Last updated: 04:40 PM ET, Wed August 10 2016

Here's Why Airlines Shouldn’t Sweat Network Outages

Airlines & Airports | Paul Thompson | August 10, 2016

Here's Why Airlines Shouldn’t Sweat Network Outages

Photo by Paul Thompson

In the last couple of weeks, two of America’s four largest airlines have suffered complete network outages, resulting in the cancellation of thousands of flights, frustrated passengers and employees. But looking at the big picture, these instances won’t matter much to customers.

Airline passengers are creatures of habit. The majority of flyers are loyal to a frequent flyer program by now, and anyone with equity in a particular program isn’t about to abandon the program as a result of these glitches. And besides, the number of program members affected by the outages is only a very small fraction of the total membership base. In many cities, there is a dominant carrier who may be the only option to get you where you need to go — so if you want to get anywhere, you’re stuck with the carrier who wronged you, for better or worse.

On another level, passengers like knowing what to expect when they fly. The familiarity of the product, from the purchase all the way to the boarding does a lot to alleviate the stress of travel. If you remember the 2009 movie, “Up in the Air” starring George Clooney, his character Ryan Bingham racked up 10 million AAdvantage miles with American Airlines, through his fierce loyalty, and much of that was related to his expectations and the predictable nature of how he would be treated as a top-tier member. With Southwest in particular, they only fly one kind of airplane, so the customer experience is pretty consistent and their Rapid Rewards program consistently wins rewards for the ease of earning and redeeming free flights. At Delta, their most loyal passengers are accustomed to relaxing in the Delta Sky Club lounges.

READ MORE: Delta Air Lines Cancellations, Delays Continue for Third Day

The biggest obstacle in rebounding from an outage for an airline is to get its planes and flight crews back in the right place. We’re still in peak summer travel season, so they flights that aren’t canceled don’t have a lot of room to accommodate the people from the canceled flights. When your flight from Chicago gets canceled, the city where it was supposed to land is now missing a plane, and those passengers are now inconvenienced as well. It’s a domino affect. It takes days for an airline to rebound from a major outage. Southwest and Delta each canceled hundreds of flights in the few days following their respective outages, in order to “reset” and get stranded flight crews back to their base locations.

The biggest lesson learned for Southwest and Delta is that they need to bolster their hardware with additional fail-safes. Each airline said they had backup systems in place to mitigate network outages, but somehow, those systems failed as well. In the wake of their outages, both airlines have offered gestures of goodwill to customers. Southwest extended a fare sale that was going on at the time of their outage, while Delta offered $200 vouchers to customers who were stuck for more than three hours. While these offerings will bring a small financial hit to the airlines, they will also go a long way to restoring positive relationships with their customers. 


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