IBM switch upgrade delays Air Canada flights

Air Canada and IBM Canada will be conducting a review to find out what went wrong during a botched network switch upgrade in one of its computer systems that forced

the delay or cancellation of flights across the country over the weekend, the carrier said Monday.

The glitch, which affected about 30 to 40 of the 600 Air Canada flights scheduled on Sunday, happened around 11:00 a.m. during some routine scheduled maintenance procedures performed by IBM Canada. During the upgrade, workers had problems reconnecting the upgraded switches to the network that calculates how much fuel each aircraft must carry to reach its destination safely, IBM spokesman Mike Quinn said. The airline’s reservation systems were not affected by the problem, he said.

“”I really couldn’t say how often that kind of update would occur,”” he said. “”It could have been a combination of both (human and machine error) . . . I guess the point is that the problem did occur.””

The downtime represents a high-profile black mark on a relationship between Air Canada and one of its most trusted vendor partners. The financially troubled carrier has been working with IBM Canada since at least 1994. In 2001, the two firms signed a $1.4 billion agreement that has seen IBM replace 20,000 computer workstations and several network servers, install software upgrades and maintain Air Canada’s Web site. Even Air Canada’s data centre was dismantled under the seven-year agreement and moved to an IBM facility in Montreal. At the time, the two parties said IBM’s resources would save the carrier $200 million in IT costs.

Air Canada spokeswoman Laura Cooke said she did not want to minimize what the glitch meant for the affected passengers, but she emphasized that it had an impact on only five per cent of its flights.

“”What transpired yesterday was a two to three hour disruption, and Sunday is not our busiest day,”” she said. “”We were able to accommodate the vast majority of customers.””

Quinn would not say whether IBM’s large outsourcing contract with Air Canada included any uptime guarantees or assigned Big Blue any penalties for business interruptions, but he did say the two partners would likely discuss how to ensure it never happens again.

“”Obviously we have meetings with them on an ongoing basis. I’m sure this will be discussed,”” he said.

Cooke agreed. “”After an event like this, clearly a post mortem or a wash-up — however you want to refer to it — is an absolute given,”” she said.

Air Canada’s relationship with IBM goes beyond its own internal operations. The two companies are also partners on a number of joint venture projects to create technology for sale to other carriers. The companies have already been offering a computer check-in kiosk to United Airlines, for example, as well as wireless mobile computers to check in travellers before they step inside its recently opened Terminal 1.

This is not the first time IT issues have left Air Canada’s passengers waiting. Last summer, the carrier’s check-in systems were temporarily brought down by the Sobig virus, forcing staff to enter information manually.

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