Monday, August 08, 2016

Single Point of Failure (Airlines)

Large business-critical systems can be brought down by power failure. Who knew?

In July 2016, Southwest Airlines suffered a major disruption to service, which lasted several days. It blamed the failure on "lingering disruptions following performance issues across multiple technology systems", apparently triggered by a power outage.
In August 2016 it was Delta's turn.

Then there were major problems at British Airways (Sept 2016) and United (Oct 2016).



The concept of "single point of failure" is widely known and understood. And the airline industry is rightly obsessed by safety. They wouldn't fly a plane without backup power for all systems. So what idiot runs a whole company without backup power?

We might speculate what degree of complacency or technical debt can account for this pattern of adverse incidents. I haven't worked with any of these organizations myself. However, my guess is that some people within the organization were aware of the vulnerability, but this awareness didn't somehow didn't penetrate the management hierarchy. (In terms of orgintelligence, a short-sighted board of directors becomes the single point of failure!) I'm also guessing it's not quite as simple and straightforward as the press reports and public statements imply, but that's no excuse. Management is paid (among other things) to manage complexity. (Hopefully with the help of system architects.)

If you are the boss of one of the many airlines not mentioned in this post, you might want to schedule a conversation with a system architect. Just a suggestion.


American Airlines Gradually Restores Service After Yesterday's Power Outage (PR Newswire, 15 August 2003)

British Airways computer outage causes flight delays (Guardian, 6 Sept 2016)

Delta: ‘Large-scale cancellations’ after crippling power outage (CNN Wire, 8 August 2016)

Gatwick Airport Christmas Eve chaos a 'wake-up call' (BBC News, 11 April 2014)

Simon Calder, Dozens of flights worldwide delayed by computer systems meltdown (Independent, 14 October 2016)

Jon Cox, Ask the Captain: Do vital functions on planes have backup power? (USA Today, 6 May 2013)

Jad Mouawad, American Airlines Resumes Flights After a Computer Problem (New York Times, 16 April 2013)

 Marni Pyke, Southwest Airlines apologizes for delays as it rebounds from outage (Daily Herald, 20 July 2016)

Alexandra Zaslow, Outdated Technology Likely Culprit in Southwest Airlines Outage (NBC News, Oct 12 2015)


Updated 14 October 2016.

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