Bad Software Quality Crashes Airlines’ IT Systems, Again: When Is Enough Enough?

Southwest Airlines is the latest victim of the airline scandal. What scandal? It’s the one where airlines continue to cause travel delays due to poorly managed IT systems. It’s the one that caused Southwest to delay 836 flights on Monday and distribute HAND written tickets to passengers because of a ‘software glitch’. Southwest isn’t alone. United Airlines grounded hundreds of flights in July and American Airlines did the same in September and April. How long will consumers have to wait before these organizations figure out that the glitches are caused by bad software quality, which creates bad service?

Everyone knows that software can be a pain (to quote a well known techno-sociology professor from Harvard, “Software is eating the world and it sucks”). Most of us roll our eyes when we see that dreaded message flash across the screen “Software Update Available,” but if we fail to do it, the bugs don’t get fixed and the system crashes. However, this really only inconveniences one person – you. Businesses must contend with the same issue – layers of updates, multi-levels of complexity ‑ but for very large, important systems such as airline reservations. If the applications aren’t updated, assessed and reviewed on an ongoing basis, it stops working too, but when this happens it impacts thousands upon thousands of people.

The root cause is simple: application failure and the lack of code quality. Based on the pattern of recent outages, fingers are starting to point. Because of safeguards and backups built into parts of airline systems, everything stops when one part of the system fails in a domino effect. In addition, these airlines are laden with legacy systems that are essential to running the business but hard to maintain.  It’s made twice as difficult when one airline merges with another, such as American and US Airways, and double the ‘old’ systems now need to work together with double the new stuff – like mobile apps or ticket kiosks.

If the industry doesn’t recognize and clean up the underlying problems, the infrastructure will continue to crack, especially under pressure during the upcoming holiday travel season. Senior management needs to get involved and ask the tough questions, demanding to see data that adequately displays the dependability of the IT backbone. They should also look into adopting a standard for IT software quality across the organization – such as the one developed by the Consortium for IT Software Quality and approved by the Object Management Group.

If a single airline were practicing basic structural oversight of their systems, we wouldn’t see this happening. Customers need to demand it. Wall Street needs to demand it. Even the FAA needs to demand it. Economically, it is irresponsible for businesses to let the integrity of their infrastructure slide and the general underinvestment in software quality ultimately hurts us all.


Pete Pizzutillo

I support product marketing at CAST Software. We are a software company passionate about Quality. It's kind of arcane, I know, but it's amazing how quality impacts everything from how things work to customer happiness to the value of your company. I’m fortunate to be able to talk to a lot of people about quality and their strategies and challenges managing it. Twitter - @pizzutillo LinkedIn -

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