Technology ‘glitch’ puts us in our place

Published 9:35 am Thursday, August 11, 2016

Tuesday’s headline in USA Today tried to succinctly say it all: Glitch Grounds Another Airline.

The full story was far worse, though.

Delta had a catastrophic computer failure Monday, grounding nearly 2,000 flights and delaying more than 3,000 more as the problem spread into Tuesday and Wednesday.

And I was front row for part of it, first in New Orleans and then in Atlanta.

Both airports could only be described as pure chaos. Horror stories abounded.

There was the family of four — including an 18-month-old baby — who had been in the airport for more than 20 hours. Then you had the soldiers who couldn’t make it back to base in North Carolina and were worried about being AWOL. Or maybe the couple trying to make it back to England for their daughter’s wedding showed how impactful this was.

The tales of travel woes went on and on.

At the end of the day, my four Leader colleagues and I were very fortunate despite spending about 12 hours in airports and a few more on planes Tuesday. Although we had to rebook a couple of flights and dealt with several delays, we ultimately made it back to Michiana Tuesday — even if it was about six hours later than anticipated.

It is impossible to predict circumstances like this, but there are powerful lessons to be learned for Delta, the entire airline industry and businesses in general.

Let me say start by emphasizing that the Delta employees were, for the most part, amazing. Many had worked 14- or 16-hour days Monday, were shorthanded Tuesday and dealing with angry customer after angry customer.

The problem was there simply weren’t enough of them to deal with the crisis.

There also didn’t seem to be great leadership within the airports in terms of taking charge of the situation and communicating to travelers in a timely manner.

Virtually every Delta counter couldn’t handle customers fast enough. It wasn’t uncommon for people to wait in line for several hours only to be told they were in the wrong place or that nothing could be done right then and they would have to come back later.

For Delta specifically, this incident raises many questions.

What caused the issue at all and could reasonable backup measures have been in place?

Is it time to implement better emergency procedures?

While many might consider air travel a necessity that consumers won’t ever turn away from, the industry has to find ways to avoid system-wide collapses like this because if even a small percentage of individuals say “enough is enough” it will have a massive impact on the airline companies’ bottom lines.

And don’t for a second think these issues are exclusive to Delta.

According to a CBS News report, “Last month, Southwest Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights over four days after an outage that it blamed on a faulty network router. United Airlines and American Airlines both suffered outages last year — United has struggled with several meltdowns since combining technology systems with merger partner Continental Airlines.”

Although outages like this have a global impact, it isn’t lost on me that these are mostly first-world problems.

We really are fortunate to have the transportation system we do and events like this show us how even a minor glitch can upend our whole world. Technology drives our world but we have become so dependent that we take it for granted.

There will be times when technology fails us and we have to have emergency and backup plans in place.

That’s a lesson that shouldn’t soon be forgotten.


Michael Caldwell is the publisher of Leader Publications LLC. He can be reached at (269) 687-7700 or by email at