United Airlines Computer Problems Affect Flights Nationwide - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

UPDATE: United Airlines Computer Problems Affect Flights Nationwide

UPDATE FROM MSNBC: A five-hour computer outage that virtually shut down United Airlines Friday night and early Saturday is a stark reminder of how dependent airlines have become on technology.

Passengers saw their flight information vanish from airport screens, and thousands were stranded as United canceled 31 flights and delayed 105 worldwide.

The airline still had no explanation Saturday afternoon for the outage. But things could have been much worse.

A blizzard in the Northeast wiped out more than 10,000 flights over three days in December, a mid-January storm led airlines to cancel nearly 9,000 flights.

Friday's shutdown occurred late enough in the day that many of the canceled flights were the last planes out for the day, said Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Forrester Research. On a Monday morning, the results could have been catastrophic.

"It happened as a lot of the airline was going to sleep for the night," Harteveldt said.

That doesn't mean affected travelers were happy.

Computer screens went blank
"I'm just amazed at how catastrophic the failure was," said Jason Huggins, 35, who was trying to fly home to Chicago after a week working at his software company's San Francisco headquarters. "All the computer screens were blank, just showing the United logo."

Huggins paid $1,200 to book one of the last three seats left on an American Airlines flight home.

Social workers Penny Nordstrom, 57, and Emily Schaefer, 42, who were trying to get home from Cancun, Mexico, to Spirit Lake, Idaho, said their delays started with a computer problem at midday Friday in Mexico.

"We're way past 24 hours now," Nordstrom said about noon Saturday before she boarded a rebooked flight from Chicago O'Hare International Airport to Detroit for a connection to Sioux Falls. She expected to get home about midnight but hoped her travel insurance would offer some compensation.

Business travelers are usually hurt less by such disruptions than people flying for vacation or personal reasons because airlines first help passengers with elite status in frequent flier programs and those who bought more-expensive, unrestricted tickets.

Jon Ryan, who had planned to fly nonstop from San Francisco to London on business Friday evening, was rebooked on partner airline Air Canada after two hours on the phone. His new itinerary: San Francisco to Toronto to Halifax to London.

"The poor, poor ticket agents were just bewildered and sitting behind the counter. Everybody was just staring and didn't know what to do," Ryan said. "The line grew and grew and then people went from sitting down to lying down."

Glitches infrequent, but puzzling
On a typical day, United, a subsidiary of United Continental Holdings Inc., cancels 15 to 30 flights for reasons ranging from fog to maintenance problems or staffing shortages. Those are understandable. Passengers and others said a computer glitch should not have grounded the airline.

"They're infrequent, but the fact that they happen at all is puzzling. These are mission-critical," said airline analyst Robert Mann. "The idea that they would fail is troubling."

College student Jamela Wilson, on her way from Los Angeles home to Roanoke, Va., was curled inside of her hoodie sweatshirt at a gate in Chicago Saturday after an overnight wait.

"I don't know what happened, but it shouldn't have impacted me to the point I'm not home right now. It's a good 12 hours later," Wilson said.

Mary Clark, a United spokeswoman, said she couldn't say how many passengers were delayed or how many still needed to reach their destination by midday Saturday. About the outage itself, she and other airline personnel said only that it was caused by "a network connectivity issue."

Airlines rely on computers today more than ever. Reservations and customer service are largely automated, even flight paths are increasingly computer-generated. Most passengers are asked to check-in online, at airport kiosks or via mobile phone — not with an agent — and paper tickets are a thing of the past.

Airplanes also are flying fuller this summer than ever before. United's were 86.8 percent booked on average in May, which in reality meant many flew without a single empty seat. So rebooking passengers from canceled flights is much trickier and more time-consuming than in the past.

Merged, but independent
United and Continental merged in May 2010. They are slowly integrating their systems but still operate independently. So Continental was able to dispatch flights normally, though some of its airport kiosks were affected.

Naveena and Vidya Maddali's Continental flight from Seattle into O'Hare arrived on time at 5:30 a.m. Saturday. But their connecting United flight to Saginaw, Mich., was delayed repeatedly and then canceled. With the earliest flight at 1 p.m., the software engineers were fairly sure they would miss the noon high school graduation party they were traveling to attend.

"The whole purpose of the trip got ruined because of the delays," said Naveena Maddali, 27.

The couple was particularly frustrated United didn't provide more information sooner because they initially had enough time to rent a car to finish their trip.

Dave Sertich, 29, a financial analyst who lives in San Francisco, slept in a chair at an O'Hare gate Friday night but said many people had it worse. He was just puzzled by the lack of information from the airline.

"There were no agents around, no communication to passengers about what was going on, no announcements," Sertich said.

United passengers flying the rest of the weekend have been advised to print out their boarding pass at home instead of at airport kiosks in case of continuing backlogs. By 3 a.m. Eastern time, United had announced on Twitter that things were returning to normal: "Flight status and flight rebooking are fully refreshed on united.com. Thanks again for your patience." Officials did not elaborate.

The airline's customer service line at O'Hare was only four passengers long by noon, and United was letting people with tickets for travel Saturday change them for free to alleviate the crunch.

UPDATE: United Airlines passengers across the country were stranded after a computer crash grounded flights for hours Friday night.

The airline announced on Twitter shortly after 1 a.m. CDT Saturday that its computer systems were up and running, about five hours after the systems went down. The airline said it was in the process of resuming operations. Some passengers had to stay the night in the cities where they had been stranded or were waiting in terminals filled with people wanting to get on flights.

United did not say what caused the computer issue or how many passengers or flights were affected. The airline did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

As a result of the outage, long lines of passengers formed at airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago.

The plans of landscape designer Stephanie Hochman, 26, of Denver, to fly to Wichita, Kan., to visit her family were stymied.

"I was rushing, because I was running a little late," she said. "I kept checking computers to see if the flight was still on time. I thought it was all good, until I got to the airport and saw the people standing around at the checkout counter."

Later, staff at Denver International Airport made an announcement over the loudspeakers, saying computers were slowly coming online. A flight to Washington, D.C.'s Dulles International Airport was being prepared for departure.

Some passengers had to spend the night where they were stranded.

Nina and Mark Whitford of Brockville, Ontario, ended up in Chicago while on a layover on their flight home from Minneapolis. They said they were headed to a hotel to spend the night and were dismayed when an airline worker told them they would have to mail in their hotel receipt to get reimbursed.

"We've been waiting here for about two hours for our baggage, and nothing's come," said Nina Whitford, 35.

She said several people were still at the airport around 1 a.m. CDT Saturday, and others on their flight had rented cars to complete their trip to Canada.

"Some people were sleeping and some people were getting very angry because no one was giving us any answers," she said.

At United's terminal at San Francisco Airport, well over 1,000 people were standing around as lines slowly began to move.

Ed Costa, 62, was headed home to New York City. He said he's diabetic and had been in line almost seven hours.

"Why don't they have the backup for the system?" he asked.

Others took the delays in stride.

Pippa Davis, 50, of Christchurch, New Zealand, was on her way to Manchester, N.H., with her 11-year-old daughter, Fritha. She said they recently had earthquakes at home, including one that damaged her house.

"I think this is kind of funny, really," she said. "We're in line, but it's not for food or water."

"It's OK. We'll survive," Davis added.

Kristen Lovullo, 29, was at the Los Angeles International Airport waiting for a flight to Buffalo, N.Y. She said United employees were passing out water to passengers. She said the mood was mixed.

"Some people are complaining," she said. "Some people said they've standing outside since 5 p.m. (PDT) and they have to go to the bathroom and they're hungry."

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