U.S. lawmakers expanded their investigation into issues associated with commercial airline information technology (IT) systems and infrastructure yesterday with a focus on United Airlines. The expansion of the investigation began yesterday with a letter sent from lawmakers to United following the Chicago-based international carrier’s temporary grounding of domestic flights on Sunday, Jan. 22, due to IT issues.
A United Airlines Boeing 777-300ER. Photo: United Airlines.
In a letter sent to United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, U.S. Senators Edward J. Markey and Richard Blumenthal specifically looked for information regarding what exactly caused the airline’s most recent grounding, what safeguards and backups the airline has in place to prevent disruptions and what changes the airline is making—if any—to address the latest issues. The senators were also seeking information about how United plans to compensate affected customers and about how passengers were notified.
But the letter itself is the latest in a series of queries and an ongoing investigation led by Markey into how the U.S. commercial airline industry is dealing with the reliability of its IT systems, cybersecurity and other technical issues following consolidations and mergers that have lead to four carriers, including American, Delta, Southwest and United, controlling nearly 85 percent of U.S. air traffic.
While United did not provide any specific details as to what “IT issue” lead to the ground stop Sunday, NBC News published a story that evening stating that U.S. officials said the problem was associated with low bandwidth issues with Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). No details beyond "low bandwidth issues with ACARS" have been provided by NBC, United, or the unnamed U.S. officials.
The letter from Markey and Blumenthal features questions probing the age of United’s IT systems software and components, as well as the total number of flights that were canceled or delayed. Both senators also have questions generally about the performance of airline IT technology.
“In a world where consumers can find, purchase and check in for flights from their smartphones, IT failures should not be grounding entire airline fleets,” Said Markey and Blumenthal “Now that three of the four largest air carriers have recently experienced significant disruptions due to IT failures, it is time for airlines to update their IT systems for the jet age.”
In August 2016, the two senators wrote a similar letter to 13 U.S.-based carriers seeking similar information about what seems to keep causing infrequent, unexpected airline IT-system outages or disruptions. That inquiry followed a July 2016 router problem that led to 2,300 flight cancellations and 8,000 delays for Southwest Airlines. The following month, Delta reported experiencing a power outage that caused its computer systems to fail and lead to hundreds of delays and cancellations of flights as well.
Markey and Blumenthal have not released any information about feedback they’ve received from U.S. carriers regarding IT system issues since sending that letter out back in August.
But despite the recent temporary grounding, United recently reported its fourth quarter and full year 2016 financial results showing having achieved its best on-time performance and the “lowest number of cancellations, delay minutes and mishandled bags in company history,” United said in the earnings report.
United, which lifted the ground stop Sunday evening, operates more than 4,500 flights to 339 airports across five continents daily.