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How an American Airlines iPad app defect created flight delays

Todd DeCapua Executive Director, JP Morgan
How a defective iPad app delayed American Airlines flights recently, and how to make sure your team avoids similar problems.

This article is part of an ongoing series of Performance Retrospectives that assess real-world application performance issues in the news, analyze what might have happened, and offer up best practices that just might help you avoid similiar problems.

On April 28, 2015, a defective third-party iPad app delayed American Airlines flights.

What happened

On April 29, the BBC reported that "The glitch caused iPad software -- used by the planes' pilots and co-pilots for viewing flight plans -- to stop working."

Why it happened

A duplicate chart for an airport within the chart database prevented the iPad app from reconciling the duplicate, causing it to shut down. American Airlines quickly coordinated a fix for the iPad app defect that required pilots to uninstall the app and install a newer version. While the chart database was being updated, the flight crew defaulted to their backup plan: access stored PDF images of the charts on a computer or work from paper copies the airline has available at every airport.

Business impact

It's unclear how many aircraft were affected, but the costs for this type of failure can add up quickly. For example, a dozen delayed Boeing 777-200 aircraft with 247 seats each would affect 2,964 people. If you estimate lost productivity for the iPad app failure at two hours per passenger and the value of their time at $100 per hour (a conservative number for such exercises), that's $592,800 in lost customer productivity alone. This figure doesn't account for the downstream impact on the rest of the schedule ecosystem and tens of thousands more customers.

Takeaways from this performance glitch

One way to avoid this problem is to incorporate this condition into automated functional or performance regression tests. It's the most expeditious way to catch such problems prior to production and ensure it won't happen again.

American Airlines' use of iPad apps is innovative. Flight crews no longer have to carry heavy briefcases full of paper charts, which saves the airline an estimated $1.2 million in fuel annually, and iPad apps enable flight crews to work faster. This is also a prime example of how end users (the flight crew) have become more dependent on the technology that developers deliver. Developers and testers must build in as much regression testing as they can to ensure that users and their customers have the best possible experience.

Keep learning

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