressed in DOT’s consumer protections for passengers. Although some protections may apply (for instance, protection on tarmac delays if a passenger is held on a flight during an outage), the DOT mostly oversees airlines’ adherence to their contracts with passengers.

DOT also requires large airlines to report information about on-time performance to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), including the causes of flight delays and cancellations in several broad categories (e.g., airline caused, weather, and late-arriving aircraft).

Thus, using multiple sources, GAO identified 34 IT outages from 2015 through 2017, affecting 11 of 12 selected airlines. No government data were available to identify IT outages or determine how many flights or passengers were affected by such outages and found about 85 percent of the identified outages resulted in some flight delays or cancellations.  Further, airlines vary in what they provide to these passengers (whether that be food, hotel, or rebooking on another airline) when IT outages occur. Consumer complaints stemming from IT outages accounted for less than one percent of all complaints received by DOT from 2015 through June 2018, and according to agency officials, these complaints raised concerns similar to complaints resulting from other causes of flight disruption. Complaints reviewed by GAO included the lack of food, a hotel, or compensation, among other things.

In the US, the FAA have demanded that all aircraft have ADS-B by January 1st 2020, according to reports by Flight Aware and Many of these fixes have already had the system installed. But, GPS is not fully nonfunctional, but it is “degraded,” according to an FAA outage map. Without GPS, aircraft cannot transmit their position accurately and must rely on radar. This presents a safety issue for flights, which leads to no other solution than to ground the aircraft.

The affected aircraft last weekend were equipped with Collins Aerospace GPS sensors that use ADS-B technology. Last weekend’s outages, affecting mostly Bombardier, Embraer Legacy, Gulfstream and Textron models, was caused by the Collins Aerospace GPS-4000S sensor that connects aircraft with GPS satellites. Collins identified the issue and does not expect more problems, according to statements from the company. Hundreds of regional Delta, American and Hawaiian Airlines flights were affected by the glitch.

Read more on the GAO’s findings.