American Airlines and others carriers were left helpless after a system outage crippled operations, causing delays

Crowded airport gate
Airline passengers wait to board a flight from Washington, DC’s Ronald Reagan National Airport. DANIEL SLIM/AFP/Getty
  • A system outage at Sabre wreaked havoc on airlines around the world overnight.
  • Passenger service systems were down and airlines couldn’t sell tickets, check-in passengers, or dispatch flights.
  • Airlines have begun the recovery process to mitigate any ripple effects ahead of the weekend.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Travelers arriving at airports across the US on Friday morning were greeted with long lines and flight delays due to a system outage at Sabre, a technology company that provides airline reservations and operational systems.

The passenger service system, or PSS, that powers many of the world’s airlines suffered the outage overnight, leaving airlines with no means to check-in passengers or dispatch flights. Four of America’s largest carriers were affected including American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and Hawaiian Airlines.

“Dell/EMC has confirmed it experienced a hardware redundancy failure that impacted Sabre’s system, including PSS and check-in,” a Sabre spokesperson told Insider. “The issue has been resolved. Dell/EMC is working to understand why the failure occurred.”

Alaska Airlines reported that 18 flights were impacted by the outage and some suffered delays of up to 100 minutes. American didn’t share how many flights were affected while JetBlue and Hawaiian did not return Insider’s request for comment.

Alaska was in the midst of launching its new Anchorage-Las Vegas route on Thursday night when the outage struck. The inaugural flight to Anchorage was held up by nearly two hours after it landed at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, a passenger on the flight said, but delays into Friday have been minimal.

“This morning, our operation has leveled off and we’re in good shape,” an airline spokesperson told Insider.

The outage affected carriers as far as Australia. Virgin Australia Airlines and Rex Airlines both rely on Sabre systems, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, and airports in the country faced similar headaches to those in the US.

Virgin Australia confirmed on Twitter that it was affected by the outage. United Airlines and Delta Air Lines each have their own reservation systems and were unaffected by the outage.

But the most pressing question on the mind of one expert is: why didn’t Sabre’s backup systems kick in?

Sabre is a leading travel technology company and, along with Amadeus, powers more than 90% of the world’s airlines, according to Henry Harteveldt, industry analyst and cofounder of Atmosphere Research Group.

“For something like Sabre, if it goes down, they have a backup system, “Henry Harteveldt, industry analyst and cofounder of Atmosphere Research Group. told Insider. “And normally, if the primary system goes down, there is an almost immediate cut over to the backup system.”

A Sabre spokesperson said the company is investigating why its vendor’s redundancy system was not activated during the outage.

This isn’t the first time Sabre has experienced outages. In 2019, multiple Sabre system outages occurred within a two-month period, as CBS News reported

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A separate system powered by a Sabre subsidiary company, Radixx, also experienced an outage in late April that similarly affected some airlines’ capability to sell tickets. One of America’s newest carriers, Avelo Airlines, couldn’t sell tickets for a period of four days leading up to its inaugural flight.

But Harteveldt says the two incidents are not likely connected since the systems are completely separate. Radixx’s outage was linked to a malware issue and the incident is being reviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Avelo CEO Andrew Levy told Insider.

“One thing I know about the company well enough is they’ve invested a lot in cybersecurity,” Harteveldt said, “and so it’s much less likely that it would have happened to the Sabre system versus the Radixx system.”

Sabre’s outage also affected airlines’ ability to sell tickets overnight. “It’s minor, in the scheme of things, in terms of the cost,” Harteveldt said, noting that the real inconvenience comes from the ripple effects. A passenger that’s missed a connection because of the outage, for example.

The outage was ultimately resolved on Friday morning and the four carriers were able to resume flights. Airlines now begin the process of piecing together their disrupted schedules to reduce the ripple effects of the morning’s flight delays.

“The airlines are back online now and it’s very possible that some people who have flights scheduled to travel later in the day may not be that badly affected,” Harteveldt said.

It’s a giant puzzle that schedulers at each airline will need to arrange, including moving around aircraft and flight crews, to get the schedule back on track. Weather conditions across the US may affect how quickly airlines can get back on track, Harteveldt said, but it’s nothing they haven’t dealt with before.

For now, Sabre and its airline customers will likely work to ensure this outage doesn’t repeat itself next Friday in advance of Memorial Day Weekend.

“If there’s still the lining here it’s that this outage happened today and not a week from today,” Harteveldt said.