American Airlines experienced a massive computer system malfunction Tuesday, grounding planes across the country, canceling hundreds of flights and stranding thousands of people at airports. CHRIS URSO/STAFF
By JOSÉ PATIÑO GIRONA Tribune staff
Published: April 16, 2013
Updated: April 17, 2013 at 05:53 AM
TAMPA — Thinking they had ample time, Candy and Gary Jackson arrived Tuesday at Tampa International Airport more than three hours ahead of their 4:45 p.m. American Airlines flight.
Turns out, arriving early didn't matter. American Airlines experienced a massive computer system malfunction Tuesday, grounding planes across the country, canceling hundreds of flights and stranding thousands of people at airports.
The Jacksons, who had been visiting family in Tampa from Washington state, got in line at the airport with hundreds of others. As they waited with a cart loaded with their six suitcases, Gary Jackson called a toll-free number provided by American Airlines to help travelers coordinate tentative plans, even though they still had to reach the airline's ticketing agent to finalize the itinerary.
“I enjoy standing in line,” Gary Jackson joked. “I went to parochial school. I know how to do this well.
“It is what it is,” he said. “You just have to deal with it. You can't get mad.”
Nearly five hours later, the Jacksons reached the American Airlines ticket agent at the airport. They got a 12:30 p.m. flight to Washington today, along with a hotel and food voucher.
The reservation system malfunction forced several hundred people at Tampa International to wait to check in or reschedule their flights. Most appeared calm and were considerate to others; many spent the time talking on cellphones, playing or working on their smartphones or tablets, or talking to others stuck in line.
American Airlines is promising to run a near-normal operation today.
Tony James and his wife, Kay, spent 90 minutes in line to confirm their 7:40 p.m. flight from Tampa to Dallas.
Out of habit, they said, they got to the airport early, only to learn at curbside check-in that the computer system was down, said Tony James, 42.
“It seems like they should have a backup system,” he said. “A major airline like American should have a backup plan and be able to switch over to another system.”
He was philosophical about the wait, but that didn't mean he enjoyed it.
“It's kind of like jail here, if you have to sit (and wait) here,” he said.
American, the nation's third-largest carrier, blamed its reservation system, which is used for much more than booking flights. Airlines commonly rely on such systems to track passengers and bags, monitor who has boarded a plane and to update flight schedules and gate assignments.
The computers also are used to file flight plans and to help determine how much fuel to put in an aircraft or which seats should be filled to ensure a plane is properly balanced.
As of Tuesday afternoon, American and its American Eagle offshoot canceled more than 700 flights, and another 765 flights were delayed, according to tracking service FlightAware.
The outage began mid-morning Tuesday and stretched into Tuesday afternoon. The systems were fixed by 4:30 p.m., airline spokeswoman Stacey Frantz said.
Theoretically, an airline could do the same work as the reservation system manually for one flight. But doing it for hundreds of flights isn't practical.
“There was a time when an airline could fly without a reservation system, but those days for the most part are past,” said Scott Nason, American's former technology chief and now a consultant.
If a reservation system goes down, “most airlines would be pretty much without the ability to fly more than a very limited number of flights,” he said.
Stranded passengers used social media to flood the airline with complaints. The airline tweeted back that it was working to fix the problem and apologized for the inconvenience.
To make amends, American offered to book people who needed to travel Tuesday on other airlines and pay for the fare difference. For those who wanted to delay their trips, American offered refunds or fee waivers for changing a reservation.
But for several hours, the airline wasn't able to process changes and refunds because of the computer failure.
At Tampa International, Brian Carney arrived just after 5 p.m. to see a long line for American Airlines coach travelers.
“I haven't waited in a line like this since the aftermath of 9/11,” said Carney, who was traveling home to Portland, Ore. He was scheduled to close on his first home today, so he was eager to get back.
“As long as I make it in by noon, I should be fine,” said Carney, 24.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.