How One Computer System Tangled Up Several Airlines

A number of airlines experienced delays on Monday when their systems had a technical glitch, causing backups across the country. Travelers vented their frustration on Twitter, blaming airlines like Alaska, American and JetBlue.

But the real culprit was Sabre, a relatively unknown software system used by airlines for a variety of simple purposes, like tracking bookings and calculating baggage weight.

Sabre and other systems like it handle many crucial back-end airline functions, including taking reservations and scheduling flight crews. When its software works as intended, it makes it easier for airlines to operate smoothly.

“It’s optimized for speed and reliability,” said Samuel Engel, a senior vice president and head of the aviation practice at the consulting firm ICF. “They often get referred to as the heart of the airline in the sense that they have arteries that touch every organ.”

But when the system has even a small snag, the effects can ripple across the global flight network long after the initial problem gets solved. The same system experienced a failure in March.

“No technology will be 100 percent perfect 100 percent of the time,” said Henry Harteveldt, the founder of Atmosphere Research Group, but he added that companies like Sabre are constantly trying to improve their product. “The customers are sick and tired of being told, ‘We’ve got a technology problem.’”

The Sabre system was created in the 1960s as part of a partnership between I.B.M. and American Airlines, which named it the Semi-Automated Business Research Environment. It was spun off from American as a separate company in 2000. Sabre Corporation is now a travel technology company based in Southlake, Tex., that provides reservation systems to airlines worldwide.

The system can be used to manage the reservations, crew schedules, frequent-flier programs and other key parts of an airline’s operation.

“With very few exceptions, almost everything else interfaces from the reservation system,” Mr. Engel said.

Sabre was the first of its kind, but Amadeus is a major competitor, along with Travelport and TravelSky. All four of those systems are similarly reliable, and most travelers probably encounter them regularly without ever realizing it.

At any given moment, Sabre is responsible for tracking hundreds of millions of data points, and if a part of the system goes down, it creates a backlog.

“If you think about the volume of transactions that has not taken place during that 10-minute outage and that has to be patched back together, that’s got to be a challenging process,” Mr. Engel said.

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