United Airlines computer glitch strands pilots

A United Airlines computer system malfunction that stranded pilots and caused some flight cancellations shows the company is still struggling to integrate Continental Airlines more than three years after their merger.

The breakdown contributed to the scrapping of almost 1500 flights as the airline also grappled with unseasonably cold weather, according to insiders. United's crew desk lost track of hundreds of pilots around the world since December 30 as the system erroneously reported which pilots would control specific flights, the people said.

The technology snafu is the latest in a series of miscues that have dogged United's parent, Chicago-based United Continental, since the 2010 merger. The issue was amplified by tighter federal limits on pilot duty hours, which took effect January 4 as a winter storm and plunging temperatures thinned pilot ranks at its Chicago and Newark, New Jersey, hubs.

"The company has brought on the perfect storm for our pilots, exacerbating the subzero temps and snow," Jay Heppner, who heads United's pilots' union, wrote in a January 4 letter to members. "In the communications received from our pilots, we are hearing about an operation which is coming apart at the seams."

Computer issues and new federal duty limits "created a nightmare" for United pilots and crew schedulers, said Christopher Cooke, a spokesman for the union representing United flight attendants.

Flights were even assigned to pilots who are retired or deceased.

Crew scheduling woes started after the second-largest US carrier shifted all 10,200 of its pilots to a system previously used only by Continental pilots, the United employees said.

"We worked hard to support our pilots as we have made changes to their routines at the same time we have faced unprecedented bad weather," David Messing, a United spokesman, said.

"As we began complying with the new regulations, we were combining our pilot scheduling systems," he said. "We are making progress each day in making all of the new processes easier for our crew members. Some pilots were out of position relative to their expected schedule and needed reassignment, but that is not unusual in a severe weather event that hits multiple hubs."

Dave Kelly, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, said Heppner wasn't available for an interview.


Pilots said they had difficulty logging on to the system, known as CCS, for Crew Communication System, which shows everything from trip assignments to pay stubs.

The new technology required three passwords, said a United captain, and was prone to crashing. Once logged on, he found it difficult to navigate and the information that was available was largely out of date. Flights were even assigned to pilots who are retired or deceased. When pilots tried to call for help, they sometimes sat on hold for more than an hour.

Another pilot, based in Chicago, said that every time he logged on to the crew scheduling system in recent days, a different person was listed as the captain of the flight he was supposed to fly.

He had difficulty calling in to the swamped scheduling department to straighten out matters, which caused him to be late on several of the flights, he said.

"The company is field-testing the CCS system on the fly, several months behind schedule, and fixing issues as they arise," Heppner wrote in the letter to pilots. "At the same time we are switching bidding systems," adding the new scheduling system and reacting to the realities of the new pilot rest rules.

United cancelled 1467 mainline flights from January 1 through January 8, and more than 8,700 when including its regional and commuter airlines, according to flight data analyser masFlight. Other carriers also scrapped large parts of their schedules as they contended with frigid temperatures in the eastern U.S. and the same new federal restrictions on pilot flying time, known as FAR 117.

JetBlue Airways said the January 4 start of the new US Federal Aviation Administration rules that regulate work and rest time, was a "complicating factor" in its decision to suspend flights at four northeastern airports for 17 hours earlier this week.

Southwest Airlines pilots reported that the new work rules made it "more difficult to recover from operational difficulties than in the past," said Mark Richardson, president of their union. The Dallas-based carrier had the most flight cancellations among the five biggest U.S. airlines since the start of the year, according to masFlight.

United's challenge

Merging complicated computer systems has been a challenge for United, especially when the shift has been to smaller Continental's technology platforms.

The airline suffered flight delays, long check-in lines and problems with check-in kiosks in March 2012 after the Apollo passenger reservations system from the old United was switched over to Continental's Shares program.

Five months later, backup systems failed to prevent a computer network malfunction that disabled communications with airports and United's website, delaying 580 flights.

Also in 2012, a computer breakdown caused a flight to take off about 20,000 pounds (9071 kilograms) heavier than pilots believed because the carrier's weight estimate assumed the coach section of the Boeing 737-900 was empty when it was full, people familiar with the incident said at the time.

In November of that year, a computerised system that coordinates preflight activities across the US failed for about two hours. At least 523 United flights were delayed, according to online data service FlightStats.com

United has worked to improve its on-time performance and make its operations more efficient as it moves past the merger struggle. The carrier said it will trim costs by $US2 billion through 2017 as it shifts flying to fuel-sipping aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and boosts employee productivity.

"Our team's performance year-to-date demonstrates that our operations are once again stable and reliable," Chief Executive Officer Jeff Smisek said on an October 24 conference call, after 78.9 per cent of United's arrivals for the third quarter were on- time.