Bound to Fail

Old green-screen legacy systems exist at the core of many businesses, and they can't take the velocity and number of transactions coming at them today from outside.

The crash of a critical legacy system at Comair is a classic risk management mistake that cost the airline $US20 million and badly damaged its reputation

Reader ROI

  • How Comair IT took its eye off the risk management ball

  • Why Delta, its parent company, shares the blame

  • How to get your legacy system replaced and avoid Comair's mistake

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 ageing 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 Christmas holidays, the legacy system failed, bringing down the entire airline, cancelling or delaying 3900 flights, and stranding nearly 200,000 passengers. The network crash cost Comair and its parent company, Delta Air Lines, $US20 million, damaged the airline's reputation and prompted an investigation by the US 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 ageing 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.

After the acquisition by Delta, former employees say Comair IT executives didn't do the kind of thorough management analysis that might have persuaded the parent airline to invest in a replacement system before it was too late. Instead, Delta kept a lid on capital expenditures at Comair, with unfortunate consequences. The failure of the almost 20-year-old scheduling system not only saddled Delta with a plethora of customer service and financial headaches that the airline could ill afford but it also provides a cautionary tale for any company that thinks it can operate on its legacy systems for just . . . one . . . more . . . day.

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