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How can aviation save millions on major IT outages?

Bill Curtis, senior vice president and chief scientist at independent software vendor CAST, looks at how airlines and airports can prevent a huge financial loss in the event of technical failure.

Nine-digit defects are major IT outages that can cost businesses hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, putting C-level jobs at risk.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, ground stoppages often caused by software malfunctions are estimated to cost the airline industry US$8.7bn per year.

In August last year, Delta Airlines canceled more than 2,300 flights due to ‘technical issues’, costing the company over US$150m. Those issues were caused by several hundred computers not properly connected to Delta’s backup systems during a fire emergency.

The following month, tens of thousands of British Airways passengers experienced long delays. A software glitch caused BA staff to manually process passengers with handwritten boarding passes.

The airline industry is not the only sector vulnerable to IT glitches affecting its business operations. In recent years, many banks and retail chains have also fallen victim to nine-digit IT defects.

However, the consequences of airline outages are much more visible – terminals filled with delayed passengers complaining on social media, while news outlets capture video. Few industries require such complex and interlaced logistics on a global scale to conduct basic business operations.

Yet, a question arises: when airlines use some of the most sophisticated avionics software ever written to fly their airplanes, why do they fail to build IT systems of equal reliability? There is no simple answer, but here are a few factors to consider:

 

• The airline industry uses a vast array of systems that must interact seamlessly, such as reservation, check-in, baggage handling, cargo, no-fly checks, fuel projection and flight planning, to name a few. When one of these systems fails, the consequences can be global.

• As the airline industry grows, its systems increase in complexity. A single IT professional or team cannot be expected to understand all the systems and their complex interactions.

• Each of these many systems were created in different generations by different companies, increasing the complexity and challenges of interconnecting them.

• Mergers force IT systems, infrastructure and processes to be rationalized and combined, creating multiple opportunities for injecting new flaws.

• Some operations are less reliable due to under-investment in staffing, training and infrastructure. However, some infrastructure shortcomings, such as inadequate bandwidth and poor backup, are easier to amend than more complicated software issues.

 

How can these problems be addressed, even with the progressive advancements in airline operations? Here are some suggestions:

• Immediately set up a meticulous dependability assurance program. Before each deployment, assess all crucial operational systems for defects and engineering integrity. Most operational incidents, which occur more often than reach the press, are due to structural errors in the source code of computer systems.

It is critical that these IT applications are assessed at the system level. Flawed interactions within the software system are the culprits for many tragic incidents. System-level defects can only be detected by evaluating the system from user entry points, through its business logic, querying of the database, interaction with other systems, and response back to the user. Ensuring such reliability is not cheap.

However, it is compensated by the ROI, which is large compared with nine-digit defects. High-quality software is quicker to develop, has much cheaper maintenance and can be more rapidly enhanced at the pace of business.

• Building software-intensive systems requires time and resources to be precise and professional. Rushing this work will result in astronomical costs for rectifying mistakes, and covering the damages of serious incidents.

• Software delivered by a third party must be thoroughly tested, including structural analysis, before being placed in operation. Likewise, vendors should be evaluated before contracting, ensuring their development practices are rigorous and key staff are retained throughout the project.

 

As airline operations advance in complexity, IT systems must parallel the intricacy of business operations. Integrating systems from different generations creates another level of complexity, which can be solved through IT modernization.

Moreover, poor planning, contorted designs, rushed projects and inadequate testing are common factors that can add to the risks of IT systems. Failure to address these issues will force airports to prepare for mass camping at terminals.

May 19, 2017

 

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