Flying these days is safer than ever, but a power outage that led Delta Air Lines to cancel more than 1,500 flights worldwide Monday and Tuesday shows that passengers are enduring more delays and misery than ever.
The massive worldwide disruptions for Atlanta-based Delta came less than three weeks after Southwest Airlines canceled or delayed thousands of flights because of what it said was a computer router problem.
In both cases, the airlines blamed equipment that is neither particularly complex nor costly, and outside experts discarded the possibility that computer hackers might have caused the outage.
Instead, several said the failures at Delta and Southwest underscore a lack of spending on redundant systems that can absorb shocks and switch to back-ups, even as the airlines are racking up record profits.
Georgia Power, the utility that provides power to Delta’s headquarters, said Monday’s outage was triggered by the failure of a piece of electrical equipment known as a switch gear located within Delta’s facilities and controlled by the airline.
“In layman’s terms, it is like a fuse box. That’s what failed, and that’s what caused Delta’s outage,” said Craig Bell, a spokesman for Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Co.
“This is almost unforgiveable,” said Mark Weatherford, a senior adviser to the Chertoff Group, a Washington-based risk management and security consulting company. “How do you have a power outage? Every company should have redundant power. This is a big deal.”
Delta chief executive Ed Bastian apologized to passengers and said company teams were “working around the clock to restore our capabilities.”
By early Tuesday, the airline said it had canceled around 1,000 of its nearly 6,000 daily flights.
The carrier also canceled half as many flights by midday Tuesday in an effort to reset the system.
“We were able to bring our systems back on line and resume flights within a few hours yesterday,” said David Holtz, Delta’s senior vice president of operations, “but we are still operating in recovery mode.”
1,000 Number of canceled Delta flights on Monday
Delta said in a statement that the power outage began at around 2:30 a.m. Monday and “impacted Delta computer systems and operations worldwide.”
The Southwest Airlines outage hit July 20 and lasted about 12 hours, forcing the airline to cancel 2,300 flights over a five-day period and delay thousands more flights. The company blamed faulty routers for the disruption.
How do you have a power outage? Every company should have redundant power. This is a big deal.
Mark Weatherford, senior adviser, Chertoff Group
But the pilots’ and mechanics’ unions said Southwest’s chief executive had put too much focus on containing costs rather than upgrading outdated computer equipment. They demanded the ouster of chief executive Gary Kelly and chief operating officer Mike Van de Ven.
That didn’t happen.
Two major failures by two of the nation’s largest airlines during the busy summer travel months raise uncomfortable questions about what role, if any, the federal government should take to ensure that airlines operate efficiently and without undue burden on passengers.
“The person that ultimately takes it on the chin is the Southwest customer or the Delta customer. When I look at corporate boards of directors’ responsibility, I say, ‘Shame on you. You didn’t have backups,’ ” said William Arthur Conklin, an expert on electrical grids in the College of Technology at the University of Houston.
Monday’s incident raised also questions about how willing airlines are to make amends with inconvenienced customers.
The U.S. Department of Transportation lacks the authority to regulate airline customer service beyond a narrow set of issues, according to passenger advocates.
While the department can fine airlines tens of millions of dollars for safety violations, its penalties for non-safety related issues are much smaller, typically in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Charlie Leocha, the chairman and co-founder of Travelers United, an airline consumer advocacy group, said there’s no argument that the U.S. commercial aviation system is the safest it’s ever been.
“Airlines have never been safer based on crashes. Whatever they’re doing is working,” Leocha said. “Customer service? That’s another thing.”
Delta’s power outage and the failure of Southwest’s routers last month were no minor inconveniences. The problems at what are the nation’s second- and fourth-largest airlines, respectively, affected hundreds of thousands of passengers.
Airline routes are highly interconnected, and even minor disruptions can ripple far from the source of the problems. Computer outages affect reservation systems that are the backbone of airlines’ ticketing systems.
“Airlines today make their money from very tight scheduling. Small perturbations like this ripple through the system for many days,” said Martin C. Libicki, a senior management scientist and cyber expert at the RAND Corporation, a policy think tank with headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif.
Monday’s incident also raises questions about how willing airlines are to make amends to inconvenienced customers.
The federal government has no rule that would address the problems Delta passengers experienced on Monday. What rules exist address problems such as deceptive marketing and advertising of fares, tarmac delays, overbooking or compliance with disabilities access requirements.
“There really are no customer service rules or mandates,” Leocha said.
There really are no customer service rules or mandates.
Charlie Leocha, chairman and co-founder, Travelers United
Delta is waiving the change fees for any Monday or Tuesday flight that is rebooked through Friday. However, customers would have to pay the difference between the original and new tickets. And if they didn’t rebook their flights by Friday, change fees of as much as $500 would apply.
Airlines made more than $2.8 billion in change fees in 2013, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Airlines today make their money from very tight scheduling. Small perturbations like this ripple through the system for many days.
Martin C. Libicki, senior management scientist and cyber expert, RAND Corporation
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said Delta should do more than just waive the change fees for affected customers, who should be able to rebook on their own schedule.
“Full compensation or free, flexible rebooking for missed flights and ruined travel plans is what’s fair and right,” he said in a statement.
Full compensation or free, flexible rebooking for missed flights and ruined travel plans is what’s fair and right.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
For example, the European Union requires carriers to reimburse passengers up to about $660 for delays of three hours or longer. Delta said it would offer $200 in travel vouchers to all customers who experienced a delay Monday of greater than three hours, a far smaller benefit.
Southwest gave its passengers two weeks to rebook at the same price as the original ticket. The airline, unusual among large domestic carriers, does not charge change fees.
Leocha said that airlines have fought new rules designed to protect passengers’ rights, but once they’re in place, they can be effective.
For example, he noted that there were more than 600 major tarmac delays a year prior to a 2010 rule prohibiting airlines from keeping passengers in a plane on a tarmac for more than three hours. That rule gave the department the authority to fine airlines as much as $27,500 per passenger per flight.
After the rule took effect, the number of such delays plummeted to fewer than 10 a year.
“It’s so dramatically better,” Leocha said.
$660 Reimbursement delayed European Union passengers are eligible to receive.
Conklin of the University of Houston noted it’s not just airlines that have put off investment in hopes of bettering the bottom line.
“We have tons of aging infrastructure in lots of companies because of costs,” Conklin said. “More and more in our ‘critical’ stuff, we find a way to make it not critical so we don’t have to back it up.”
This story has been updated.
Tim Johnson: @timjohnson4