Airlines’ tech troubles make frustrations soar – but who is to blame?

The careful choreography of modern flight can come to a sudden stop when an airline computer system crashes.

“I was stepping out of my car and the lady here told me I’m delayed because of an IT issue,” an airline passenger said in 2016. “I don’t know what that means.”

In January, technical glitches impacted United Airlines. Last August, Delta cancelled 2,000 flights after a major system failure. A few weeks earlier, Southwest Airlines’ operations were sent into a tailspin when a single router at a data center failed causing days of delays across the country and here in Chicago.

“When the computer system goes down, when there’s a problem, very often that ends up being the sort of death blow for the day,” said Ray Klump, Lewis University Associate Professor of Computer Science.

Chicago-based United Airlines says it has experienced a 50% reduction in IT-related flight delays and the duration of those delays has dropped by 25%. “When one of those systems experiences a hiccup, our customers know it almost as soon as we do,” United spokesman Charlie Hobart said. United became the first airline to offer what it calls a “bug bounty program” - up to a million frequent flyer miles for people who find and report code problems with United’s customer-facing network.

American Airlines says it spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to test, improve and enhance its computer infrastructure.

“Like any large and complex business, we recognize we are not immune to IT outages,” said American spokesperson Martha Thomas.

“Software itself is difficult enough to get right that you don’t need a hacker to mess it up,” Klump said. “Millions of lines code comprise these systems and any one of those lines could have a mistake that could cause a problem.”

While computer crashes frustrate passengers, an equally big worry for the industry is ensuring its systems aren’t vulnerable to hackers. United, American and Southwest all tell WGN Investigates they have never found evidence that hackers have been responsible for a computer outage.

However a 2015 Government Accountability Office report warned of vulnerabilities on the ground “and” in the air. Investigators said Wi-Fi and in flight entertainment systems present the possibility that “a user could subvert the firewall and access the cockpit avionics system from the cabin.”

The same month that report came out, cyber security expert Chris Roberts claimed while travelling on a United flight connecting through Chicago that he was able to use the plane’s inflight entertainment operating system to access flight controls. FBI agents met him at the gate and seized his computer and tablet. Roberts was never charged. However United has banned him from flying the airline.

A Boeing spokesperson tells WGN Investigates: “We believe, based on the airplane’s design, that this reported intrusion simply could not have occurred.”

Experts underscore that most outages occur in airline computer systems that handle pre-flight and ground functions, not the computer networks responsible for safety in the skies.

“The ground system computers are essentially run and controlled by each individual airline whereas systems on board aircraft are vetted by the FAA, also by international standards, and are much more rigorously tested with certifications involved,” said Erik Baker a former airline pilot and Lewis University assistant professor.