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United Airlines suffers another large computer outage

A massive computer outage stranded United Airlines passengers airports across country Thursday. Peter Greenlaw collected his luggage after his flight

A massive computer outage stranded United Airlines passengers at airports across the country Thursday. Peter Greenlaw collected his luggage after his flight from Philadelphia was delayed more than two hours. He was more than one hour late for a meeting downtown. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 19, 2012 12:33PM



A week before the busy Thanksgiving holiday travel season, United Airlines grappled with another computer problem that delayed hundreds of flights around the globe, including at Chicago O’Hare, and further inconvenienced customers Thursday.

It was at least the third major computer outage for the Chicago-based airline in recent months and in reporting its earnings last month, United executives said the previous problems had already hit its bottom line.

The airline has reason to worry about additional negative impact the latest outage could have on its business customers, who could become ripe for the picking by competitors, according to Morningstar Inc. airline industry analyst Basili Alukos.

“This has been the third (outage) in a recent period of time. Eventually those business travelers I think might get a little annoyed,” Alukos said. “And then also you have someone like Delta that’s trying to go after more of the business passengers. They’ve been doing well. Why would they not go after United with this. This is a little more fodder.”

United spokesman Charles Hobart said about 250 mainline United flights were delayed Thursday due to an outage in one of its flight operations systems that allow the airline to communicate with aircraft such information as the weight of planes and passenger and baggage information. The problem began around 7:30 a.m. and was fixed by 9:30 a.m. By mid-afternoon, systemwide on-time performance was roughly 80 percent, he said.

The latest problem comes on the heels of United’s biggest computer problem that occurred in March, when its long-planned transition to a single computer system for passenger information caused repeated delays and problems with frequent flier account balances. In August, 580 United flights were delayed and its website was shut down for two hours because of a problem with a piece of computer hardware. Hobart said the problem Thursday was not related to integrating the computer systems.

United also suffered a major computer problem in June 2011, when the flight departure, processing, reservation system and website went out, causing 100 delays and 41 cancellations.

Peter Greenlaw, a million-mile United frequent flier was unhappy about the 2½-hour delay he had to endure on his flight from Philadelphia to Chicago Thursday.

“It sucks,” he said as he hurriedly picked up his bags. “I’ve got a huge meeting downtown that was supposed to start an hour ago.”

Greenlaw, an author and international speaker, said passengers were told “there was a ground problem with the computers and they couldn’t determine the weight of the planes.”

Passengers boarded the flight, had to exit and then reboarded later.

“And then we were on the runway, and they still didn’t have it fixed,” he said.

Michael Silverstein, who works in finance, was supposed to be on a 6:01 a.m. flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The computer outage had already caused him to miss one meeting. Worried about missing another, he walked off the plane and bought a $195 last-second ticket on a Southwest Airlines flight to Oakland, Calif.

“I’m frustrated because I’m missing a meeting that I thought I had plenty of time for,” Silverstein said.

Tess Beeler, 22, said Thursday afternoon that her flight from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, boarded at the designated time, but then sat on the runway for two hours before it took off. “They said it was a computer system problem, and they hadn’t dealt with it before and had no idea when it would be fixed,” she said.

Beeler, a meeting planner, missed a couple of meetings she’d flown into Chicago to attend.

United, which merged with Continental Airlines in 2010, said no Continental flights were affected.

United Continental Holdings CEO Jeff Smisek acknowledged on Oct. 25 that some customers avoided United over the summer because of its computer problems. He said the airline had fixed those problems by improving software and adding more spare planes to its system, among other moves.

“We expect to earn back those customers that took a detour and we expect to attract new customers as well,” he said at the time.

During the July-August-September period, per-passenger revenue fell 2.6 percent, and was down in every part of the world except for the Pacific. Traffic fell 1.5 percent. Yield, which measures fares paid, slipped 1.2 percent.

Particularly damaging was the defection of corporate travelers, who booked elsewhere and hurt revenue.

Revenue for United Continental Holdings Inc. fell 2.6 percent to $9.91 billion, below analyst expectations.

Thursday’s problems were exactly what United did not need, said airline and travel industry analyst Henry H. Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research Group. “This event shows an unacceptable lack of planning at United,” he said.

“This merger has been an outright disaster on almost every count. United must make some changes in its executive leadership, starting with the CEO” and including its chief information officer if it wants to restore confidence among passengers, he said.



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