Ai Editorial: Airline tech issues - is mainframe legacy solely responsible?

First Published on 26th September, 2016

Ai Editorial: Talking of major outages this year, it is being pointed out that at no time was “any mainframe system down at Southwest or Delta”. So do we need to target mainframe, explores Ai’s Ritesh Gupta 


The efficacy of core airline IT systems is under scrutiny. Be it for routine operations or preparing for data-driven merchandising, airlines are expected to improve upon the current state of affairs. 

No doubt the industry on the whole has suffered owing to sudden cancellations and delays, and it is being underlined that the current crop of IT systems is susceptible to faltering because of the way they have been for decades. But is the industry really at risk today as legacy systems run core operations? Or there is some other way to look at the whole issue.

“I don’t think we can put the blame solely on technology,” asserted Roland Heller, Managing Director, TIK Systems.

“It’s a combination of technology, man-made complexity of business processes and human errors. For sure, mainframes are complex and difficult to configure and optimise, but availability wise they are as stable as new generation systems such as Navitaire, Radixx, HITIT, IBS, WorldTicket etc.,” said Heller.

Defending the “mainframe”

Recent well publicised system outages at Southwest Airlines and Delta have seen a wave of attacks on legacy mainframe airline systems.

Why is the mainframe the source of ire for many?

“Those two major outages that disrupted “000s of passengers” – the most important of all were network router and electric power (fire) related,” said an airline IT executive. He referred to a couple of key issues:

·          At no time was any mainframe system down at Southwest or Delta.

·          At no time was any mainframe system suffering from performance problems.

“In fact, in Delta’s case, it was experienced staff who knew how to use “green on black”, who could revert to native mode who saved the day because the “New Gen” front end was down – its famed Tier 0 reliability relegated to a statistic on a beancounter’s spreadsheet. So what is that people are so scared about?  Why was the “legacy” mainframe attacked so strongly after those major “outages”. One aspect is definitely risk. Managers are uncomfortable with the thought of a highly specialised “non-standard” programming workforce – normally highly trained in IBM Assembler and now often staff in their 40s and 50s, disappearing by attrition, retirement etc,” added the executive.

Heller also referred to an incident. “The main difference is the impact of an outage. When Virgin Blue had an outage of 21 hours no one really noticed, except for the passengers. Other providers offer system-availability of estimated 99.6% - that’s almost a 3 hours downtime a month. Does anyone notice? No!”

Senior management ignorance

Heller added, “Based on my experience the weakest point with all the systems is networking and not computers. I actually think that backend servers are stable and with a proper setup you can reach 99.999% up time and that’s pretty good. However, as soon as humans touch these boxes, issues emerge. Too many people think they understand what they are doing just because they know how to operate a mobile phone.” He emphasised that IT is no longer being taken seriously.  

The airline IT executive also mentioned that those that are firing bullets at the mainframe are almost with exception those who have never programmed on the IBM Mainframe, never studied Assembler language and in many cases never used a “green on black” interface. “In airline parlance, they are the “children of the magenta line” - they would follow the “magenta line” because they can’t fly without automation. For “automation” read “Server Farm” and “Java”. The world of ones and zeroes – pure Mainframe coding, is somewhat alien to them. Mainframes can’t do everything. But what they do they do better than any other IT Technology because there is nothing more pure than the world of ones and zeroes. Mainframes give high throughput, high performance, fast recovery and high reliability.”

Another executive referred to the possibility of a delivering “Amazon-like travel experience”. He questioned the involvement of e-commerce specialists in shaping up areas like modern retailing in this industry.  He says, essentially the industry is “building more complexity on top of complex systems most of the people do not even understand any longer – and then we blame the hardware or technology when the people do not really know what they are doing. How many people are still alive who understand the full scope of such systems?”

Way forward

Specialists point out to airlines like Air New Zealand. These carriers harness the full power of the mainframe and combine it well with other technologies.  They have in their mainframe system and they have invested in their staff. The way forward is to get a balance between mainframe and decentralised technology.

Those who believe in the power of mainframe recommend that one needs to invest in the mainframe, invest in the mainframe staff, who are committed to their jobs and use its capacity to the fullest. “Embarking on a mantra of “get rid of the mainframe, get rid of the mainframe” is doomed to failure,” summed up the airline executive.

In case of switching over to a new PSS, such projects are complex. And then there is debate around whether to go for best of breed offerings or not. Are airlines going to stick to a single partner/ vendor with an established presence stretching over decades or there is room for embracing change by being flexible?  

For instance, there has been talk of how to gear up for today’s data-driven omni-channel merchandising. As explored in our previous articles, featuring comments from e-commerce, IT executives and industry consultants, “extending PSS” or “Out of the box” approach seems to be a likely option for FSCs as of now. E-commerce specialists tend to assert on developing a new system instead of relying on the existing PSS. And at most, if one has to continue with existing PSS, they recommend real time PSS data reliable interfacing to external contemporary systems where the proper data aggregation could be maintained. This is where airline IT executives tend to agree and as one of them would say: “Offload as much data as possible.  But keep the mainframe for its phenomenal message processing capability. Use the data which is there on the mainframe, but do that analysis offline.”

It’s time we create something fruitful rather than playing the blame game.

Some of the questions that need to be answered at this juncture:

·          What are the reasons behind IT outages?

·          How prone are airlines’ IT systems to malfunctioning and how to prevent the same?

·          How to modernize existing IT set up? What is there to learn from a mainframe programmer?

·          How to ensure the journey or passenger experience isn’t negatively impacted in case there are delays and cancellations?

Among those who suggest change, this section of the industry recommends digital infrastructure based on core platforms that are highly flexible. Airlines are still using very inflexible platforms. These are either based on shared community models or platforms that require a lot of development / programming to facilitate every change. To create and manage rich omni-channel customer experience, airlines requires platforms that provides extensive business model control (rules based) plus strong product and channel management capabilities. These platforms must have a modular open architecture that fosters a partner eco-system for collaborations.

Interestingly airlines tend to mark 60-70% IT budget for running and maintaining existing IT set up in place.

As for coming up with a new IT system for a business like running an airline, can we expect IBM, HP, Unisys, Sabre, Amadeus etc. to deliver? Would there be a competitive edge for any carrier? How about reducing complexity, going after cost control and also bring up system availability to almost 100% - say counting on cloud!


How is the industry trying to shape up airline IT infrastructure? Hear from the cream of the industry at the upcoming 7th Mega Event Worldwide 2016, The Event for Loyalty, Ancillary & Merchandising & Co-Brands, to be held in Toronto, Canada. (25 -26 October, 2016).

Twitter hashtag: #MegaEvent16

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