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IT failure grounds Delta flights worldwide

US airline Delta has temporarily grounded flights worldwide after a power failure took key IT systems offline in its home base of Atlanta, Georgia

Delta Air Lines has been forced to suspend its worldwide operations after a power failure disrupted its IT systems, knocking out key operations including automated check-in kiosks for departing passengers.

The Atlanta-based carrier, which usually operates thousands of scheduled flights every day, confirmed the outage at around 10am UK time on the morning of 8 August.

In a statement on its website, Delta said: “A power outage in Atlanta, which began at approximately 2:30am EST [7:30am UK time], has impacted Delta computer systems and operations worldwide, resulting in flight delays. Large-scale cancellations are expected today. All flights en route are operating normally.”

The outage caused disruption at airports around the world, forcing ground staff to manually check in arriving passengers where possible. Delta also warned of “some lag time in the display of accurate flight status at delta.com, the Fly Delta app and from Delta representatives on the phone and in airport”.

It lifted the order grounding its planes at 1:40pm UK time, and also issued a waiver allowing affecting passengers to rebook without charge on services operating until Friday 12 August.

Tweeting their annoyance

At London’s Heathrow Airport, passengers took to social media to complain of hour-long wait times at the check-in desks.

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “Delta flights from Heathrow are experiencing delays due to the worldwide technical issue with their computer systems. Check-in is currently operating using a backup system, and airport staff are on hand to assist any passengers that are impacted by the delays. Passengers should check with the airline for updates on their flights.”

Delta disclosed no further information about the extent of the IT outage. At the time of writing it said it had cancelled 300 out of 6,000 scheduled flights, and hoped to operate 800 more.

Network problems persist

Delta’s IT failure comes hot on the heels of a similar outage affecting US low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines, which cancelled over 1,000 flights on 20 and 21 July after a networking hardware failure that also hit its backup and disaster recovery systems.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, who has since faced calls to resign, said the Dallas-based airline lost between $5m and $10m in revenue due to the outage.

Last year, Delta competitors American Airlines and United Airlines suffered system outages of their own. In American Airlines’ case, the disruption, which centred on its Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth and Miami hubs, was blamed on “connectivity issues”, while United also pointed the finger at a faulty router.

Growing disruption?

This litany of failures has prompted some aviation industry watchers to speculate that as airlines invest more and more in IT systems designed to make life easier for passengers, the risk of such disruptive outages increases.

However, aviation journalist John Walton of Runway Girl Network said this was not necessarily his impression.

Walton said: “The aviation industry has always had the problem of bespoke legacy systems integrating poorly with wider industry technologies, the specifications for which are often set by a rather unholy combination of a UN body (ICAO) and an airline trade group (IATA).

“But with a round of airline mergers in the last decade, any one incident becomes much more high profile. Where this might not be global news for a smaller airline 15 or 20 ago, the combined size of airlines like Delta, American, United and Southwest in the US or the increasingly integrated Air France-KLM, IAG (BA-Iberia-Aer Lingus-Vueling) and Lufthansa (Swiss-Austrian-Eurowings-Brussels) means that a failure affects more flights and more passengers.”

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Walton added: “There are questions to be asked, however, about the type of IT issues that are not restricted to aviation – like the power cut that seems to have caused today’s chaos.”

He also made the point that it was scarely credible that “a power failure in one location can take out a global airline with 13 hub airports spanning the globe. It may well be that the global supercarriers need to improve their IT resilience and multi-location fallback systems to prevent this sort of thing in the future.”

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I fear that travelers will be far more annoyed when the problem isn't a random power outage but a directed attack. It's pretty clear that the next war/disagreement/confrontation will include a power failure. Almost everyone has been told that our ancient power grid is far too vulnerable, yet we keep piling on more responsibilities and pretending that it's good enough. By now we should know that it's not.
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