Recent Southwest and Delta Outages Expose Huge Technology Risks

technology risks, business continuityJust in the last month, two of the country’s largest airlines experienced massive technology outages that reverberated throughout their entire operation(s) during the peak summer travel season.

The first outage occurred on July 20 when a computer meltdown led to the grounding of Southwest flights over a 3-day period. Although flights could land, the computer glitch prevented flights from leaving many of the cities Southwest serves, including most flights at its Chicago hub. In total, over 2000 flights were affected by the outage.

However, Southwest’s woes were pale in comparison to Delta’s outage earlier this month since the effects were felt worldwide.

At approximately 2:30 AM on Monday, August 8th, a power outage at the company’s Atlanta headquarters caused a computer failure that led to “large-scale” cancellations. According to a statement from Delta’s Chief Operating Officer Gil West, the power outage was caused by a malfunctioning power control module (i.e. fuse) that caused a power surge and therefore a loss of electricity. Although the electricity wasn’t out very long, “critical systems and network equipment didn’t switch over to backups” according to the COO.

Regardless of what caused the outages, thousands of passengers were stranded at airports throughout the world. Due to the extent of the computer outage, the company was unable to provide lodging for all of its passengers — many were forced to sleep on the floor at airports from Atlanta to London and beyond.

Why did seemingly minor computer glitches have such dramatic effects on Southwest and Delta’s operations?

Since airlines (…and many other organizations for that matter) are increasingly reliant upon automation and computerized systems for a wide-variety of things, their technology risks increase along with their dependencies. Properly identifying and assessing these risks, then developing a strategy to handle the risks, are critical steps to ensuring operations continue uninterrupted.

This is especially important for large airlines like Southwest and Delta…

In these cases specifically, neither company had sufficient business continuity programs to address potential issues. There were no “fail over” data centers, or rather a secondary technology site that was synchronized with the main data center. If there were, these backup systems could have kicked in the moment troubles began.

Also, judging from available information, communications from both Southwest and Delta on how the outages were affecting operations was rather poor.

Companies who are prepared for such outages have “response plans” in place to notify media, customers, partners and other interested parties. These plans could consist of message templates that company officials could easily modify for the particular situation.  Leveraging technology already used by the company would be a smart use of resources in this type of scenario. For example, passengers could have been notified by phone app, text, or email before leaving for the airport.

How will these events affect Southwest and Delta? Will they take steps to address these risks inherent to technology?

Although the outages did come with a pretty hefty price tag for each airline, those effects will largely be temporary.  Southwest’s outage affected flights for 4 days and cost between $5 and $10 million according to the company.

The biggest cost will be in terms of their reputation, both among the affected passengers and the public at large. This is especially damaging for Delta since before this outage they were considered one of the most reliable air carriers in the industry — only a handful of flights have been canceled this year.

What these and other airlines do to address technology risks is a pretty open-ended question though — many of these computer systems have been around for decades. The systems have been built mostly on upgrades and patches, which of course carries enormous risks when dealing with such antiquated technology.

“Airlines need to revisit technologies that they’re using,” explains Ahmed Abdelghany, an associate professor of operations management at the College of Business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

If airlines do not take steps to address these risks with the technology they’re using, we’ll certainly see more cases like this in the years ahead, especially as airlines “automate more their operations, distribute boarding passes on smartphones and fit their planes with WI-FI” according to this story in Fortune Magazine.

Posted in

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Sign Up For Our Newsletter


Meet Carol

Helping companies achieve their vision and strategy, and succeeding in today's turbulent world, is something I'm honored to be a part of. Whether you're an occasional blog visitor or a long-term client, thank you for letting us be a part of your journey.

Most Recent Posts

The 12 Days of ERM Christmas

Without a doubt, one of my family’s favorite holidays is Christmas. Part of the fun, especially for our son, is seeing what “Santa” brought, but most importantly, we treasure the spirit of peace and goodwill the season brings. And after what seemed to be a never-ending warm spell, the weather is expected to be good…

Read More

Don’t Let Goals and Initiatives Be Blindsided by External Events

As the end of the year draws near, I think we’d all agree that while it wasn’t without its challenges, this year also wasn’t quite as turbulent as the previous two. While a lot of people are juggling company parties, shopping for friends and family, and special activities for the kids, most companies are putting…

Read More

Going the Distance: Ensuring Successful Execution of Strategic and Annual Initiatives

Strategic planning is a challenge – of all people, I understand… After all the meetings, risk and data analysis, and brainstorming of the preceding months, it’s tempting to think this is the end of the road and you can relax. Contrary to this common perception though, this is exactly not the time to relax, but…

Read More

Avoid Rookie Mistakes and Protect your Internal Reputation

Be honest – have you ever done something that you soon realized was a real rookie mistake? Me raising my hand… Considering the nature of ERM’s role to ask questions and challenge assumptions (often during conversations with executives), it can be argued that, in at least some cases, the expectations bar for risk professionals is…

Read More

ERM at Thanksgiving – An Illustration of Risk Management in Action

On occasion, I like to take some of the concepts we risk professionals think about in our jobs and apply them to different personal situations…take some of the same concepts we use when working with executives to develop corporate strategy and manage risks or uncertainty around that strategy. It’s Thanksgiving week in the U.S. –…

Read More

Why Quantitative Risk Assessment is Not Just the Best But the Only Option – A Conversation

Periodically, I have the pleasure of speaking one-on-one with Hans Læssøe on a variety of topics around ERM, strategic risk, and other issues and trends. As you know from my previous conversations (here, here) and posts featuring his work, Hans was formerly a practitioner at the iconic LEGO Company, but even more notably, is a…

Read More

The Three Lines Model – 3 Reasons Why I Don’t Like It

Everyone likes a clear-cut template that offers an easy way to create or manage something…I mean what’s not to like about a step-by-step process for accomplishing what you want? Sometimes this can work without any issues, such as the case with the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK), ISO 9001 standard, or a new cooking…

Read More

5 Avenues for Expanding your ERM Knowledge

One thing I was taught to appreciate from a young age was the value of education and knowledge. It didn’t necessarily matter what the subject was, just that I always maintain a learning or growth mindset regardless of my current status in life. This mindset has served me well over the years, and it’s a…

Read More

Storytelling and Risk Management – Developing Skills that Technology Cannot Replace

It’s amazing how technology has developed and changed our working world over time. Imagine trying to run my risk and strategy consulting firm without tools like Zoom, Box, Slack, and other ERM-specific technology tools. There is no way we would be able to serve our clients the way that we do. Just consider how the…

Read More

3 Phases to Creating and Launching an ERM Program Focused on Organizational Success

If you’ve been handed the task of creating an ERM program for your organization, let me first offer my congratulations quickly followed by my empathy for the task ahead of you. I don’t say that to scare you but to provide a small dose of reality. Building, launching, and refining an ERM program that is…

Read More