The Computer Is Down

Dec. 21, 2004
That disheartening phrase stops modern society in its tracks -- or on its tarmac.

Information technology is great stuff. Great, that is, so long as it's working. We've all stood in a long queue only to hear a beleaguered clerk or salesperson lament, "The computer is down." What ensues is a lot of standing around -- both by employees and customers. Hey, when the Computer God is angry, you can't argue. Man, with all his technological wonders -- GPS systems in our cars, chips that keep our dogs from running through the gate into the street, electronic garage-door openers, TV remote controls -- has the efficacy of a child once again. When the Computer is Down, we wait. We pray. We cross our fingers. We hope that some technician somewhere can put things back in order. That way, when the Computer is Up again, we'll be able to do those simple everyday things -- rent a car, renew a driver's license, buy a pair of baseball tickets, or withdraw some much-needed cash for a holiday weekend. While on vacation recently, my flight from Cairo to London's Heathrow Airport was diverted to another London-area airport due to a failure of the entire computer system that manages the air traffic controllers at Heathrow. As it turns out, the system had failed a few days earlier, but only for a short time.This time it was different. The system was down for hours. Scores of flights in and out of Heathrow were diverted or delayed. We waited in the aircraft on the ground for eight hours. During this time we were stuck inside our plane and not permitted to disembark at the other airport. We were basically held prisoner with nothing to eat or drink but bags of chips and water. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us travelers, the controllers had to revert to manually writing out slips to keep track of the handful of aircraft that were able to land and take off. But because most flights were delayed anyway, stuck at their gates, there was no place for incoming planes to park. As a result, the areas between runways filled up with jumbo jets. British Airways canceled 100 flights. British Midland canceled 65 flights. Extending beyond Heathrow itself, the snafu's ripple effect was tsunami-like in scope. Travel into Britain from all over the world was severely disrupted. The airlines said there was never any compromising of the safety of the flights, only the speed with which they could be dispatched to and from the gates. Once we did land, the chaos inside the airport itself was unbelievable. Thousands of international travelers, unable to take off due to delayed or canceled flights, had reclaimed their baggage and stood around, placing calls to the airlines in vain efforts to rebook. Thousands of others fought a sea of humanity and luggage to get through customs, claim bags, and find transportation. Although the computer problem was eventually fixed, the ultimate paralysis it caused to one of the world's busiest international airports -- serving 170,000 passengers a day --resulted in a massive backlog of flights that took three days to work off. Up to half a million people were affected by flight delays over that time period. One of the issues the British government is looking into is why this particular computer system had no backup. The system that failed produces flight-data strips that controllers use to keep track of aircraft. When it went down, controllers had to produce the strips manually, causing things to back up in short order. This is akin to Bank of America trying to process 15 million checks in a single night with a staff of clerks. The job literally can't be done. Some observers wondered if a plan to privatize the British National Air Traffic Services Ltd., which operates the air traffic system, was to blame, but a spokesperson denied that was the case. For better or worse, our society is totally dependent on computers to keep things running smoothly. Without them, we often fall back on what are sometimes woefully inadequate support systems. Of course, many businesses do have backup computer hardware and software in place, and for the most part, these are capable and sufficient. But not always. Now, just imagine what will happen when the Internet goes down!

Doug Bartholomew is an IW senior editor based in San Francisco.

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