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FAA, Southwest Tech Meltdowns Highlight Need for Startup-driven Modernization

It has been a week from hell for Southwest and the Federal Aviation Administration, after both endured public humiliation for technological failures that led to tens of thousands of flights being cancelled and delayed. The revelation that these failures arose from flight systems dependent on defunct Cold War era systems, meanwhile, has led experts to stress the opportunity awaiting ambitious tech startups generating solutions for the future.

The grounding of all air traffic in the U.S. by an FAA technology error on January 11 2023 was followed by a January 13 letter penned by 15 U.S. Senators demanding answers from Southwest after a meltdown caused nearly 16,000 flight cancellations over the holidays.

The FAA estimated that costs relating to U.S. flight delays totalled £33 billion in 2019, the most recent year with complete data. Within the first fortnight of 2023, a computer issue within FAA triggered a nationwide ground stop, imposing a 90-minute delay on all flights departing the U.S. It is estimated that this failure in the FAA’s pilot hazard alert system delayed 4000, and cancelled 600, flights, causing pandemonium across the flight sector.

With flight information relying on technology older than the average age of retirement in the U.S., it is obvious to experts in the tech sector that the demand for solutions developed in this millennium has yet to be met. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Ravi Mayuram, Couchbase’s Chief Technology Officer, explained his experience assisting United Airlines in an overhaul of their systems. Mainframe computers were managing key data-sensitive functions without exchanging data between them – in his words, “The left hand wasn’t talking to the right hand”.

Revolutionary code-based technologies, such as AI-powered features, have the ability to near-instantaneously connect data points from separate systems, helping airlines to innovate like United has done. Recent studies by market-research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan estimated that technology such as linear data management and predictive maintenance could reduce the costs arising from operational faults by as much as half.

The largest obstacles to bringing airline and airport systems into the twenty-first century seem to be willpower, funding and time. Sherry Stein, Head of Technology in the Americas for SITA, commented, “The backbone is technology from the 1960s and that kind of underpins everything and makes it go, and so it can be difficult […] for us to accept new mind-sets”.

Ira Gershkoff, a principal consultant at Travel Technology Research Ltd., agreed, adding that “The government in general has the same problem that industry has, in that these systems get old and modernizing them is really painful. Those who had bought tickets for the nearly 20,000 flights delayed and/or cancelled by Southwest and the FAA in the space of a month might feel that the inconvenience of updating system components eligible for a pension is a small bill to foot.

Startups have already begun to seize the opportunity to revolutionise air travel from the ground up. Barcelona-based Big Blue Analytics has developed programming to solve problems such as aircraft assignment, one of the issues in the cascade of systemwide shutdowns experienced by FAA and Southwest. One of their customers is Volotea, a 41-aircraft Spanish airline.

According to Big Blue Analytics’ chief executive Pau Collellmir, “The only way to tackle a problem that grows exponentially with the number of aircraft is to start with a small airline”. If major airspace companies, such as FAA and Southwest, are ready to listen to those with the tools to solve a glaringly gargantuan issue, the opportunity for tech startups and programming specialists may be as sizeable as the regular inconveniences thousands of U.S. travellers are facing.

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