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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Comair Computer Problem Explained

(ViaChad Dickerson)The computer software that crashed and grounded Comair's entire fleet on Christmas Day was an antiquated system due to be replaced in the coming months. Comair was lurching toward normalcy Monday with about 60 percent of its flights operating after canceling all 1,100 flights system-wide Saturday after the computer crash. Comair said that , on Saturday when the cumulative effect of the winter storm that hit last Wednesday and Thursday caused a crash of the computer that organizes crew scheduling. The computer system was run by SBS International, a subsidiary of Boeing.

The SBS Crew Check system tracks all the details of where each crew member is scheduled and keeps a log of every scheduling change. Tom Carter, a computer consultant with Clover Link Systems of Los Angeles, said the application has a hard limit of 32,000 changes in a single month. "This probably seemed like plenty to the designers, but when the storms hit last week, they caused many, many crew reassignments, and the value of 32,000 was exceeded," he said. Carter said SBS's newer system, called Maestro Crew, is a far more sophisticated system unlikely to run into the same problem that Comair faced. Nick Miller, Comair spokesman, said the computers were running again by late Saturday and were functioning properly. In addition to undoing the damage of the computer problem, the airline was still struggling to de-ice its planes, he said. Each problem compounded with the last to result in Comair's worst operational crisis since a pilot strike grounded the fleet for 89 days in 2001:

Problem One: A holiday storm: Snow fell all day Wednesday and turned into a pounding sleet Wednesday evening, with accumulations in the 10-inch range during some of the busiest traveling days of the year. Inches of sleet-coated airplanes with thick ice that required up to three times as much de-icing glycol as normal snow would, according to Don Bornhorst, Comair senior vice president. Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport was able to maintain all three of its runways Wednesday, with only 15- to 30-minute closures of one runway at a time for cleaning. Cleaning planes at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport and delays at other airports grounded a majority of Comair, Delta and other flights Wednesday, but that was only a prelude for the misery to come. Delta and Comair had anticipated running out of glycol, and they ordered a 13-tanker convoy to be driven south from Union Carbide plants at northern facilities to arrive Wednesday night at the airport. The move proved to be a major miscalculation.

• Problem Two: Highway closures. Driving winds and sleet prompted the Ohio Highway Patrol to shut down stretches of interstates Wednesday night to all non-emergency vehicles. Though the tankers carried cargo precious to thousands of holiday travelers, the convoy was forced to stop at truck stops for hours. Comair and Delta ran short of glycol early Thursday morning, and the problems compounded while the sleet kept pouring down. By daybreak Thursday, most flights were canceled or delayed. By early Thursday afternoon, Comair had effectively grounded its fleet, with the exception of a few flights, and Delta was running a very limited schedule.The waylaid fleet of glycol tankers began trickling in Thursday morning, but recharging the storage tanks at the airports and de-icing the planes would take hours longer.

Problem Three: Computer overload. Despite thousands of irate travelers still stranded on Friday, and many more searching for lost bags, Comair and Delta were confident Friday morning that the knot would start unraveling with the majority of flights returning to the air that day.The airlines planned to fly 70 to 90 percent of scheduled flights by the end of Friday, a Comair spokeswoman said Friday morning. But Mother Nature found an ally in an overtaxed computer software system that keeps track of flight crews, including critical monitoring of the hours they logged. Without a computer maintaining this information, Comair had to manually figure out myriad variables, including:
• Which crews were in which locations.
• What aircraft each crew member was assigned to.
• How long they had flown already that day.
Without a computer, the airline was dead in the water
"You can't operate an airline without a crew scheduling system," Comair's Miller said.He said the task was too labor-intensive for the airline to handle on Saturday, given the need to ensure safety."It's a very complex choreographed operating system. There are manual processes that you can implement, but they are still very time intensive," Miller said.

Problem Four: Picking up the pieces. Stranded passengers were quick to point the finger at Delta and Comair during the crisis. They expressed anger at having to camp out in the terminals instead of spending Christmas with their families. They raged over lost or missing bags and hours-long lines to get any service from the airlines.
Part of the problem is that airlines have stripped down so far that they were near 100 percent capacity for holiday rushes. "The systems are geared to run 100 percent, and hopefully nothing goes wrong. This time, just too many things hit (Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport). Each one became part of the domino effect. We now know not to connect through Cincinnati in the winter or to fly Comair or U.S. Air," Parsons said.

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