How a Computer Glitch Can Destroy Your Travel Plans

Photo of Peter Ward
Tech Editor11 December 2017

We all hate travel delays. Whether it’s bad weather grounding flights, staff strikes canceling journeys, or heavy traffic holding us back, the end result is always a sense of helpless frustration. But there’s one type of delay that can mess with your travel plans beyond all others—the dreaded computer glitch.

In November 2017, reports from ABC and Reuters suggested a computer glitch in the American Airlines system led to all of the airline’s pilots being allowed to take vacation during the week of Christmas. The error has the potential to ground thousands of planes during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year.

The union that represents pilots predicted that over 15,000 planes would lack pilot assignments in December. “On Friday, management disclosed a failure within the pilot schedule bidding system,” the Allied Pilots Association said in a statement on November 28. “As a result, thousands of flights currently do not have pilots assigned to fly them during the upcoming critical holiday period.”

In this case, the airline may have caught the problem early enough to find a solution, although it will likely be a costly one. “We are working diligently to address the issue and expect to avoid cancellations this holiday season,” American Airlines said in a statement. “We have reserve pilots to help cover flying in December, and we are paying pilots who pick up certain open trips 150 percent of their hourly rate—as much as we are allowed to pay them per the contract.”

This isn’t the first time a computer glitch has grounded planes. In January 2017, United Airlines computers went down, forcing the company to halt all flights for around an hour, causing a mass of delays all over the United States. This was the second time this had happened in a matter of months, as United also halted departures the previous October. On top of that, in June of 2016 the airline’s flight plan briefly lost functionality due to a software issue.

These types of problems are on the milder scale of computer problems for air travel. In 2015, LOT Polish Airways flights were grounded after hackers targeted the ground computers which issue flight plans. In total, 20 flights were canceled and many more were delayed, but the thought of an airline being hacked caused widespread concern. It’s one thing to suffer a security breach when flights are on the ground, but another type of worry entirely if hackers were to target a plane mid-flight.

Computer problems aren’t exclusive to the airline industry, of course. In Melbourne in July 2017, an entire train network was brought to a halt after a computer glitch hit during peak commuter hour. Thousands of people were left stranded at stations, and some were even stuck on trains in tunnels between stations for as long as two hours.

All forms of travel will become more automated and advanced in the future, and this will likely expose them further to computer glitches and even hacking. The travel industry will need to ensure security keeps pace with innovation to avoid mass delays, or worse, in years to come.

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