How the Airlines Can Make Their Systems, and Air Travel, More Reliable

Next Generation Communications Blog

How the Airlines Can Make Their Systems, and Air Travel, More Reliable

By: Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC

If you traveled by air this summer, consider yourself lucky if you made it to your destination on time. It was a tough summer for both the airlines and for passengers, as IT issues in both July and August led to widespread delays and flight cancellations in the U.S. and beyond.

Most recently, a software update to a plane routing system at an FAA control center in Leesburg, Va., led to what some are now calling Flypocalypse.

The En Route Automation Modernization system routes planes through 160,000 square miles of airspace over Washington, according to The Washington Post, but on Aug. 15 it was unable to handle that important task. “For several hours, the system that processes flight plans at the center stopped functioning for reasons that are still unclear,” according to the Post.

The result: The delay or cancellation of hundreds of flights nationwide and a sea of frustrated passengers.

The August event followed by just more than a month another airline system glitch that had even more widespread repercussions.

In early July, the busiest month of the year for air travel, a router malfunction in United Airlines’ reservation system led to big delays at the company’s Chicago, Denver, and Houston hubs ­– negatively impacting a reported 400,000 passengers.

As happened during the August event, many stranded passengers in July lit up social media with their complaints.

The problem with the system – which in addition to selling tickets is used to create gate assignments, manage aircraft movement, schedule pilots and flight attendants, and track maintenance schedules – led United Airlines to ground all its planes from 8 to 9:49 a.m. on July 8, according to The Washington Post, which noted the airline also grounded several flights the previous month.

Given the complexity of predicting weather, of airplanes themselves, and of all the people and systems involved in scheduling planes for takeoff and orchestrating them en route and at landing, it’s kind of amazing that things work as well as they do most of the time. But it’s tough to have that perspective when you’re a passenger who’s been waiting for hours at the airport, or a stakeholder in an airline, for which time is money.

The good news is that there are proven technologies in which airlines, some of which are reporting record profits, can invest to make their systems – and in turn, their businesses – more reliable.

One of those solutions for helping make aviation travel less chaotic is IP/MPLS services.

IP/MPLS is a communications network architecture that can prevent problems like minor router failures from grounding flights, noted Thierry Sens, marketing director of transportation and oil & gas segments for Alcatel-Lucent. In a July blog, Don’t let unreliable IP routers ruin your airline’s reputation, Sens notes that IP/MPLS offers high network availability and resiliency via its fast reroute, link aggregation group, non-stop routing, and non-stop services capabilities.

The technology also features embedded security via network access control, network group, encryption, and traffic anomaly detection. That’s important in this day and age of frequent and high-profile network and system breaches, as we need to closely guard the key infrastructure that is our transportation system, and protect the passengers and airline employees. 

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