Delta Air Lines Ronald Reagan Airport
Delta passengers in line
at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Delta Air Lines suffered a massive computer outage Monday morning that
effectively shut down the world’s second-largest airline for more
than six hours.

Even though Delta was able to get some of its planes flying again
by 8:40 a.m. ET, the airline was forced to cancel 1,000 flights
on Monday and another 500 on Tuesday.

“We were able to bring our systems back online and resume
flights within a few hours yesterday, but we are still operating
in recovery mode,” Delta Air Lines senior vice president Dave
Holtz said in a statement.

Holtz, who is in charge of the nerve center from which the
airline is run, also apologized to the Delta passengers who had
been left stranded at airports around the world.

So what happened to Delta?

According to the Atlanta-based airline, its computer system
lost power Monday morning at 2:30 a.m. ET and its backup systems
failed to come online.

“Delta likely built a disaster-recovery plan into the system, but
it was not properly configured to back up everything that
failed,” Gil Hecht, a computer disaster recovery expert, told
Business Insider.

“It’s possible they didn’t make changes to the backup
system for it to mirror the main system,” Hecht said.

As bad as the situation may seem, it could have been much worse.

“Delta’s IT team did phenomenally well,” Hecht added. “The
fact that they could recover in six hours when disaster recovery
didn’t work is impressive.”

Unfortunately for passengers, what happened to Delta isn’t
an isolated incident for the airline industry. Less than three
weeks ago, Southwest Airlines was forced to cancel thousands of
flights because of a failure in its computer system.

JetBlue was forced to ground its planes in January because
of a power failure at a data center. American Airlines and United
Airlines also experienced computer-related issues over the past
two years that have forced operations to grind to a halt.

What’s wrong with airline computers?

The computer infrastructure behind modern airlines
is not so modern. Many of them are based on decades-old
systems that have been consistently updated over the
years.

“There’s a lot of patchwork upgrades happening in these
computer systems,” Airways News senior business analyst Vinay
Bhaskara told Business Insider. “Unfortunately, there isn’t
anything out there that’s a whole lot better than what’s already
in place.”

Bhaskara and Hecht, who is the CEO of New York-based Continuity
Software, agree that airlines are spending a ton of money every
year on their computer systems and that a lack of spending is not
the issue.

For instance, Delta has a large IT staff that has developed many
of the features in its computer systems specifically for the
airline’s needs. Southwest is making major upgrades to its system
that are expected to be complete by early 2017.

Even with airlines investing time and resources in updating
computer systems, companies and customers don’t seem to be
sheltered from service disruptions.

This means there has to be a fundamental overhaul of the computer
infrastructure across the airline industry for there to be true
improvement.

“It takes a lot of inertia for there to be major changes in the
industry,” Bhaskara said. “That means these computer systems will
have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.”

Bhaskara believes that the change won’t come from one of the
major airlines or its suppliers. Instead it will most likely be a
startup airline or tech firm that takes the industry into the
future.

We just don’t know who will do it or when that will happen.