Lessons From Airline Industry Downtime

Technology systems become outdated quickly in a world of technology-driven transformational change—and just as certain that that can lead to very bad consequences.

If you were one of the millions of travelers impacted by the technology breakdown of two major airlines a few months ago, you have my sympathies.

But condolences aside, the unexpected and massive shutdown should serve as a warning to us all about the significant risks associated with an aging and often volatile IT infrastructure—that, and the value of being anticipatory with regard to changing IT requirements.

A Coincidence—Or Not?

Not too long ago, a screensaver at an airport departure gate caught my eye. It was something I had not seen for years, a black screen with a floating Windows XP logo.

Getting ready to board a high-tech aircraft that was going to fly at over 40,000 feet and travel more than 5,000 miles, it seemed odd that the airport was still using very old legacy technology. Running an unsupported operating system in an area where security is supposed to be paramount should make us all wonder about other forms of aging technology in the airline industry.

That thought manifested itself in an extraordinary fashion not long thereafter. In July 2016, Southwest Airlines canceled 2,300 flights when a router failed, delaying hundreds of thousands of passengers. A few weeks later, Delta Air Lines grounded 451 flights in a single morning. Even more concerning was the revelation that 300 of its 7,000 data center components had not been configured correctly.

I had to ask myself: Was the legacy technology I saw on the display at the boarding gate a red flag for the outdated IT infrastructure that completely undercut the operations of two major carriers?

The answer is yes.

The Wake-Up Call

Admittedly, if there’s any industry with precious little opportunity to upgrade its technology, it’s the airlines. While many businesses have IT departments that can schedule downtime for emergency maintenance, the airline industry has no such luxury. The demands of 24-hour uptime simply don’t afford the airlines a chance for a tech “timeout.” The introduction of mobile apps and online boarding passes for passengers also makes any form of downtime unthinkable.

Still, there were justifiable calls for action to prevent similar shutdowns in the future. Concerns were raised over the need to upgrade complex networks that had been “cobbled” together over the past several decades.


All of this should also serve as a widespread wake-up call for industries of all sorts to the potentially devastating consequences of trying to get by with outdated legacy technology.

A Call To Action

A central tenet of my Anticipatory Model emphasizes the importance of knowing what we can be certain about in a very uncertain world. And it’s a certainty that technology systems become outdated quickly in a world of technology-driven transformational change—and just as certain that that can lead to very bad consequences.

The grounding of thousands of aircraft makes for exciting headlines, but it’s important to recognize that underinvestment and dependency on multiple layers of often outdated systems are nothing new. Industries such as education, law enforcement, construction and others still routinely use very outdated technologies.

And the result doesn’t have to be as splashy as photographs of hordes of angry travelers milling about an airline reservation desk. Consider these sorts of consequences that may apply directly to your organization:

  • Security risks. It’s a simple formula—the longer a particular technology has been in use, the longer hackers have to devise ways to break in.
  • Productivity. When older technology is no longer able to keep up with the demands of an organization, employees are often forced to develop “workarounds” to compensate. Workarounds often add to the complexity of the overall system, making it even harder to maintain and upgrade.
  • Customer retention. Consumers with credit cards at the ready may be tempted to put that plastic back in their wallets if they’re frustrated by some form of outdated technology-enabled solutions, from sluggish order fulfillment to needless customer support runarounds.

Again, those types of consequences are not necessarily as visual nor as viral as lines of aircraft sitting motionless on a tarmac. But it begs the question: Are you and your organization rolling the dice with aging technology, or are you seeing the hard trends that are shaping the future, including mobility, cloud services, data analytics and virtualization, and anticipating the need to invest and upgrade before widespread problems occur?