Can Glitches Be ‘Tolerated’?

On Wednesday, Delta Airlines was still recovering from the catastrophic glitch that caused the cancellation of over 1,770 flights through Monday and Tuesday.

Now comes the long, painful process of damage assessment, technical repair, refunds, rebookings and more profuse apologies to the thousands of customers whose own schedules were thrown into chaos as they found themselves stranded in airports all over the world waiting for planes that never came. The bill for this headache will likely be in the millions of dollars, with precise amounts to be determined.

Being stranded in a foreign place with nowhere to go and nothing to eat is a degrading, not to mention miserable, experience.

Passengers were understandably frustrated and angry, though presumably, emotions were somewhat moderated by gratitude that the disruptions weren’t due to some horrible terrorist attack or even threat, just an ordinary — well, not so ordinary — technical problem.

On the other hand, the news that it wasn’t Islamic State, but a technical breakdown might have revved up more anger at the airline, since it was, in a sense, Delta’s fault.

Yet, it’s not just Delta. Just three weeks ago, Southwest Airlines had to cancel 2,300 flights after a single notebook-size router died in a data center in Dallas. Last year, downed software programs at United Airlines and American Airlines took hundreds of flights down with them.

In other words, it could happen to any airline, and everybody knows it.

In this week’s mess, the culprit was identified early on as a power outage. Delta Chief Operating Officer Gil West said on Tuesday that a “power control module” at the airline’s technology center malfunctioned “causing a surge to the transformer and a loss of power.”

Doesn’t Delta have a backup system? Yes. In fact the airline data centers usually have double backup — diesel and batteries —which are checked and upgraded all the time so that if one system fails another immediately kicks in. They didn’t work, either.

It was suggested during these trying days that what the airlines need is what is known as “system fault tolerance,” which can “tolerate” glitches and keep on running.

The technology is already there and should be adopted, said Srinivasan Keshav, a professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo.

“Failures are not exceptions. Failures are kind of normal,” Keshav observed, and mentioned companies like Google or Amazon where dozens of servers are “dying every day,” but with 100,000 servers on hand, the systems don’t crash.

Keshav may be right, and it’s time Delta and the others catch up with “system fault tolerance.” So the finger of blame could be pointed at the entire airline industry, for using obsolete, vulnerable equipment.

Then again, running an international airline would seem to be infinitely more complex than a website, and it may not be so simple — not to mention cheap — to adopt those fail-safe systems to the worldwide web of real airplanes and airports.

Besides, there is always the unforeseen. Keshav himself found it “surprising” that the power went out, because “it’s the one thing you wouldn’t expect to have happen because that’s easy to get right.”

It has been suggested that technology has offered society not only great convenience but has also contributed to human freedom and dignity. Freedom, in the sense of being free to travel from one place to another thousands of miles apart in a short time, or to converse with someone by phone in a distant place.

Yet, as much as technology has changed our lives, it has also made us more dependent — on technology itself. We are masters at flying the skies, but we are slaves to the computers that keep our planes flying.

The same is true in all the other areas in which technology has taken over. The very computer systems which provide electricity to our cities and security for our country are themselves highly vulnerable to cyber warfare.

The incredible interconnectivity that characterizes our era turns out to be a fragile thing, whose myriad connections are at any time liable to fall victim to unpredictable glitches or enemy hackers.

Delta is not alone. Nor is the airline industry. We are all in this together, and reliant solely on the mercies of our Creator, for our fates are in His Hands.

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