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US Federal Government Will Investigate Southwest Airlines Cancellations

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says his agency will investigate what caused the unusually large number of flight cancellations over the holiday weekend. The company’s pilot and flight attendant unions said that Southwest ignored the need to upgrade its outdated computer systems, which contributed to the airline’s troubles in the face of winter storms.


  • One of the first nationwide database applications was the American Airlines passenger reservation system, SABRE. AA built a new building in Briarcliff manor NY to house it. I trained under the developers of that system. (Yes, I have been in IT since the 50s.) Forty years later I worked on an engagement for British Airways. Passenger reservation occupied a couple of servers but equipment and crew scheduling, getting equipment and crew where the passengers were, was the big money making application. It is this system that failed Southwest. It did not fail because of hardware or software but simply because the design did not meet the requirements of the application. It did not have the data. And this in a world in which every crew member carries a network connected mobile computer.
  • I am reminded of how hard it is to truly implement high availability (HA) with effective fail-over. While technology has advanced to make this easier, getting there from here takes concentrated effort, staffing and IT investment, including documenting interdependencies. Your applications have to be engineered for this architecture. Layer on top of that the complexities introduced with so much distributed and virtualized infrastructure, I’ve seen an increase in unexpected glitches, as we are all learning on the fly; it’s a good thing we don’t have adversaries looking for opportunities to take advantage of any weakness – oh wait…
  • Unfortunate for travelers this event was the perfect storm – weather, volume, outdated computer systems, and processes. As organizations grow market share through mergers and acquisitions, the need to architect company IT systems and processes becomes critically important. Southwest Airlines experienced a similar event several months ago: that should have been ample indication of a serious infrastructure problem. Lesson re-learned.


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