Feds To Probe Comair After Computer Outage

The DOT wants to know why the airline's computer system crashed on some of the busiest traveling days of the year.
Posted December 28, 2004

Jim Wagner

Officials at Delta Air Lines subsidiary Comair said they have been in constant talks with federal authorities about last week's disruptions, even before a public memo aired by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Norman Mineta.

In a memorandum to Kenneth Mead, the DOT's inspector general, Mineta requested an "expedited review" of the events surrounding the holiday weekend, where a software outage crashed Comair's flight schedule and undelivered baggage and cancellations plagued Comair, Delta, as well as U.S. Airways passengers (who were hit by baggage delays after a huge sick-out at the company during the Christmas weekend).

Mineta is calling for a joint investigation with the DOT's office of aviation and international affairs and office of general counsel.

"It is important that the department and the traveling public understand what happened, what travelers were told by the carriers, why it happened, and whether the carriers properly planned for the holiday travel period and responded appropriately to consumer needs in the aftermath," Mineta's memo stated.

The day after Christmas, Comair officials were blaming the storm system that socked much of the Midwest, "which stressed the airline's infrastructure and caused the computer system that manages crew flight assignments to become inoperative," its press statement read Sunday.

The Comair crew flight scheduling software in question was developed by SBS International, a division within the commercial aviation group at aviation information systems provider Jeppesen, which is a subsidiary of airline industry giant Boeing . Jeppesen and SBS, both Boeing subsidiaries, integrated their software suites earlier this year.

According to Mike Pound, a Jeppesen spokesman, Comair has been using a crew flight management software application called Track since it first penned a contract with SBS in 1986. The Track software application, Pound said, has long since been replaced (and is no longer available for sale) by SBS' latest line of crew flight scheduling software, Maestro.

Until this month, Comair hasn't been affected by any limitations in the Track software, notably the fact the system can only accommodate 32,000 changes a month. But the many flight cancellations, caused by a severe winter storm front that tore through the Midwest last week, and the subsequent rescheduled flights soon swamped the dated software and caused the crash.

"I wouldn't say the SBS application was the cause [of the crash]; it was the storm that was the cause of it -- the subsequent demands that Comair was placing on the application that they use to schedule crews and track their flying exceeded the monthly limit of the application," Pound said.

Nick Miller, a Comair spokesman, would not comment on the impending investigation or the software that's to blame for canceling flights and stranding passengers throughout the Midwest over Christmas weekend.

"We're in a position where we're focusing our comments at this time only on the status of our operations and the efforts we're taking to take care of our customers," he said. "We've been in constant contact with the regulatory agencies with whom we work on a regular basis."

Officials expect to resume normal flight operations Wednesday. According to a statement Tuesday, it expects to run 75 percent of its scheduled 1,160 daily flights in the Midwest, Canada and the Bahamas.

Pound said the airliner is still using the same version of Track used before the crash. Jeppesen, he continued, is helping Comair IT staffers ramp up their flight operations schedule through the software company's two technical support operations in New York and Denver.

As Mineta points out in his memo that the goal of the inspector general review is to make sure something like this doesn't happen again.

"While the worst of it may be over, I am deeply concerned about the impact on the system and the continued hardship being endured by so many consumers," Mineta's memo reads. "Therefore, I believe that we must learn from the situations to preclude their recurrence."

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