When airlines outgrow their computers

An American Airlines passenger Luciara Miranda waits to be helped at the ticket counter at Miami International Airport on April 16, 2013 in Miami, Fla. Thousands of American Airlines travelers became stranded today when the airline was forced to ground all its flights after a nationwide problem with its computer systems.

It's not clear what caused American's problems with its computer system.

“American’s not telling anyone exactly one happened,” said Brett Snyder, who runs the blog crankyflier.com. He says all we know is that American Airlines was unable to access its reservation system, known as Sabre*, along with other systems. “And so American was unable to do a lot of things that are required of daily business."

Among them: call up its passenger list, print boarding passes, track bags and even help calculate the weight of the plane. When an airline loses touch with its computers,  it’s as if it were brain dead. American Airlines CEO Tom Horton went on YouTube yesterday to apologize and explained that it did have “redundancies” -- computer speak for back-ups -- but those failed too.

But that has some airline watchers saying the aging computer system itself is the problem, said Joe Brancatelli, the publisher of Joesentme.com, a website for business travelers.

“The Sabre system that American Airlines uses dates back to the 1950s**,” Brancatelli said.

Back then, fewer people flew and most tasks were done by hand. Brancatelli says to grow, the airlines started to computerize. But since then, the number of fliers has exploded, airlines have merged and the business has become incredibly complex.

“Rather than stop and start again, they’re always upgrading, updating changing stuff that was built in the 1950s,” Brancatelli said.

And computer systems really start to show their age when airlines merge. A little more than a year ago, United and Continental teamed up, they merged their computer systems, there was chaos for months. Brancetelli says given what happened yesterday, if the American and US Air merger goes through, we could be in for a replay.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly misspelled the name of American Airline's reservation system. It is Sabre. **The system was developed in 1960.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.
Log in to post6 Comments

I used to think Marketplace was a reputable newscast, until I heard this tripe of a story. Full of inaccuracies and unsupported opinions (her first quoted source is someone who goes by the name “crankyflier,” for pete’s sake), with no attempt to get a balanced view from either travel company involved. (BTW - they are separate companies, and have been since the 1990s.) This kind of ‘journalism’ makes me question: is this indicative of the kind of reporting you promote? What other stories on Marketplace are fluff pieces? Poorly played, Marketplace, poorly played.

I work for Sabre and would like to correct some inaccurate information in this story. First, as another reader already pointed out, our company's name is misspelled. It is Sabre.

Second, American Airlines made it clear that Sabre and our reservations system had nothing to do with the situation they experienced on Tuesday.

Our reservations system operated as normal all day, as did all airlines using our system. American Airlines, including CEO Tom Horton, explained that a network connectivity issue had impacted virtually all of the airline's systems. Put another way, the highway on which the car (our res system) was on was blocked. The car itself was fine.

Equally as important, Mr. Brancatelli's comment that "the Sabre system American uses dates back to the 1950s," is incorrect. Sabre launched the first computerized reservation system with American Airlines in 1960 and in the years since has continually enhanced our systems and new platforms have taken over. Furthermore, Sabre’s current version of its reservation system uses the latest and best technology available incorporating big data, business intelligence, analytics and all the capabilities to not just book passengers on flights but run the airline’s departure control and work in concert with operational systems to organize and efficiently run all the complexities of operating an airline.

Our reservation system is offered as a complete Software as a Service product. Global leading airlines Etihad, LAN, Virgin, Aeroflot, AeroMexico, are just some of the airlines that migrated to our reservations system in the last two years alone.

Like other technology companies with a long and rich history, we constantly develop new technologies, use new platforms (we have over 10,000 open systems) and use only the latest hardware and software in order to meet the demands of today's travel industry. Our technology is constantly evolving to meet the needs of all travel suppliers, including airlines, and buyers.

As Sabre has continued to evolve and grow, so have our customers, including American Airlines. The average age of our hardware is three-years-old. We process billions of travel transactions; during peak times, we process 85,000 transactions per second. That simply could not be done with systems that date back to the 1950s, as Mr. Brancatelli claims.

One suspects that the story and Mr. St. Pierre are both right re: the date(s) that Sabre came into being. While Sabre did not actually begin to function until the 1960's (1962 I believe), the system was under design and development in the late 1950's -- initially as a part of a system to be mutually developed by the airlines. But the "politics" of airline relationships stumbled and American took a "defensively aggressive" action to ensure that it would be an early adapter. As it turned out, their "defensively aggressive" move resulted in Sabre being first. But the system was developed as spin-off of the system that had actually be designed in the 1950's. Notwithstanding ... compared to today's technology platforms, the 1950'/1960' era solutions might be viewed as horse-and-buggy efforts. The airline industry (and IBM in particular) has managed to append rocket-legs and jets to that horse-and-buggy solution in the industry's effort to meet buyer and traveler needs; let alone, new operational and flight-systems capabilities. A few airlines and/or their hosting partners ... are beginning to transition to newer more contemporary platforms. It will be interesting to see if the new "merged American" uses the merger as an opportunity to transform itself to a newer platform; or if its senior management opts to stick with the legacy platforms of the past. Sticking with the past solutions will likely prove a greater challenge than if both airlines were to move to one of the new technology platforms. However, these senior managers grew up in the industry and became successful using the legacy systems; and they are not likely to venture down a "new" technology path. Among other things, careers are at stake; as well as embedded cultures and fiefdoms. The mindset of the incoming management team will probably not be sufficiently risk-taking enough to take on that challenge. Neither current management team of either airline have demonstrated any real understanding of the role that technology will play in the future of the airline business. MOO (my opinion only)

Being that the nature of this outage was likely network related the error could have been on either side or even both. The fact that there was this much effort in defending Sabre speaks volumes, however I'm not confident in any public statement from AA or Sabre in regards to the outage. I am sure there could be clauses in either contract to restrict public information about the other company.

I received a alert this AM that Sabre now needs a Network Engineer Manager <<< although since this AM its been removed. To me this is a interesting indication that "something" contributed to the new position request.

anyone can verify that by searching sabre network engineer manager on simplyhired . com that's a really funny coincidence for nothing to do with the AA outage.

I completely agree that the system has to be more current than the 50s, but how much of a story would there be if the wasnt some fluff

I live where both of these companies are and I can confirm that they are both having trouble staffing in the network department. I know because I have interviewed at both and this type of outage was one of the things they discussed if certain errors came up. I am glad that neither company was a good fit for me. I am sure there is a few more openings now :)

BTW the company name should be Sabre : Sabre Holdings www>>sabre<<com in case anyone might be interested in a network engineer job :)

Lazy reporting. While it may not be clear what caused the problem, it is clear it had nothing to do with Sabre. Read the American Twitter feed @AmericanAir.

With Generous Support From...