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.'"
United Chief Executive Glenn Tilton and airline employees were informed of the breakdown by e-mail and voice mail within minutes of the 8 a.m. failure, United said. The FAA was notified simultaneously.
The city's Department of Aviation got a call and dispatched customer service staff to United gates at O'Hare at 9 a.m. Working with the city and the FAA, United began directing arriving domestic flights to Terminal 5.
The Unimatic service was restored at 10 a.m., United said. But the damage was done.
Although delays at O'Hare weren't terrible in the morning, they worsened during the day as the backups at other airports caused customers to miss connecting flights.
By the middle of the afternoon, only 34 percent of United's departures were on time, compared with 75 percent of flights operated by other airlines. More than half of United's 142 departing flights experienced delays of 45 minutes or longer.
At 3 p.m. about 80 people stood in line at a United customer service counter at O'Hare, looking for help.
Ann Snook of San Francisco was part of the queue, holding her 5-month-old granddaughter in one hand and a McDonald's sandwich in the other. She was not pleased.
After a two-hour wait in a plane on the tarmac in San Francisco, Snook missed a connecting flight from O'Hare to Jacksonville.
"They tell us the best we can do is 9 p.m. to Orlando," she sighed.
Adding to her irritation, United's customer service center had seven workstations, but only five United employees were there.
"Not all those computers are manned," Snook said. "I don't think they are doing their best."
At 3:17 p.m., United acknowledged in a statement that it would take a full day for it to recover.
\ Disruptions uneven
Various parts of United's global system were affected differently, with the largest disruptions coming at its hub at Denver International Airport.
Only 11 percent of United departures in Denver were reported on time by mid-afternoon, while 37 percent of arrivals touched down on schedule, according to FlightStats, a firm that tracks real-time and historical flight information.
"There were some big crowds on the B Concourse where United flights arrive and depart," said Chuck Cannon, spokesman for the Denver airport. "Except for at United, ticket-counter lines never got very long today."
Across its system, United canceled nearly 70 flights Wednesday, according to FlightStats. About 268 domestic and international flights were delayed for an average of 90 minutes.
While passengers holding United tickets faced lengthy travel delays, it was a great day to fly for people booked on other airlines.
"It's kind of like if all the Chevys couldn't get on the highway today. It made more room for everybody else," said Joseph Bellino, chief of the air traffic controllers union at O'Hare International Airport. "It was a very slow day for us."
\ Easy flying
A combination of generally good weather coast to coast and a sizable reduction in commercial flights caused by the grounding of all United planes for two hours made for open skies and no queues of planes waiting for runways.
"The volume of air traffic has been much lighter today, and I have not seen any delays at O'Hare or anywhere else due to weather," said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory in Chicago.
Even some United passengers weren't complaining.
Meghan Barich, 29, was dropping off a relative for a United flight to Buenos Aires. She had heard about the delays and had been apprehensive when she got to O'Hare.
"It was easy and breezy," Barich said. "There was a short line and no delay."
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