Sabre Software Outage Grounds Flights Around the World

Another major outage of airline reservation systems last night and early today shows again how reliant we’ve become on software – and how vulnerable massive organizations are to preventable errors that should never make it into production.

Airline traffic around the world ground to a halt after the Sabre network, used for scheduling and/or passenger check-in by a mere 400 airlines and 100 airports, crashed. The outage was described in various media reports as a “glitch” or “connectivity issue.”

Texas-based Sabre has had little to say about what happened to its software. The system came back up about 2:30 a.m. Eastern time after four hours on the fritz.

“Sabre customers were unable to connect to our system for a period of time this evening,” said a statement from spokeswoman Nancy St. Pierre, who we’re guessing had an awfully long night. “This has been restored and everyone is now able to connect to Sabre. We apologize and regret the inconvenience caused.”

Passengers – even some who had already checked-in – were stopped in their tracks and sent back to get old-fashioned paper boarding passes. Lines snaked around terminals. Travel was delayed for hours. And all while much of the globe was under travel alerts related to new terrorism concerns. Just what we needed, right?

We’ve Seen This In-Flight Movie Before

Airlines and their up-and-down systems have frequently been featured on this blog. See here. And here. And here.

Whenever we write about one of these, I emphasize that we don’t know what caused this particular outage. Unless someone on the inside leaks the details, we rarely learn the actual cause. It’s not the kind of thing a company is likely to issue a press release about.

The fact that this outage started late at night leads one to theorize that perhaps some kind of updates were being implemented at the time. As I said, we’ll probably never know.

We can say this much: The latest Sabre outage is a reminder of the importance of software testing in live-like environments before upgrades, integrations or new products go into production. Tools are available that simulate realistic conditions, using “virtualized services” to stand in for any kind of dependency.

Responsible companies everywhere are already dialing into this technology and finding they can issue releases faster, cheaper and of higher quality. Travelers should hope that airlines and the companies providing them software support will one day catch up.