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Flying through downtime: the importance of IT resilience in the airline industry

It is the second anniversary of the 27th May 2017 data centre outage that grounded thousands of British Airways customers at a cost to the company of over £50 million. In this article Caroline Seymour looks at the issue of IT resilience in the airline sector.

It would not be completely unfounded to say that no other industry is as heavily regulated or impacted by IT outages as the airline industry. Which would hardly be surprising, given that people’s lives, safety, security, money and time are at risk every second of every day, and dependent on near-perfect operations and uptime.

In spite of this enormous pressure to ensure safe, uninterrupted experiences, the airline business has been incredibly vulnerable to IT outages - and outages have severe business implications, ranging from frustrated customers, to damaged brand reputation, to not being able to execute revenue generating operations.

However, many airlines have come to accept disruptions as a norm. SunGard AS, which has tracked airline outages back to 2007 demonstrates that outages are growing over time. Perhaps most critically, its research, conducted by Qualtrics, reports that 65 percent of consumers will not travel with an airline after experiencing a technical problem that led to a flight delay. So, those IT leaders in the airline industry should be wide awake to the detrimental impact that an outage can have, and the fact that the impact can ripple across the entire business model.

Many obstacles in the flight path

IT is especially complex in the airline industry; and IT outages or disruptions can happen for a variety of reasons. Third-party dependencies, severe weather impacting data centres, company mergers and acquisitions that suddenly marry two different IT environments, combining old hardware with new software, outdated legacy systems, technology upgrades, patches or transformations, connectivity issues, simple human error, cyberattacks or power outages can all be to blame.

Outages can last for a long time and have the potential to affect everything from operations, dispatching systems, flight paperwork, booking, flight check-ins and boarding, or the ability to communicate with the FAA. But, while some outages are out of airlines’ control, much more can be done to ensure they are less vulnerable from an IT perspective. Airlines do not have to accept outages as an inevitable cost of doing business.

Five tips for resilient airline IT

In this ‘always-on’ world, IT leaders are constantly challenged to maximise resources and mitigate the chances of downtime and the risk of data loss. Below are a few ways airlines can ensure they’re doing everything they can to minimise the risks of outages.

Ensure DR plans are modern and resilient: Many innovative airline IT organizations are modernising their DR plans to go beyond traditional backup technologies to add resilience and continuous data protection. IT resilience technology combines continuous availability, workload mobility, and multi-cloud agility to withstand any disruption, seamlessly adopt new technology, and drive transformation forward.

Include geodiversity: It’s crucial to have geodiversity among your data centres in case one is impacted by severe weather, which could knock out legacy systems and primary data. Having one or two more data centres in a different part of the country offers more diversity of systems to protect and replicate data so that it’s constantly available, and not impacted by an outage. Critical applications and data can be moved or migrated out of harm’s way within minutes to another data centre or cloud, if needed, with IT resilience technology.

Invest in people: Recruiting the best in disaster recovery can quickly improve the strength and capabilities of an IT organization. Experience in disaster situations is valuable and helps ensure IT teams stay cool under pressure. Oftentimes the business case can be made to invest in more people when C-level executives understand the bottom line impact of downtime or outages.

Practice, practice, practice: DR plans should include potential ‘what if’ scenarios and must be laid out clearly with owners and step by step instructions. Plans must be signed off across all department heads, including your board of directors. This involves extended coordination and continuous communication, and in times of trouble will prove to make things as seamless as possible.
Regular testing: Test your systems often to ensure they are working as they need to be. Incremental improvements can be made when testing is done on a regular basis.

Ultimately, the real difference between hours or days of downtime versus minutes or seconds is the difference between a solid disaster recovery plan and one that is outdated, hardly tested or not there at all. The simplicity that cloud-based advancements offer, is making disaster recovery systems ever more resilient and capable of the volumes of modern IT disruptions and vulnerabilities.

It doesn’t matter how big or small the outage is, it will always remain imperative that organizations implement resilient IT strategies that work today, and are prepared for the future. Maintaining regular business operations to ensure that customers don’t experience any interruption or frustration is a crucial mission for every airline, and implementing resilient IT is a very important part of achieving this.

The author

Caroline Seymour is VP of Zerto.

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