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British Airways IT Meltdown Leaves Passengers Stranded


An IT meltdown at British Airways this weekend left about 75,000 passengers stranded and CEO Alex Cruz having to say I'm sorry.


ALEX CRUZ: I know this has been a horrible time for customers. Some of you have missed holidays. Some of you have been stranded on aircraft. And some of you have been separated from your bags. Many of you have been stuck in long queues while you've waited for information. On behalf of everyone at British Airways, I want to apologize for the fact that you've had to go through these very trying experiences.

SIEGEL: British Airways says it's nearly back on track now, but this is only the most recent of many technical problems for major airlines in the recent past. Robert Wall is the senior aviation reporter in Europe for The Wall Street Journal. He joins us from London. Welcome to the program.

ROBERT WALL: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first of all, walk us through what caused such a massive computer failure at British Airways.

WALL: It seems to have been a power surge or some sort of power spike. And it took a large number of systems offline, not just one. So it was very widespread.

SIEGEL: What do you figure was the cost of all this to British Airways?

WALL: We're still trying to assess that. Under European rules there are - there's compensation passengers are entitled to automatically, and obviously there's the effect of lost sales. Analysts right now estimate about $90 million. Some people put the figure higher.

SIEGEL: And what about the cost to the reputation of the airline, British Airways?

WALL: It's certainly a black eye. It's not the first problem British Airways has had. And it's an airline that's been trying to, you know, remake itself, become more competitive, and in the process it's also cut back on some amenities. And that's already angered some passengers. So it's an airline in transition and comes at a - not a great time.

SIEGEL: Robert, in the past year or so, we've seen other airlines cancel and delay hundreds of flights because of computer problems - Delta, Southwest, United. Are airlines unusually susceptible to computer problems? And if so, why?

WALL: Well, I think there's two things that are happening here. I think, you know, airlines have a lot of legacy systems that have been around for years. And then they introduce something new and they have to patch it together with the old systems. And that creates a lot of places where things can go wrong. And then in the airline's case when things go wrong it's very difficult to recover. You've got planes stranded in the wrong location. You've got passengers and bags that want to go from here to there. You've got crew that have to be at certain places. So even once the systems come back up it's - you're always behind, trying to catch up.

SIEGEL: Given the environment of computer glitches and also of sometimes cyber insecurity, do the airlines attach top priority to fixing their IT problems?

WALL: I think it's certainly moved up in the priority list over the last few months. I mean, there was concern about cyber, although BA was very clear this was not a cyber incident. And there is increasing awareness that this patchwork of old and new IT systems is a distinct vulnerability.

SIEGEL: Has it reached a point where passengers, customers of the airlines, should assume that mass disruptions are part of the new normal?

WALL: I think part of the new normal is perhaps a bit too much. But, you know, I think there is - there has to be an expectation that when things go wrong that passengers have to unfortunately have a lot of patience or be prepared to have a lot of patience.

SIEGEL: Robert Wall spoke to us from London, where he writes about aviation in Europe for The Wall Street Journal. Thanks for talking with us.

WALL: Any time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.