Last week, thousands of airline passengers were delayed worldwide after a computer glitch temporarily halted departures at United Airlines, the latest in a series of outages to affect other airlines as well. Last week’s United system glitch was reportedly attributed to the airline’s weight reporting system which calculates and governs an aircraft’s total weight load for takeoff and other needs. According to both general and social media reports, passengers were forced to either wait onboard planes or inside terminals when respective United flights were delayed for several minutes or in some cases hours, disrupting travel plans and schedules.

Last week’s incident represented the third computer glitch to impact United’s operations in recent months.  In June, software needed to dispatch United’s flight plans faltered and in July, flights were disrupted after a computer problem blocked access to reservations records.

In September, a system-wide computer problem at British Airways caused significant delays.  In August, Delta Air Lines was forced to cancel or delay thousands of flights after a power outage impacted its operational computer systems. This blog subsequently praised Delta’s CEO for his public acknowledgement and apology for the systems outage and its impacts for customers. Also in August, a highly visible system outage also impacted Southwest Airlines after a prior system-wide outage in July, prompting the airline’s two major labor unions to demand the removal of that airline’s CEO.

These continuing series of systems related incidents that are impacting the airline industry and its customer service perceptions and ranking have pertinence to multi-industry supply chain and customer fulfillment systems that have not been updated for many, many years.

There are many parallels. let’s briefly explore them.

Older transactional systems implemented twenty, ten or in some cases even five years ago, were specified with different operational and information technology business needs and requirements. These older systems represented the architecture of either centralized computing and data retrieval, or client-server based systems architectures. They were the manifestation that all transactions and data related to customers and operational business processes would be managed and controlled via a central IT backbone system that included lots of redundancy and back-up provisions. During their prior phases, they indeed served that purpose. They were also rather expensive representing millions of dollars of direct investments related to hardware, software, database and network management needs not to mention likewise investments in initial and ongoing systems integration and consulting needs.

But as we know all to-well, today’s business world is one of continuous and constant change, some of which is rather significant.  There are mergers and acquisitions involving other airlines and their respective processes and systems.  New customer revenue service programs have been added that included paid upgrades to premium seating, payment of baggage handling fees and increased needs for regulatory passenger security reporting have all added to systems needs and requirements.  Investors, Wall Street and private equity firms continue to, on-average, have a short-term expectation window for profitability and stockholder value. There seems waning tolerance for any larger-scale, big-bang, multi-year business and systems transformation efforts without the profitability and cash-flow benefits to sustain such efforts.

Similarly, the ongoing needs of online customer empowerment and self-service require the ability of smartphone and other mobile-based applications to inquire, modify and update reservations, check on airline mileage balances or flight status. This is the building conflict of customer needs for total and complete mobile-based enablement with applications and supporting systems that were never initially designed to support such needs and requirements. They are systems designed prior to Cloud based computing, software-driven hardware and in-memory computing technology and analytics driven operational decision-making that have made their presence in today’s technology landscape.

Yet, even though line-of-business and IT teams have become more increasingly knowledgeable in the benefits of these newer technologies, the risk of potential business disruption related to systems changes continues to haunt these teams.

We recently highlighted efforts by American Airlines toward a major IT system conversion that consolidated all of its pilots and planes onto what is described as single flight operating system. Such an effort required an immense amount of operational and IT staff pre-planning and preparations, as much as a reported 1.3 million hours of IT staff time alone, since it involved a collection of what was described as more than 500 applications that manage everything from dispatching of crews to movement of aircraft.

At the same time, American is now evaluating whether to move major portions of its customer website, including and other direct web-based customer enablement support applications to a totally Cloud-based deployment model.

There are indeed many implications for systems technology change not only for the airline industry but multi-industry supply chain transactional systems as-well. The increasing needs and expense or supporting Omni-channel and online customer fulfillment needs is taxing existing other systems and applications, some to the break point. Such systems will require bolder vision yet multi-year manifestations of continuous improvements that generate the business expense savings that can fund and add credence to the value of moving forward in the journey.

Cloud computing and other new technologies will add to the economics of IT deployment and ongoing operational cost savings especially when applications and systems become optimized for their respective core missions, be that managing operations, supporting online customer enablement or more informed business results oriented decision-making.

We close this blog commentary with a food analogy.

Mixing large batches of cookie dough for too long creates tougher and less satisfying cookies. Smaller batches, with different variation recipes focused on taste, take less mixing time with a more delightful overall eating experience. Similarly, cooking large batches of various sized spaghetti in one pot yields a pot of unappetizing pasta that is a mass of uniformly cooked and a real mess.

Invest staff and resource time in comprehensive multi-year applications and systems planning focused on specific output needs and requirements. Open your thinking to the benefits of advanced technology but in the context of more managed scope efforts and streaming economic and cash flow benefits for the business.

Bob Ferrari

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