Tips for tech trouble at the airport

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With airport infrastructure crises in the news all too often, Sally White takes a look at some of the causes and hears what can be done

Getting there, by plane at least, is all too often NOT half the fun. ‘System outage’ are words frustrated travellers have heard all too often this summer. Bad news is that the rising number of airport hubs is likely to bring an increase in flight disruption caused by technology glitches. 

According to Todd Krautkremer at US network servicing group Cradlepoint, “airline hubs are the most vulnerable airports, because if an outage occurs it will have a ripple effect and impact the service of other airports. The hubs are also larger and rely more heavily on technology to keep everything connected.”

Comment from the experts is not very reassuring. Airport infrastructure development has “lagged the growth in traveller numbers”, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has bemoaned. Alexandre de Juniac, IATAʼs Director-General and CEO, speaking at the World Passenger Symposium in Dubai said: “I fear that we may be headed for an infrastructure crisis that will impact air travellers.”

Problem is that when it comes to airport technology, the task is formidable. Bill Curtis at US software vendor CAST listed in just a few of the issues:  “As the airline industry grows, its systems increase in complexity. A single IT professional or team cannot be expected to understand all the systems and their complex interactions.”

A single IT professional or team cannot be expected to understand all the systems and their complex interactions [of the airline industry]

Curtis continues: “Each of these many systems were created in different generations by different companies, increasing the complexity and challenges of interconnecting them. Mergers force IT systems, infrastructure and processes to be rationalised and combined, creating multiple opportunities for injecting new flaws.”

There is also unreliability “due to under-investment in staffing, training and infrastructure”. Compared to all of these and the complicated software issues, inadequate bandwidth and poor backup were some easier causes to amend.

Cradlepoint has been working to help airlines and airport services groups overcome connectivity problems, so Todd Krautkremer can add more colour to the picture: “First there can be a lack of system capability in airports to deal with unexpected surges in demand, such as weather and cancelled departures. Second, there can be a lack of sufficient resilience to prevent outages.”

Nor does he sound optimistic about the impact of the huge investments in airport technology: “Automation is meant to reduce cost, speed up processes and improve information flow. The more automated airlines and airports become, the less people are available as a “fall-back” option when things go wrong.”

And there is so much scope for things to go wrong when airports use such a vast array of systems that must interact seamlessly - reservation, check-in, baggage handling, security, cargo, no-fly checks, fuel projection and flight planning, to name a few!

His concern is shared by the US Federal Aviation Administration, which puts the cost to the airline industry of ground stoppages caused mainly by software malfunction at around $9 billion a year.

What should airports be doing? 

So often the network infrastructure that underlies airport operations is “antiquated”, says Todd Krautkremer.

His to-do list includes that: “Management should assess the capabilities of software-defined networking, network virtualisation and cloud-based management and orchestration to transform network infrastructure for the digital era.”

While you can’t stop the need for pervasive connectivity within modern airport operation, he adds, “the infrastructure can be more resilient”.

While you can’t stop the need for pervasive connectivity within modern airport operation, the infrastructure can be more resilient

Suggestions from Bill Curtis run along the same lines: “Immediately set up a meticulous dependability assurance program. Before each deployment, assess all crucial operational systems for defects and engineering integrity. Most operational incidents, which occur more often than reach the press, are due to structural errors in the source code of computer systems.

“It is critical that these IT applications are assessed at the system level. Flawed interactions within the software system are the culprits for many tragic incidents. System-level defects can only be detected by evaluating the system from user entry points, through its business logic, querying of the database, interaction with other systems, and response back to the user.”

However, there is good news, says Krautkremer, that will help avoid emergency mass camping in the terminals: “With gigabit LTE and 5G on the horizon, airports, airlines and airport operations contractors will be able to spin-up their own network infrastructures to support their ever-expanding connectivity requirements without the risk of using a shared infrastructure or paying the significant cost of pulling new cables.”

Let’s hope they do!

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