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IT Failures and Travel Chaos

Stephen Pettit, co-author of E-Logistics, reflects on the recent travel disruption with British Airways, and how similar events can affect freight transport

Information Technology is affecting our daily lives in ways that, in many cases, we don’t see. From social media to grocery delivery, it is unlikely that many of us comprehend the speed at which the digital world is changing or the impact that it is having on our daily lives. Beyond the more obvious uses of social media platforms that we may or may not choose to use, IT impacts us almost constantly.

In the context of travel and freight transport, IT is particularly important and a recent example illustrates this impact. In airline travel, it is not until something goes wrong that we become aware of some of the complexities that IT irons out for us. Many people now use the internet to purchase airline tickets, either printing or downloading e-tickets and checking-in prior to leaving home. The underpinning global data systems that allowed a travel agent to do this on our behalf have now become customer-facing, allowing us to bypass the middleman.

Beyond these procedures, highly complex systems control the complex data which allows passengers, baggage and aircraft to move around but come together at critical points. Thus, having booked onto a flight from a home computer, you can turn up at the airport, check in your baggage, get on a plane (which will have arrived shortly before you get on it), travel on that plane to your intended destination and be reconnected with your luggage prior to leaving your destination airport. Most people do this without giving much thought to how this happens.

Until something goes wrong.

Related to issues concerning passenger transport is the question: when is freight really freight? Alongside passenger transport, most airlines also operate commercial freight services. Almost every passenger plane will carry some commercial cargo, with 5 to 10 per cent of revenue being generated from freight haul piggybacked onto passenger transport. Commercial cargo will usually be consolidated with other freight. For example, a Boeing 747-400 can carry 150 m3 of cargo.

Between 5 and 10 per cent of flights are commercial cargo aircrafts carrying only freight. From a passenger’s point of view, the most important ‘freight’ is their luggage. But, in passenger and commercial contexts, the IT systems underpinning the movement of that freight within the airport, and between airports, are highly sophisticated and represent an important component of e-logistics.

Recently, British Airways (BA)'s IT system failed. This failure left thousands of passengers stuck in airports, many separated from their luggage, their travel delayed or cancelled, and the company being widely criticised for the failures in the main and backup systems that control their activities. BA's problems supposedly began when there was a power surge at a data centre at Heathrow Airport. Such an event would not normally cause more than a temporary interruption while backup systems engage, but this time a series of events set off a chain reaction which took out their entire IT system. The failure of such systems does not just affect international passenger travel. The systems which controlled BA’s passenger flights will have directly affected commercial freight transport and will have had a knock-on effect to the movement of a proportion of freight transport.

For organisations large and small, it is a sensible business decision to have a backup system which will engage when problems occur, and a disaster recovery plan to allow the organisation to recover quickly. In BA’s case, the backup system didn’t work and the recovery plan seems to have been lacking robustness. For BA, the inquest will look at why these failures occurred. Cost-cutting and the outsourcing of IT operations to India have been cited as potential problems, but it is likely that there was a complex set of circumstances which combined to create a perfect-storm. For passengers, the outcomes included frustration, disrupted travel, and anger at the chaos. For BA, a loss of customers and a very large compensation bill will be two of the immediate consequences. A full review of what needs to be changed will just be the starting point.

You can read more about IT issues in the air transport sector in Chapter 3 of E-Logistics, where Robert Mayer discusses the role of ICT in Airfreight Management.

About the author: Dr Stephen Pettit is a member of the Transport and Shipping Research Group within the Logistics and Operations Management Section at Cardiff Business School. He has been involved in a wide range of transport-related research projects, notably for the UK Department of Transport and the European Commission. His recent research has focused on international logistics, port operations and management, and the application of information and communication technology in the fields of transport, logistics and supply chain management.

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