What Today’s United Computer Glitch Tells Us About the State of the Airline

This morning’s computer outage at United caused delays for about 5000 flights. With planes out of position, and some crew likely to hit maximum duty hours, the effects will last through tomorrow.

The FAA instituted a ground stop at about 8:30 Eastern this morning, but lifted it for United Express flights after 15 minutes. It was in place for ~ 80 minutes for United mainline aircraft.

Delays though were generally longer than the ordered ground stop and it took time to bring operations back to speed.

This morning I told the Associated Press‘ Scott Mayerowitz,

“We don’t know everything behind this morning’s issues yet, but today’s incident underscores the sense that something is very wrong at United,” said Gary Leff, co-founder of frequent-flier website MilePoint.

United suffered computer outages last month, not to mention in February 2014, November 2012, and August 2012. And of course United’s computer system integration in March 2012 created operational chaos as agents unfamiliar with the new systems had difficulty with missing reservations and telephone hold times backed up for hours.

Coming off a June in which the airline’s on-time performance was materially worse than American’s and Southwest’s (and not just leaders Delta and Alaska) — and since this is another in a long string of computer failures that have paused operations at the airline over the past three years (things happen at all airlines, they just seem to happen more often with United) — it’s beginning to feel like there’s something wrong operationally with the airline.

All of these events may be completely unconnected. I’m skeptical that I’m hearing the full story on the day of an event, so wouldn’t suggest that today’s outage (which may have been related to “a router” and we’ll eventually learn whether United’s outage was related to other outages today in the Northeast such as the New York Stock Exchange) is related to last month’s problems. Or that it’s related to last month’s on-time performance, which Cranky Flier suggests is driven by a mechanics’ job action.

United could be the victim of a string of bad luck, where these things happen to them more often than others out of random coincidence. It does seem, though, like United’s made their own bad luck.

A year ago the airline lost half a billion dollars in a quarter. The price of oil dropping probably saved Jeff Smisek’s job as CEO though they made very bad commodities futures bets as well and United’s operating margins still lag the rest of the industry.

The airline has finally been playing catchup on inflight wireless internet and investing in onboard and lounge product, but right now at least it appears they’re continuing to fail to get the basics right.

I never did learn what caused Continental’s board to push CEO Larry Kellner out — legendary Gordon Bethune’s hand-picked successor — but it was that move which put Smisek at the top just as Continental took over United.

Continental had been seen at the time as the best operational carrier in the industry, so in many ways just what United needed. It hasn’t worked out that way. And 15 years since United’s pilot slowdown that became known as “the Summer From Hell” I have to wonder whether the airline has gotten better in that time or not.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @mark you never miss a change to add snark. What else would I write about on my personal blog… I’ve only put photos of my dog on here a couple of times!

  2. Oh lay off him Mark. Gary is a good blogger, and if you’re going to criticize make it something substantial on the few occasions such criticism is warranted, not stupid petty stuff like this

  3. I’d say that AP article is biased by Flyertalk vitriol. An outage with no known cause is chalked up to ‘Continental integration.’ What a joke.

    Regardless…

    As Bethune said, United was infected by a certain STD. And it’s hard to rid of that.

    UA has been a mess for over 20 years. The board and the rest of the industry know that. Which is why this mgmt team isn’t under fire.

    Too bad the US/UA merger in 1999 didn’t go through. Then the whole mess of 2 bad airlines would have liquidated.

  4. The Wall Street Journal today cited a computer malfunction in 2012 that caused a United jet to take off 20,000 lbs. heavier than expected. The flight crew reportedly had difficulty getting the plane in the air. If this is true, this is a serious issue and perhaps indicative of larger issues at UAL. Fortunately, I bailed out of UA in 2012 after 1.5 million miles and never looked back.

  5. @mark Don’t like the headlines/content/writer/whatever DON’T VISIT THE SITE!
    Jeeeeeesus, It’s YOUR choice to visit this corner of the internet, and none of us can stop you. But can you make a choice to shut your keyboard yap hole if you think the post doesn’t live up to your indescribably nit-picky judgemental criteria?

    If your point is to convey that you / noone should give weight to or care about Gary’s writing/comments, trust me that NO ONE cares about your comments and their value. It is tiresome.

  6. There is hope for United. Management has a big effect on airline performance, and management changes. For example, Continental was great under Six, lousy under Lorenzo, and great under Bethune. United just needs to find the right CEO.

  7. You are a lowly travel blogger. Stay that way. Don’t try to rise above your position and pretend you know anything about how to run an airline (or anything else for that matter, apart from meeting minimum spends). Today’s incident does not necessarily underscore that something is “very wrong” at United. Stop being a pompous a**.

    No, I don’t work for UA. I hate it as much as any other airlines.

  8. Inside info is saying another router failure at their one data center. Express wasn’t effected as the contract carriers run on their own infrastructure. Express carriers resumed flying just to not violate their contractual delay obligations and UA didn’t appear to order a halt. Lots of ongoing questions and concerns

  9. Whether it’s bad luck or a bad router shouldn’t matter. Any company should have business continuity plans for such incidents to minimize the impact on operations. Those plans, back-up systems/procedures cost money and UA has apparently decided to spend less money and accept more risk to operations. I agree with Gary that this does tell you something about the state of UA and it’s not good…

  10. Something has been very wrong at United for over a decade. It boggles the mind that they managed to be one of the 3 remaining legacies.

  11. Rupert has nailed it (as did Gary). Incidents like broken routers are entirely foreseeable. Moreover, this incident is but the latest in a string of IT mishaps. The fact that UA (1) has not devoted sufficient resources to fix the problem and (2) does not have sufficient redundancy and backup systems in place demonstrates gross mismanagement and a lack of accountability by senior management. Thus the inevitable conclusion that something is very wrong at UA.

    Many of us fly UA because we have no other choice due to corporate contracts. So we are stuck until the problems are fixed (or we switch employers). I am just thankful I have not been flying on the days from hell and have thus enjoyed mostly good experiences with UA (assuming that’s not an oxymoron)

  12. A bit of clarification, the ground stop was requested by United. It’s common in scenarios such as these, the wording implies the FAA took action independently.

  13. ( some other ) Gary says ” You’re just a lowly travel blogger . Don’t try to … pretend that you know anything about how to run an airline . ” Obviously United is in good hands lately , right ? Or in other words the bar is not that high . Gary Leff could most likely make helpful contributions . He’s a very good blogger too !

  14. Flying 115k miles a year domestic and international from the DC area means I’m pretty much stuck with UA. I had 10 flights in June, all on United, and only 1 was on-time. Several others had serious ‘mechanical’ issues.

    Something is definitely wrong. An IT problem like a lack of redundancy on routers is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Operationally they are just terrible. It’s unfortunate because the flight crews, at least in my experience, are pretty great.

  15. As a GS, I now fly DL (if I care about getting to my destination in a timely manner) or AA (if I don’t have to be there in a timely manner). Even though I have connections now, I don’t mind cause everything just runs on time and usually gets me faster (and more pleasantly) to my destination than on UA. It’s so sad. Every year there’s issues after issues after issues. The CEO promises to fix it but then it happens again. I hate flying this airline.

    When seatmates (once a whole cabin) ask about my GS status on the few times I do fly UA, I just tell them to fly AA/DL or a foreign carrier. Their shocked looks are priceless :).

  16. Dana, I’m a DC area resident as well. I live in Logan Circle. I don’t feel “stuck” with UA. In fact, last September I abandoned UA for DL and the only gripe I have is that I didn’t do it sooner. I’ve gone from an atrocious on time rate to arriving on time, if not early, more than 95% of the time. What few delays I experience are almost always truly weather in nature; I’ve had one mechanical delay on DL that resulted in me arriving at my destination more than 30 minutes late.

    I fly nearly every week for work, and average around 150,000-175,000 miles per year for domestic work trips, and a mix of domestic and international personal travel. Sure, I have to connect, but I also fly out of DCA nearly every trip, instead of trucking it out to IAD for a UA nonstop, and the time saved in commuting helps offset the time added by connections. I also have enjoyed a better upgrade rate, a much better mix of mainline aircraft to regional jets (I haven’t flown a single 50 seat RJ since switching to DL), and service that’s far friendlier. Yes, SkyMiles has some legitimate downsides, but I’d rather pay a bit more for awards and have stress-free, enjoyable travel every week than have a slightly better awards program (and MileagePlus has seen a lot of cuts in the past 18 months) with constant delays and grumpy employees. DC has great options on airlines other than UA, so don’t feel like you’re a hub captive with no alternatives. That’s simply not true.

  17. “Incidents like broken routers are entirely foreseeable.”

    This is only true with hindsight. As much as we’d like to think we’re great at predicting what will break and how to prevent that, we’re not. We (I’m referring here to the tech/IT industry) doesn’t work that way and we never have.
    We can try and be creative and assess risk, and we should do.
    But it’s never appropriate to turn around with the benefit of hindsight and say “whoa that should have been obvious.”
    If it should have been obvious, it would have been, and it would have been made more resilient.

    I’m not excusing any other issues at United, we all know they’re not perfect. But let’s not jump to conclusions or assume “obvious” links where we have no evidence of them existing.

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