The Christmas rush turned out to be an awful time to travel. Weather was bad in much of the midsection of the country and then computer problems at Comair and employee problems at USAir brought us to the bonus round of travel hell.
There’s not much I can say about USAir. That there is tension between USAir employees and their employer would be a understatement of immense proportions. Let’s just say, I’m not confident I’ll ever be able to use my USAir frequent flyer miles.
Comair is a different story and I think it is a troubling analog for systems now in many other industries. Here’s how it was reported in the Henry Herald (a paper I picked at random) from Henry County, GA.
There it is, in terms we can all understand – the computer crashed. Except a computer crash is something you can recover from. You just restart the computer and you’re on your way. This problem went deeper. This was not a computer crash and reporting it as such deflects attention from the actual systemic problem.
Comair isn’t letting me into their inner sanctum, but it’s probable that the structure of the computer system that handles their crew assignments, weight balance, manifesting and the like wasn’t equipped to handle all the ‘exceptions’ it was asked to ponder this past week. That means that restarting the computers would do no good – they would immediately be swamped with no way to process the data.
Again, this is speculation on my part, but I think I’m pretty close.
In order to start up again, Comair has to wait for their chaotic, exception ridden environment to naturally reorder itself. Then they can pick up from there.
Here’s the rub. Computers are much faster, much more efficient than people. People are much more flexible. When you replace people with computers, you gain efficiency, but only when everything is working correctly. When the wheels start to fall off the wagon, the computer can’t adapt.
If you can only do 10 tasks and your boss asks you to do 11, you’ll try and possibly succeed. If a computer is only equipped to do 10 tasks and you ask it to do 11 – it won’t. It can’t.
It is possible the situation Comair faced was unforeseen. It’s also possible they decided this kind of thing is a very rare event and an acceptable risk in moving to a system with greater cost efficiencies. It was, after all, a failure of commerce, not safety. In fact it was the safety concern that made them stop flying.
Undoubtedly this will be investigated as the government’s in response to irate passengers. Maybe we’ll find out Comair’s mindset in enabling this particular system? Maybe not. I’ll be scouring the wires for updates.