Comair's Christmas Disaster: Bound To Fail

The 2004 crash of a critical legacy system at Comair is a classic risk management mistake that cost the airline $20 million and badly damaged its reputation.

By Stephanie Overby
Sun, May 01, 2005

CIO — When Eric Bardes joined the Comair IT department in 1997, one of the very first meetings he attended was called to address the replacement of an aging legacy system the regional airline utilized to manage flight crews. The application, from SBS International, was one of the oldest in the company (11 years old at the time), was written in Fortran (which no one at Comair was fluent in) and was the only system left that ran on the airline’s old IBM AIX platform (all other applications ran on HP Unix).

SBS came in to make a pitch for its new Maestro crew management software. One of the flight crew supervisors at the meeting had used Maestro, a first-generation Windows application, at a previous job. He found it clumsy, to put it kindly. "He said he wouldn’t wish the application on his worst enemy," Bardes recalls. The existing crew management system wasn’t exactly elegant, but all the business users had grown adept at operating it, and a great number of Comair’s existing business processes had sprung from it. The consensus at the meeting was that if Comair was going to shoulder the expense of replacing the old crew management system, it should wait for a more satisfactory substitute to come along.

And wait they did. The prospect of replacing the ever-maturing crew management system was floated again the following year, with plans laid out to select a vendor in 2000. But that didn’t happen. Over the next several years, Comair’s corporate leadership was distracted by a sequence of tumultuous events: managing the approach of Y2K, the purchase of the independent carrier by Delta in 2000, a pilot strike that grounded the airline in 2001, and finally, 9/11 and the ensuing downturn that ravaged the airline industry.

A replacement system from Sabre Airline Solutions was finally approved last year, but the switch didn’t happen soon enough. Over the holidays, the legacy system failed, bringing down the entire airline, canceling or delaying 3,900 flights, and stranding nearly 200,000 passengers. The network crash cost Comair and its parent company, Delta Air Lines, $20 million, damaged the airline’s reputation and prompted an investigation by the Department of Transportation.

Chances are, the whole mess could have been avoided if Comair or Delta had done a comprehensive analysis of the risk that this critical system posed to the airline’s daily operations and had taken steps to mitigate that risk. But a look inside Comair reveals that senior executives there did not consider a replacement system an urgent priority, and IT did little to disrupt that sense of complacency. Though everyone seemed to know that there was a need to deal with the aging applications and architecture that supported the growing regional carrier—and the company even created a five-year strategic plan for just that purpose—a lack of urgency prevailed.

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