April 17, 2013

American expects flights to return to normal

David Koenig / The Associated Press

DALLAS — American Airlines is promising to run a near-normal operation on Wednesday, and that would be just fine for the tens of thousands of passengers who were stranded by a mammoth technology meltdown at the nation's third-biggest airline.

click image to enlarge

Passengers gather at the American Airlines check-in for flights at Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday. Computer problems forced American Airlines to ground flights across the country after the airline was unable to check passengers in and book passengers.

AP

On Tuesday, American and sister airline American Eagle canceled 970 flights and delayed at least 1,068 more by early evening, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware.com.

That means American and Eagle canceled or delayed nearly two-thirds of their scheduled flights after they lost access to a computer system that's used for everything from issuing boarding passes to determining how much fuel to pump into the plane.

It was a public-relations nightmare for American, which is preparing to merge with US Airways and become the world's biggest carrier. Passengers took to social media sites to criticize the airline, which for hours could only apologize and say that it was trying to fix the problem.

The man who will lead American in a few months, US Airways CEO Doug Parker, has said he would prefer to convert his planes and employees to American's computer system rather than the other way around.

US Airways declined to comment on whether Tuesday's breakdown would cause Parker to rethink his plans.

The computer outage began snarling operations around midmorning. Eventually the Federal Aviation Administration issued a so-called ground stop for American Airlines jets around the country.

Flights already in the air were allowed to continue to their destinations, but planes on the ground from coast to coast could not take off. And travelers could do little to get back in the air until the computer system was restored.

By late afternoon, American resumed international flights and those from its major hub airports. It scrambled during the evening to put planes and crews in position to get off to a good start on Wednesday morning.

"Despite the magnitude of today's disruption, we are pleased to report that we expect our operation to run normally with only a small number of flight cancellations" on Wednesday, said Andrea Huguely, a spokeswoman for American. She said American would add flights to accommodate stranded passengers.

American blamed the outage on a loss of access to computer networks that are used for flight reservations and many other functions. Airlines commonly rely on such systems to track passengers and bags, monitor who boards planes, and update flight schedules and gate assignments. The computers are also used to file flight plans and tell employees which seats should be filled to ensure that the plane is properly balanced.

American's system is hosted by Sabre Holdings, a one-time division of American that was spun off into a separate travel-reservations technology company. American said the outage wasn't Sabre's fault, and other airlines that use Sabre didn't experience problems.

At airports, customers whose flights were canceled couldn't rebook on a later flight. Passengers already at the airport were stuck in long lines or killed time in gate areas.

"Tensions are high. A lot of people are getting mad. I've seen several yelling at the American agents," said Julie Burch, a business-meeting speaker who was stuck at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport waiting for a flight to Denver. "Nobody can tell us anything."

Terry Anzur, a TV news consultant from Los Angeles who was also stranded in Dallas, said American Airlines gate employees were doing everything the old-fashioned, manual way because their computers were useless.

(Continued on page 2)

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