United Airlines' main flight operations computer crashed for two hours Wednesday during the morning travel rush, delaying takeoffs and snarling landings for tens of thousands of passengers in the middle of the busiest air travel week of the summer.
A backup system failed to activate for unknown reasons, causing near paralysis in United's global system from 8 to 10 a.m. Chicago time. Although United's pilots never lost radio communication with air traffic controllers or the airline's operations center, many were forced to land aircraft without knowing what gates to head to, and others were unable to take off.
"It's kind of like having a snowstorm in Denver, Chicago, New York and, maybe, San Francisco at the same time," said Connecticut airline consultant John Pincavage.
Except only one airline was affected, which made travel much easier for passengers on United's competitors. Business travel adviser Joe Brancatelli sent an urgent e-mail to his subscribers at JoeSentMe.com, urging them to avoid United for the next day or two, saying that the canceled flights and delays would ripple through the airline's system.
The computer system, known as Unimatic, is essential to the airline's operation, providing flight plans for pilots, updates on maintenance information and crew schedules, among other flight information. United jets worldwide cannot take off unless it is operating. The original Unimatic system dates back to at least 1988, but it is updated "all the time," United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said.
Soon after the computer failure, flights landing around the country were in limbo. In Chicago, United worked with city officials and the Federal Aviation Administration to direct domestic flights to Terminal 5, which normally handles international traffic.
United worked hard to recover from the morning setback but was forced to cancel dozens of flights. Early optimism at United's Chicago headquarters that the carrier might catch up by the end of the day dissolved. By mid-afternoon, United acknowledged its operations wouldn't be back to normal until Thursday at the soonest.
"We continue to work hard to resume operations by tomorrow morning and kindly ask for our customers' patience," said Urbanski.
The computer breakdown likely will cost United more than $10 million in lost revenue and additional costs, estimated Michael Boyd, an airline consultant in Evergreen, Colo.
There are other costs that aren't so easy to quantify, Boyd added, such as further damage to United's already shaky record for reliability. United ranked last in customer satisfaction in a recent University of Michigan survey, and Wednesday's mess isn't likely to help Chicago's hometown airline get out of the basement, consultants said.
United placed some passengers on flights with other airlines but was unable to provide precise numbers on how many. Other carriers, including Southwest Airlines and US Airways, said their operations were unaffected by United's problems. United's archrival, American Airlines, said it did its best to help out.
"We offered them gates," said American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan. "We may be competitive at certain levels, but operationally we help each other out."
For United passengers, though, the glitch was real -- and very aggravating.
"I am frustrated," said Gary Reul, who sat on the ground for two hours in Seattle on his way to Buffalo and missed his connecting flight in Chicago. "I have no idea whether my luggage will follow me. Now I have a five-hour wait."
\ Communication criticized
Travel adviser Brancatelli faulted United for putting too much of a positive spin on the breakdown early in the day and not warning fliers of the possible delays.
"This is as much a communications failure as an equipment failure," he said. "It's appalling what they put on their Web site, that things are returning to normal. I sent out an alert to my members and I promptly got an e-mail back from a member's BlackBerry saying, 'I'm sitting on a United flight out of Chicago, and you just told me more information than they were telling me.'"
The airline now has three nonstop flights a day from Midway to Denver, Ted's base, and two daily nonstops to Washington Dulles.
Dangerously low temperatures prompted safety precautions that limited the amount of time -- as little as 15 minutes consecutively -- that ramp workers and baggage handlers could spend outdoors.
Carrier expects to be back on track later today