American Airlines computer glitch: The day AA customers stood still

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Here we go again. You probably have heard, since it’s been reported everywhere, that American Airlines was grounded Tuesday, leaving passengers stranded for several hours due to a “computer glitch” in the reservation system. Because of the glitch, gate agents were unable to print boarding passes; and some passengers described being stuck for long stretches on planes on the runway unable to take off or, having landed, initially unable to move to a gate.

It will be a while before the glitch’s impact on American Airlines’ reputation and revenue is fully understood. But it’s obvious the company is shifting into damage control mode. Take note of what they’re calling it. A glitch, by definition, implies something minor. Let’s call a spade a spade. That was a catastrophic, unnecessary system failure that took the whole company offline. Am I overstating? No.

American Airlines will of course position itself as an innocent bystander, minimizing the problem and waving their PR hands saying, “Your guess is as good as ours, guys. It was those damn computers!” That’s exactly the attitude that got them into this situation to begin with. Structural quality was ignored or put off until a later date -- the same way you would put off building a levy if the flood waters hadn’t risen recently -- and the result was stranded travelers, ticked-off customers, and eager competitors ready to siphon off business.

With the recent approval of American Airlines merger with US Airways, I’m sure the airlines will do their due diligence in ensuring their important IT systems are resilient and secure. But the truth is American Airlines could have easily prevented this glitch if it had taken the time to x-ray its reservation system before it even went online.

As I was writing this, I overheard a conversation as a meeting was breaking up. A team was getting ready for a presentation in Boston, and as they passed by my office, one of them said, “I hope we’re not flying American.”

One thing’s for sure, American Airlines just added a moment of hesitation to all those looking to book a flight. And in our current age of digital business -- where customers make choices in seconds, rather than minutes -- a moment’s hesitation is the difference between the Fortune 500 and the graveyard.

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Lev Lesokhin EVP, Strategy and Analytics at CAST
Lev spends his time investigating and communicating ways that software analysis and measurement can improve the lives of apps dev professionals. He is always ready to listen to customer feedback and to hear from IT practitioners about their software development and management challenges. Lev helps set market & product strategy for CAST and occasionally writes about his perspective on business technology in this blog and other media.
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