(AM update. Virgin flights are expected by the airline to return to the normal schedules in full by noon eastern Australian time).

It only lasted two hours at its source, but the lingering misery inflicted on Virgin Australia customers by a two hour global outage by the Sabre computer reservations system this afternoon is real, extensive and expensive and long lasting judging from social media messages and images.

The costs to the airline in cash terms will dent by an as yet unspecified amount its performance in this new financial year, following on the  very painful downgrade of the results to 30 June in an update to investors yesterday.

This is the problem with network wide failures. There will be a measurable impact to costs from idle aircraft, on which hours flying are a critical input into financial performance, not compensated for by foregone fuel burn and airport and navigation charges and easily outweighed by compensation or refunds to passengers.

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And there will be the immeasurable damage to reputation and customer loyalty by missed meetings, family reunions and stuffed up holidays.  All despite the fact that this was not the fault of the airline, but the computer reservations and operations management functions entrusted to Sabre.

A twitpic of Virgin chaos in Brisbane last night by Mackie Marsellos

Qantas uses the competing Amadeus system. But Amadeus screws up too. Tonight is Virgin’s turn to be done over by a critical services provider.

Sabre is also used by hotel chains, car rental companies, and cruise lines and is the core system for the Travelocity on line travel company.

If you are one of today’s Sabre victims, here, or on a different airline abroad, ask yourself again, Am I really going to trust cloud computing? Only if you are stupid or fireproof or naively trusting are offered as possible answers.

One might wonder if Virgin Australia put a few jet loads of passengers onto the respective overnight trains to Sydney or Melbourne from each city.  At a guess they would have a combined 600 seats available for mid evening departures arriving in the other cities early in the morning, when Virgin counters will still it seems be struggling with the displaced hordes.  And whatever else might be said about those trains, including more expensive fares than often available on the airlines, all of the seating is at least big enough to sit in.

Back in 1990, after the inaugural second coming of American Airlines to Sydney, the writer flew on its first DC-10 service to Dallas Fort Worth via from, memory Honolulu, or maybe San Francisco.  The ‘treat’ of the following day was a day visit to the Sabre bunker at Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the original SABRE was then the earnings poster child of AMR Corporation, and far more lucrative as an activity than just flying passengers.

We were taken down into a operations centre with deep concrete and steel reinforced walls and state of the art air-conditioning, filtering and power and water backups that were atomic bomb proof.  By design.  SABRE was considered so vital to American Airlines that it would not only withstand a tactical Hiroshima sized A-bomb, but one of the smaller H-bombs then clustered on Minuteman type missiles with a potency of five or six times that of the bombs that burned the Japanese cities and ended the war with Japan.

The aviation press corp of those days was excessively polite. No-one according to memory asked our guides what use this was if its customers, and fleet, and airports, had all been destroyed on the surface by a nuclear holocaust.

But given the fury of airlines like Virgin Australia a nuclear proof bunker for modern day Sabre might be a necessity if the company can’t get its act together.

I subscribe to Crikey because I believe in a free, open and independent media where news and opinions can be published that I can both agree with and be challenged by.

As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.

Jess
Singapore

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