Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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When Airlines Go Bad ...
August 11, 2016 -- What did we learn this week on the road? Airlines in crisis react exactly as they do when things are running like clockwork.
A computer failure at Delta Air Lines during the early hours of Monday morning threw the carrier into chaos. Tens of thousands of displaced passengers were fed alibis and told Delta was better than the available evidence showed. The airline was slow to allow travelers to change flights ahead of the next day's cancellations and $200 make-good vouchers are only going to customers that Delta deems "significantly affected." Almost all of the Delta flyers I've spoken are annoyed by the carrier's arrogance and cavalier approach.
Compare that to how Southwest Airlines reacted last month when it ran into an equally serious computer meltdown. Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly rapidly apologized and took the blame immediately. Southwest then peppered customers with 50 percent off vouchers that saved flyers hundreds of dollars on future travel. Virtually all of the Southwest flyers I talked to were filled with praise for the airline's apparently genuine remorse and tangible expression of regret.
Of course, no good or bad deed goes unpunished in travel. Delta's we're-better-than-the-other guys posturing has taken a serious hit after three days of tumult. And as my colleague Lewis Lazare details, Southwest CEO Kelly faces an employee insurrection.
Here are seven other things we learned this week as a result of the computer failures at two of the nation's largest carriers.
Airlines throw shade. Never believe what an airline initially tells you about the cause of a meltdown. It's probably a lie, especially when they blame an outside supplier. Case in point: On Monday morning, when it grounded flights worldwide, Delta blamed a "power failure" at its Atlanta headquarters. The implication, of course, was that the local utility screwed up. Georgia Power, the utility in question, quickly pushed back, noting out that no one else in Atlanta was affected. Delta eventually admitted the disruption was internal.
Airlines make it up. Run for the hills (or another carrier) when an airline says that it is in crisis but your flight is miraculously on schedule. They are literally making things up since a systems outage will usually affect everything: website, check-in kiosks, the so-called PSS (passenger service system) computers and anything involved with managing aircraft and the crews to operate them. Case in point: One business traveler told me Monday that his wife arrived at Delta's Detroit/Metro hub and was assured her noon flight to Orlando would operate normally. Departure time came and went, the flight was eventually cancelled and her replacement didn't depart until around 6 p.m. Meltdowns spare few. Don't assume you're one of the lucky ones.
Airlines scrimp on IT. Every airlines systems meltdown is national news now since we're down to four massive carriers (Delta, United, American, Southwest) and some alternate gadflies like JetBlue and Alaska Airlines. But airline investment in information technology clearly hasn't kept up with their passion for consolidation. Airlines spend about 3 percent of revenue on IT. That's less than half what they probably should invest for solid operations and reliable back-up systems, according to Chris McKewon, founder of Xceptional Networks, a technology consulting firm. "For large corporations like airlines, it should be in the 7-8 percent range," he suggests. Both Delta and Southwest admitted that their back-up systems didn't work properly. No surprise, says McKewon. "Redundant systems cost almost as much as [primary systems] and if a company has 99.9 percent uptime, redundancy is often the first budget item that gets trimmed."
Airlines are too complex. Delta says its power problem began about 2:30 a.m. on Monday and was solved before 8:40 a.m. How does a six-hour crisis create a rolling, multi-day nightmare that, by 8 p.m. on Wednesday, created more than 2,000 cancellations and 6,500 delays? Simple answer: Airlines are too complex. The hub-and-spoke system forces many travelers to fly multiple segments instead of a nonstop. That increases the chance for delays, cancellations and busted itineraries. Worse, airlines move aircraft and flight crews around the world in a convoluted manner that maximizes the possibility of extended disruptions. Even Southwest, which moves a greater percentage of travelers on a point-to-point basis than other airlines, is not immune. Its meltdown last month, blamed on a bad router, turned a 12-hour crisis into several days of massive delays and cancellations.
Airlines don't work together. Business travelers like to fantasize that carriers have our backs, especially when they create the problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even the simplest solution — accepting each other's tickets during irregular operations — is no longer a given. Southwest has never accepted tickets from another airline and other carriers don't accept Southwest's scrip. And Delta made its travelers suffer this week because it terminated its so-called interline deal with American Airlines. That means Delta and American no longer honor each other's tickets.
Airlines won't take your call. Ever since the late 1990s, airlines have pushed us to the internet to make ticket purchases and arrange flight changes. That has allowed them to slash staffing at their call centers and at airport ticket counters. In fact, airlines employ hundreds of thousands fewer people today than two decades ago. It doesn't matter much when computer ops work as they should. But when there's a systems meltdown — or a snowstorm — it all goes haywire. The thinned-out staff at the airports can't cope and call centers become hopelessly clogged. Wait times exceeded five hours at Delta this week. The result? Nearly complete gridlock.
Airlines will make it 'worse.' If you think the Southwest and Delta meltdowns — and last year's computer problems at United and American — will make airlines rethink their commitment to technology, forget it. If anything, carriers are pushing forward with tech solutions: more self-service airport kiosks, more tasks shifted to phone apps and more computers and fewer people. We can only hope the airlines will up their IT budgets and use them wisely.
With all this airline activity stacked against us, is there any way to protect ourselves during a meltdown? The answer: Do your homework.
Always know your alternative flight options before you go to the airport. If you find your carrier misfiring, you can immediately move to Plan B without waiting on line or waiting on hold. Always know your lodging options at or around the airport, too.
Most important of all? Don't wait for the airline to transfer your ticket to another airline or to find you a hotel room during a busted itinerary. Buy what you need on your own immediately. Fight for compensation later and, if the airline balks, bring your credit card company into the equation and contest any unfair charges.