Airlines: It’s time to open the IT black box

Post • 3 min read

It’s been a rough few weeks for aviation industry IT. At the end of December, Southwest Airlines cancelled more than 15,000 flights due to system failures exacerbated by a US storm. In January, flights US-wide were grounded after a contractor accidentally deleted files on the FAA’s Notam database.

That’s millions of dollars wiped off balance sheets – and millions of lives disrupted – because of legacy technology.

‘It works, so don’t touch it’

That’s been the mentality when it comes to aviation IT infrastructure, which has evolved organically over decades. 

Hundreds of millions of pounds, euros and dollars have been invested in front-end services and applications that interface with the customer experience, while back-end systems have languished. 

Now, it’s definitely important to invest in customer experience applications and services. But back-end services – while not as shiny – are super critical. Crew experience and ground operations are of particular interest to me, as they produce a cascade of benefits from reducing delays, opex and environmental impact to improving crew satisfaction (which always improves customer satisfaction).

Because these back-end systems have taken a back seat priority-wise,  aviation companies’ wildly complicated environments are now so legacy that people are scared to touch them. No one knows what’s in this IT black box – there’s no effective documentation, and the people who designed the systems are long gone.

But the risk calculus has now changed

To date, it’s been seen as ‘too risky’ to touch those legacy systems. The perception has been that if they’re touched, something might stop working – leading to downtime, delays and/or cancellations. And if the black box was opened, the scale of the IT problems would be become apparent, affecting how the company was perceived both by investors and customers. It was much less risky to ignore the IT black box and hope the convoluted, gaffer-taped mess of infrastructure would keep working as it always had.

But that ignorance-is-bliss approach isn’t actually less risky – as Southwest Airlines and the FAA have learned the hard way. 

To avoid becoming the next horror-story headline incurring the next million-dollar loss, you need to take action. Now, investors and customers will be favouring companies that are checking and modernising their IT. The success stories will be those that comprehensively assess their infrastructure, identify the scale of their problems and proactively address the risks. 

Opening the IT black box won’t be like opening Pandora’s box

My colleagues and I have worked on over 1,000 public cloud implementations. In my own 25-year career, I’ve seen lots of messy, cobbled-together legacy infrastructure. And no problem has been insurmountable. Yes, some challenges have been harder to address than others – but they have all been solvable.

For most aviation companies, the solution will be a cloud-first approach. It will involve rehosting, replatforming and refactoring for different workloads and applications. And it will involve essential improvements to resilience, security and disaster recovery – so a single contractor making a mistake doesn’t cause an IT meltdown. 

The first step is an assessment – a tool-driven review of your infrastructure and application estate – that outlines exactly what’s in the black box. Once you know what’s there, you can put together business cases for modernisation based on what's the easiest and least risky path forward.

It certainly won’t be an overnight fix, and it shouldn’t be. After all, this is about risk reduction. Rather, it will be an iterative process that provides greater transparency and control over IT infrastructure.

So don’t be the one whose complacency causes major risk. Don’t be the one who buries their head in the sand hoping that what happened to Southwest doesn’t happen to your company. Be the one with knowledge and a plan.

It’s time to open the black box – I promise it won’t be as scary as you think.

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Cormac Walsh
Cormac Walsh LinkedIn
Global Industry Leader - Aerospace