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United Airlines Massive Computer Crash Leads To Handwritten Boarding Passes

from the so-retro dept

Hopefully, you weren't flying United Airlines yesterday. As you may have heard, the company had a massive computer crash, which caused chaos at many airports. These kinds of things aren't new, but this one did seem quite impressive in terms of how much it impacted. Still, what interests me is that the airline sought to deal with no computers by handwriting boarding passes, some of which people started photographing and putting on Twitter.

Moira Forbes got one that at least looked kinda sorta like a normal boarding pass, done on a boarding pass blank:
A James Fortune got a similar one that was a bit messier with the handwriting:
And, finally, someone going by the name jmeg on Twitter didn't even get a boarding pass blank, but just sheet of paper.
A few months ago, I ended up flying on the day that Virgin America chose to "switch over" its computer system. While they warned us a week ahead of time, they still suggested we show up early and noted that getting boarding passes would be more manual. In that case, they had pre-printed them all out before the systems were shut off, and then had to flip through the stack to find the right one. Even that took more time than usual, so I can only imagine the mess of having to do boarding passes by hand.

But what fascinates me about this is how people figure out how to cope when computer systems go down. Every so often we have these fear mongering stories about computer crashes, and we learn about how the Y2K bug could lead to the end of society or some computer hackers could create havoc by attacking key computers. And while there are computers that run some critical systems, even in situations like this -- where the computers are incredibly important -- when they go down it may create a major pain in the ass for some, but it's not the end of the world. People figure out ways to cope and to use alternative systems, such as handwriting boarding passes. It's not perfect, and there were plenty of people who didn't get to fly at all, but it's not like civilization broke down. Computer systems fail, people deal with it, and everyone gets on with their lives.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Wally (profile), Aug 29th, 2012 @ 8:16pm

    Man!!! Talk about redundent systems there :-) That's actually kind of cool because it shows that they know how to handle things without computers. I don't know about anyone else, but this definitely raises my confidence in the airline industry.

    Mike if you have the time I do have one question out of curiosity. How long did it take you to actually get on the aircraft?

     

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  2.  
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    Wally (profile), Aug 29th, 2012 @ 8:21pm

    The Y2K problem was sort if serious. A lot of the PC's at the time used double digit years. Funny thing is, all the Macintosh models had been Y2K ready since 1984.

     

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  3.  
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    Zos (profile), Aug 29th, 2012 @ 8:21pm

    i remember the panic and confusion at pizza hut anytime the credit card machine was down and they had to write someone a receipt on actual carbon paper..

     

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  4.  
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    Andrew Norton (profile), Aug 29th, 2012 @ 8:46pm

    But 'security!'

    Who got the job of writing SSSS on them?

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2012 @ 9:26pm

    My sainted mother has a saying IBM It's Better Manual.

     

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  6.  
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    Big Al, Aug 29th, 2012 @ 9:29pm

    Re:

    It wasn't the PCs so much as the mainframes/minis where dates were all stored as "pic 999999" due to the (relative) expense of storage.
    I have been in working as a software developer since the mid-70s and I can assure you that we were working our butts off during the late 90s finding and modifying these date fields in large finance and insurance systems.
    The only reason the Y2K bug wasn't a problem was because we put in god knows how many hours to make sure it wasn't.

     

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  7.  
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    Chris, Aug 29th, 2012 @ 9:42pm

    Re: IBM

    At one of the mainframe places I worked we had a board full of alternative meanings for the letters IBM. Some I remember included: Itsy Bittsy Machine Company, I've Been Misled in addition to It's Better Manually.

     

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  8.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Aug 29th, 2012 @ 9:50pm

    Doing it Manually

    I always say, computers are great, but if you can't do it by hand you probably shouldn't be in business. Your computers will go down, it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. If you can survive for a little while without the computers, you should be good. If you can't survive for even minutes without a system, work hard on a backup plan.

     

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  9.  
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    Yogi, Aug 29th, 2012 @ 9:58pm

    Yet...

    Yes, civilization didn't fall...yet. Just wait until there aren't enough people left who can read and write, and then see what happens when the computers fall.
    From what I'm seeing, we are transitioning (backwards)from a written culture to a viewing culture, so we are not very far away from that point.

     

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  10.  
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    Andrew Norton (profile), Aug 29th, 2012 @ 10:04pm

    reminds me of the Asmiov short story 'the Fealing of Power' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Feeling_of_Power)

     

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  11.  
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    Wally (profile), Aug 29th, 2012 @ 10:08pm

    Re: Re:

    I have no choice but to do two things. I Commend you for your awesome contribution to the tech community and business world. You sir get my Insightful vote :-)

     

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  12.  
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    Wally (profile), Aug 29th, 2012 @ 10:18pm

    Re: Re: IBM

    You've got to admit, their PowerPC platform during the AIM alliance was ahead its time. The PowerPC 604e Mach 5 edition natively supported scaled power, and on board multiple CPU support. They were native 64 bit RISC processors.

     

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  13.  
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    Beta (profile), Aug 29th, 2012 @ 10:20pm

    fundamentals

    I swore off United years ago because of an inexcusable performance by a couple of their people when a glitch in their system stranded me in a strange city. Now I'm deeply impressed by their response to a full computer network crash. Hmm...

    I just wish they had better handwriting.

     

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  14.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Aug 29th, 2012 @ 10:36pm

    Re: Doing it Manually

    I always say, computers are great, but if you can't do it by hand you probably shouldn't be in business.

    Well, damn. That might make it tough for us here at Techdirt...

     

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  15.  
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    Wally (profile), Aug 29th, 2012 @ 11:13pm

    Re: Re: Doing it Manually

    Well, you could engrave all 256 characters able to be used on a standard English QWERTY keyboard. Then buy a circa 1776 printing press with a few thousand sheets of paper and envelops to match, and about 1,000 gallons of black ink to send out a news letter via steam locomotive train mail. :-)

     

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  16.  
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    William Chambers, Aug 29th, 2012 @ 11:27pm

    Re: Yet...

    In the age of the internet, You couldn't be further from the reality.

     

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  17.  
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    Yogi, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 12:46am

    Re: Re: Yet...

    Considering the increasing use of video and visuals, which is now enabled everywhere by digital technology - why am I that far off? The internet enables a lot more oral communication than previous technology allowed.
    This does not mean that literacy is completely dying or ever will, just that it is required less than before and therefore fewer people read and write properly, or at all. How low will we sink is a matter of speculation.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 1:11am

    Not so surprising, really.. I work on a passenger ferry and there's been a few times the terminals system has crashed. In such cases, the passengers get a handwritten boarding card. Thankfully, it's never happened when we're busy (only about 200 it so people) so we just say they cam sit where they like. Don't know how we'd cope if we had 700 people though!

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 1:31am

    Forgery here I come.

     

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  20.  
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    Haywood (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 3:49am

    You just do what needs done

    Years ago, in the 80's I was working a Payless Cashways (like a Lowes or home Depot) when we had a complete power failure. The store was full of customers who had full carts and wanted to check out. When it became apparent that the power wasn't coming back on, the floor manager got all the personnel on the registers, Supervisors with hand held calculators, everyone else sliding merchandise past them on the now dead conveyors. It was very hard work, but the store stayed running, and the customers left happy. We were probably lucky that was pre barcode.

     

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  21.  
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    Ninja (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 3:52am

    Re: Re: Doing it Manually

    I'm sure paywall bob would be delighted with an apocalyptic worldwide computer systems breakdown. It would be the end of paywalls!

     

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  22.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 4:10am

    Re: You just do what needs done

    Have these people not heard of backup power? You know, like hospitals have? Exactly how much forethought does it take to organize your electrical system such that you can run off a standby generator? People in the third world have been doing this sort of stuff routinely for many decades. They have never had reliable electric power.

    As the USA slides towards third world status in more and more areas, Americans had better get used to planning ahead for power outages.

     

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  23.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 4:20am

    Re:

    Way to go United! There is no need for you to worry about redundant systems. Nooo, there would not be any lower priority tasks that could be stopped so boarding passes could still get printed. United does not have to have two systems they could use and some sort of prudent planning about upgrades. Of course not, that stuff is for sissies.

    Why hire professional system administrators who actually know what they are doing? Those guys are expensive. What is a lot worse, some of them might tell senior executives that they are idiots. Total failure is perfectly acceptable. It is not as if running an airline is any kind of important job.

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 4:49am

    Re: Re: You just do what needs done

    In the 80's when cash registers were barely better than calculators, having to actually use calculators seems like a much better plan than spending thousands or hundreds of thousands on a backup power system.

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 4:50am

    Sucks to be the guy who has to manually check the no-fly list.

     

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  26.  
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    Vidiot (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 5:21am

    Re: fundamentals

    And remember that after the Continental merger, they now have TWICE as much data to lose. COA had their snarky moments, but I don't recall a total system wipeout.

     

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  27.  
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    sniperdoc (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 5:34am

    How wrong...

    "and people get on with their lives."

    That may be true... but they may get on with their lives without a job, without documentation to back up legal issues, it could be the end of a corporation to have an entire network fail, i.e. network intrusion and a data breach/wipe.

    That's about the most ignorant comment ever... the added stress and financial burden a massive failure puts on an organization is not just a simple "meh... we'll deal."

     

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  28.  
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    Wally (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 6:45am

    Re: Re: Re: Doing it Manually

    Even in the days of manual print there was a paywall...

     

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  29.  
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    ltlw0lf (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 7:51am

    Re:

    Sucks to be the guy who has to manually check the no-fly list.

    I suspect they treated the no-fly list for what it was, meaningless "feel-good" pandering that doesn't actually stop terrorism but makes a small portion of the population's lives miserable. They probably didn't have anyone checking it, and amazingly (or better, unsurprisingly,) no terrorists got on board any United planes.

     

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  30.  
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    ltlw0lf (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 7:57am

    Re: How wrong...

    That's about the most ignorant comment ever... the added stress and financial burden a massive failure puts on an organization is not just a simple "meh... we'll deal."

    Insensitive, yes. Ignorant, probably not. The truth is that when tools fail, people adapt. Has been happening since man appeared on the earth 80k years ago, and it will likely continue happening long after we are gone. Whether or not people lose jobs or it makes life tough for the next couple years isn't going to stop people adapting.

     

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  31.  
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    art guerrilla (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 8:14am

    Re:

    back in the day when IBM was the shit:
    IBM
    UBM
    we all BM
    for IBM

    (updated version?:
    I B Soft
    U B soft
    we all B soft
    for microsoft ?)
    art guerrilla
    aka ann archy
    eof

     

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  32.  
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    drfinale (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 8:32am

    Years ago, I used to work for a movie theatre. We kept "backup" tickets on hand, which were basically spools of carnival-style tickets, color-coded by type (adult, child, etc.) and house.

    Twice while working there, the main server crashed, and we had to use the backup tickets. It certainly took longer than having the computer print tickets, but, as a back-up plan it worked. I just remember the looks on the customers' faces when they were handed carnival tickets. :-)

     

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  33.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 8:45am

    Re: Re:

    The only reason the Y2K bug wasn't a problem was because we put in god knows how many hours to make sure it wasn't.


    Not to minimize that important work at all, but it must also be said that the Y2K problem was never the life-and-death issue that the media made it out to be.

     

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  34.  
    identicon
    Mason Wheeler, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 9:42am

    Re: Re:

    Remember, this is United we're talking about. They're the ones who think they have a right to break passengers' guitars with no liability. You really expect them to be run by competent people?

     

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  35.  
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    Martin Thomas (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 11:15am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Also, people who were ready to believe that the world was about to end latched on it.

     

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  36.  
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    The Groove Tiger (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 11:20am

    Well, I guess United is good at two things.

    1. Breaking computers
    2. Breaking guitars

     

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  37.  
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    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 1:36pm

    It's about risk management

    I was thinking about the cases where there have been massively unexpected engineering failures (e.g., Titanic, World Trade Center building collapse).

    The issue, it seems to me, is when engineers/designers give people the impression that what they have designed won't fail (even worse, when the engineers themselves believe that).

    If, on the other hand, society is told that systematic failure is a possibility and that there's a X% likelihood of that happening, then everyone can decide whether or not it's worth the investment to develop backup systems to cover the potential problems.

    For example, archiving records is a good example. Everyone is told to make more than one copy. And some folks take the extra step to make copies on multiple media. If you want to make sure your precious photos survive, you might want to have them on your computer, on an external hard drive, on DVD, in the cloud, AND in hard copy format.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  38.  
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    Wally (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 1:59pm

    Re: It's about risk management

    May I add the Cuyahoga River fires as a civil engineering failure?

     

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  39.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 2:53pm

    and one of the secret service agents charged with protecting Romney left her loaded gun on the airplane.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  40.  
    identicon
    eliste, Aug 31st, 2012 @ 3:12am

    On the other hand...

    You should have a look at the computer crash that took out RBS, Natwest & Ulster Bank in the UK/Ireland in June/July. For Ulster Bank customers it was 3+ weeks before standard stuff (like an accurate bank balance) was available.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2012/jul/04/rbs-ulster-bank-accounts

    Sometimes even human ingenuity and workarounds aren't enough.

     

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  41.  
    identicon
    computer networking, Nov 1st, 2012 @ 3:23am

    What does "Destination unavailable" in the History mean?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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