American Airlines Blames Computer Issues For Cancellations

American had to cancel hundreds of flights and described the computer problems as networking issues. They were so problematic that the airline asked the FAA to impose so-called ground stops on all outgoing American Airlines flights and some of its commuter flights.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, yesterday was not a day that you wanted to be traveling on American Airlines. The carrier cancelled all of its main routes for several hours, and also many of its commuter flights, as well. Almost 2,000 flights were infected in all. American blames computer networking problems.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: The line at the ticket counter stretched through the entire American Airlines terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport. Passengers were trying to figure out what was happening with their flights. Ticket agents - who didn't know what was going on either - were walking the line trying to direct traffic.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Who's going to JFK, San Francisco, Austin? Austin if its - I believe is 1310, you're cancelled.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

So you want to go to Quantas counter.

Quantas? Not stay in this line?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No. Quantas, down that way.

KAUFMAN: Julie Burger from Vancouver, Washington was trying to get to Austin to get to Austin to visit her five-year-old granddaughter and her son. He's in the Army and had only one day to see her; so she had to get there.

JULIE BURGER: I have been traveling - this is not a lie - I have been traveling for close to 70 years and I have never experience this. I've experience flights being cancelled for mechanical difficulty and all that...

KAUFMAN: But computer problems?

BURGER: You should have a back up system. I know computers, you could have a backup system.

KAUFMAN: American described the computer problems as networking issues. They were so problematic that the airline asked the FAA to impose so-called ground stops on all outgoing American Airlines flights and some of its commuter flights.

Daniel Baker, is the CEO of Flight Aware, which has one of the largest airline tracking databases. He says the flights that were cancelled represent about a quarter of all the American flights scheduled for Tuesday.

DANIEL BAKER: It's a really large number.

KAUFMAN: By way of comparison, you might see a few thousand flights cancelled because of a major snowstorm, but Baker says those cancellations would be spread across multiple airlines.

BAKER: It would be really atypical, even in a snowstorm, for a single airline to have to cancel nearly a thousand flights and certainly across all of their hubs.

KAUFMAN: American isn't saying exactly what caused the computer networking problems but Baker says...

BAKER: Airlines do typically rely on one or two systems that handle things like reservations, ticketing, check-in, flight planning, dispatch, weight and balance. And so, in the case of American, they use a system provided by a company called Sabre, that they were apparently unable to access.

KAUFMAN: The computer system failure, says Aviation industry consultant John McGraw, will have some financial impact.

JOHN MCGRAW: Cancellations, missed connections, and disruption in cargo that didn't make it. So there's a significant cost in dollars, as well as, of course, the customers aren't happy.

KAUFMAN: American says they'll provide refunds or re-bookings. But that's not enough to satisfy passenger Kelly Greer - a law school recruiter who was trying to get from Los Angels to Milwaukee.

She'd been at the airport since 6:15 in the morning and says, American representatives hadn't been forthcoming or helpful.

KELLY GREER: We used to have Gold Status on this airline. We used to fly it all the time, and my last travel season, I stopped flying with them to try out other airlines because I was already fed up. But this, people will never see me again on American flight.

KAUFMAN: Actually, she has one more flight that was already booked - passenger sentiment like that that can't make American very happy. The airline is currently awaiting approval for its merger with US Airways.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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