Why Is U.S. Flight Technology Such a Mess?

Aviation experts weigh on the aging systems behind Southwest’s holiday travel meltdown and the FAA computer outage and what it will take to avoid catastrophic operational crises in the future.

Southwest airplanes at the gates at Tampa airport

Southwest has set aside $1 billion for tech upgrades “to prevent future disruptions.”

Courtesy of Unsplash

Southwest Airlines’ operational collapse that helped prolong an epic air travel meltdown last month—capped by an FAA computer crash that shut down U.S. airspace for a few hours in early January—is raising questions yet again about whether there’s something chronically awry with this country’s aviation infrastructure.

While the airlines are pledging to add staff and take other short-term steps to ease the pandemic rebound–fueled crush on their systems, there’s one underlying cause of all the chaos that has long resisted a quick fix—aging and bug-prone technology.

This is not by any means a new issue, according to William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project and author of the book Attention All Passengers, who faults both the government and airlines for not investing adequately in needed improvements. “This is an ongoing problem,” says McGee, pointing to last summer’s air travel chaos. More than 100,000 flights were delayed or canceled during the peak 2022 summer season, air travel disruptions that have been attributed to operational and staffing challenges both among the airlines and in air traffic control, the latter of which the government oversees.

Although numerous factors contribute to flight delays and cancellations, including weather-related woes, McGee argues that the system is now more vulnerable to prolonged disruptions when things go wrong because it’s being pushed to (and beyond) its limits.

The most recent snafus highlighted a festering problem: the country’s largest domestic airline, Southwest, and the national air traffic control system have both suffered from lack of investment in critical technology.

On the airline side, much of the recent blame has fallen on Southwest, which is considered the largest airline in the United States when measured by the number of domestic passengers carried. At one time, this singling out of Southwest would have been unthinkable, given the airline’s strong brand and reputation as a customer-friendly company, with its “bags fly free” policy and (usually) cheery crew members.

But this time, even Wall Street didn’t spare the carrier. “All U.S. airlines faced a difficult Christmas,” says Helane Becker, an analyst at the Cowen securities firm. “But Southwest had the worst performance of the group.”

While all airlines’ call centers were overwhelmed and call wait times were absurdly long across the board amid an onslaught of delays and cancellations fueled by severe winter storms that hit right as huge swaths of Americans were heading home for the holidays, Southwest’s own internal operations fell short on top of the weather-related flight mess. Among other things, Becker says, the carrier had active-duty crew members who had difficulty reaching the airline to get their next flight assignment.

Overall, Southwest canceled around 17,000 flights during the holidays, affecting more than 2 million travelers.

Southwest sets aside $1 billion for tech upgrades

On the heels of several apologies to customers, in which the airline pledged to compensate the affected travelers and beef up staff, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan last week directly addressed the carrier’s failings on the tech side.

In an email to members of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards loyalty program, Jordan said the airline would speed up technology improvements, budgeting approximately $1 billion to upgrade IT systems. It’s also bringing in the well-regarded Oliver Wyman aviation consulting firm to analyze what went wrong and propose additional fixes. In a statement provided to AFAR, a Southwest spokesperson said that tech upgrades are already in the works, “and we now have even more lessons learned from what happened in December to prevent future disruptions.” The carrier is widely expected to outline some of these improvements when it releases fourth quarter financial results later this week.

But some experts are skeptical, noting that Southwest has always done things a bit differently than the rest of the industry.

“For years their attitude was that their system was fine— ‘we’re a pretty simple airline, and we’ll adjust when we need to,’” observes Brett Snyder, an airline expert who runs the website Cranky Flier, adding that rather than going for a full overhaul, Southwest made do with its existing system and “sort of cobbled stuff onto it.”

Another element of their simplicity—the airline’s largely point-to-point route network—is “difficult to keep in line during a nationwide weather event, and that’s only compounded by the airline’s largely archaic informational technology for both crews and passengers,” says Joe Brancatelli, who runs the business travel site JoeSentMe. In contrast to other major airlines’ hub-and-spoke operations, which funnel fliers through huge connecting hubs like Atlanta and Dallas/Fort Worth, the “point-to-point” business model emphasizes short and more frequent flights between smaller markets. The downside is “this can put our crews in the wrong places, without airplanes,” Captain Mike Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CNN.

What is NOTAM and why did it fail?

If there’s another technology system that could be deemed archaic, it is the FAA’s—which also came under criticism recently following a computer crash on January 11 that, for the first time since the September 11 attacks in 2001, resulted in an almost blanket shutdown of U.S. airspace. The glitch occurred in the agency’s “Notice to Air Missions” (NOTAM) system, which sends critical safety notices to pilots on conditions like runway closures or airspace restrictions due to military exercises. While the grounding order was only in effect for a few hours, more than 11,000 flights were delayed or canceled as a result. The FAA said last week that an investigation showed that the problem was caused by a contractor who accidentally deleted files when performing an upgrade.

But the incident also served as a reminder that the FAA has fallen behind on its sweeping plan to move its air traffic control operations from a radar- to a satellite-based system. The so-called Next Gen project has been kicked around for so long—more than 20 years—“that insiders are saying it should be called ‘Last Gen,’” says McGee. In 2021, the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General issued a report criticizing the agency for its delay in modernizing the system.

Meanwhile, members of Congress, as well as the Transportation Department, are also vowing to get to the bottom of the air travel mess—in time to avoid a repeat. And while the latest string of operational collapses could be worrisome for air travelers concerned about the reliability of future flights, if there’s one silver lining to these major technology failings and the massive disruptions they caused it’s that the issue doesn’t appear to be one that can be swept under the rug any longer.

Barbara Peterson is AFAR’s special correspondent for air, covering breaking airline news and major trends in air travel. She is author of Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart That Rocked an Industry and is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Investigative Reporting.
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