The cancellation of 1,100 Christmas Day flights by Comair (search) because of computer troubles is prompting calls for more investments in backup systems and other technologies to prevent further groundings and damage to an already struggling industry.
The foul-up was hardly the first: A computer glitch grounded 40 Delta flights in May. A power failure created a computer problem that forced Northwest (NWAC) to cancel more than 120 flights in July. A worker keystroke error grounded or delayed some American and US Airways (UAIR) flights for several hours in August.
"Obviously, the airlines have become way too dependent on computers," said Terry Trippler, an airline industry expert in Minneapolis. "Imagine a computer glitch and all the Wal-Mart stores across the country shut down, [founder] Sam [Walton] would come out of his grave."
Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert in Mountain View, Calif., said the issue boils down to cost versus benefit.
Airlines could upgrade existing computers to handle more transactions, install sophisticated backup systems that come on when the primary system fails or buy high-performance software that is used by NASA (search), nuclear plants and medical facilities to keep critical systems running at all times, Schneier said.
"It's certainly feasible, but it's my guess it's not economic," Schneier said. "My guess is it is cheaper for the airline to absorb this loss, which doesn't happen often, than to fix the problem."
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta (search) called for an investigation Monday into the Comair cancellations. Mineta said in a letter to the agency's inspector general that people "must learn from the situations" to make sure they don't happen again.
In a statement, Comair President Randy Rademacher promised cooperation with the DOT probe.
Several major airlines, though struggling with huge losses and high fuel costs, say criticism suggesting they were ill-prepared for computer problems is unfounded and that they have taken steps to fix the issue.
Comair spokesman Nick Miller said the Delta subsidiary already had planned to replace its scheduling system with one that can handle more transactions, but the new system was not set to come online until mid-January.
Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American Airlines parent AMR Corp. of Fort Worth, Texas, said the carrier already has solidified a backup system to prevent problems like one it had faced in August.
He said a worker had put incorrect information into the computer system, causing a chain reaction that also affected US Airways flights because the two carriers were using an operations system run by the same company. At the time, he said, there wasn't a fail-safe that would have prevented the problem.
Wagner said the improvements made since then are about as good an assurance as any airline can make that future computer problems don't ground flights. Nonetheless, he said he doesn't see a day when airlines return to less efficient manual systems.
"Without the computer systems, you wouldn't have the kind of air service you have today," Wagner said.
Thomas Becher of Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest Airlines Corp., which blamed its July cancellations on a power failure affecting its computer systems, would not say Monday if the carrier has implemented a backup system since then.
A spokeswoman at Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc., which told the FAA its May glitch involved a problem with dispatch computers that calculate weight and balance and handle information related to flight preparation and gate information, did not return calls seeking comment.
Industry experts worry about the financial impact of all these computer glitches.
Although the airlines won't release figures, experts say computer glitches like the one that affected Comair are likely to cost millions of dollars in lost revenues. There's also the additional costs of providing stranded passengers with lodging, meals or seats on other carriers as well as employee overtime costs.
This comes as the major airlines have already lost billions of dollars in recent years because of high fuel costs and growth in discount carriers.
Trippler, the Minneapolis industry analyst, said more government oversight might be necessary to prevent such severe computer problems.
Schneier, the California computer security expert, said that lost revenue aside, there may be a more important reason for the airlines to work hard to prevent computer problems in the future.
"If this kind of thing could happen by accident, what would happen if the bad guys did this on purpose?" he said.