Airline tech increasingly at risk due to legacy systems

Airline tech increasingly at risk due to legacy systems

Problems experienced by Delta and BA are down to decades old mainframe systems being integrated with new tech, Syntel’s Srinath Mallya tells Ian Taylor

Major airlines are at increasing risk of system breakdowns due to the challenges of integrating digital technology with old booking systems.

That is view of Srinath Mallya, head of travel and logistics at US technology firm Syntel.

Delta Air Lines suffered a major systems malfunction in early August after a power outage brought down its Atlantabased reservations system causing multiple delays and the cancellation of 650 flights. This followed a problem at the Dallas data centre of Southwest Airlines in July.

Delta declined to comment on the shutdown. But Mallya said: “A lot of airlines have had similar problems.” He identifies the source as “mainframe systems that are decades old”, saying: “Many industries use legacy systems. Banking and retail have also been hit. What is peculiar to airlines are Transaction Processing Framework (TPF) reservations systems.

“These TPF systems excel at processing high volumes of transactions. They are also used for processing card payments. They can process hundreds of thousands of transactions per second and are highly reliable.

“But customers want mobile access, personalisation, new forms of payment, loyalty payments, and there are flight-planning and crew-planning systems on top. It becomes a patchwork of new and old systems, a patchwork of integrations. Fault lines develop around the integrations and make the system unreliable.”

Mallya said: “A power outage could affect any system, but a modern system would be more reliable.

“The basic architecture of a modern system is distributed so there are multiple nodes to handle transactions. Power outages are generally localised. A distributed system allows you to deal with that. Also, most modern systems have automatic monitoring. If there is a problem, they switch to another node without the end‑user knowing.”

Until recently, switching was a problem for airlines. Mallya said: “It used to take four to five years and tens of millions of dollars. But now, with newer technology, airlines could migrate from a legacy system within 12-18 months.”

How Power outages disrupt airports, airlines and passengers


Delta suffered a power outage, or failure, at its Atlanta headquarters in the early hours of August 8. Engineers from Georgia Power concluded it was caused by a switchgear failure.

The airline told passengers: “Our systems are down. Some critical systems and network equipment didn’t switch over to Delta’s back-up systems.” The carrier cancelled about 10% of its daily schedule. Many more flights were delayed.

However, partner Virgin Atlantic was unaffected Southwest Airlines suffered a similar problem on July 20, cancelling 2,300 flights over four days.

A systems outage has immediate knock-on effects as flights can’t take off, airport gates remain occupied so arriving aircraft can’t disembark passengers, crew can’t change flights and aircraft and crew are out of position.

Analysts warn carriers face increasing risk of disruption as the technology for everything from bookings to boarding passes is integrated.

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