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Q&A: Delta CEO on outage, efforts to ‘win back’ passengers

By Scott Mayerowitz Associated Press

NEW YORK – Delta Air Lines is spending $150 million this year on technology upgrades, such as a better mobile app. But what CEO Ed Bastian never saw coming was a vulnerability to its reservations and operations servers.

A computer outage Monday morning grounded planes around the world, stranding thousands of summertime travelers left in limbo as Delta struggled to sort out the mess, its reputation as an on-time airline severely tarnished.

Problems lingered through Wednesday, and the Atlanta-based airline has canceled more than 2,100 flights so far this week. Thousands of other flights were delayed.

Bastian, who took over as CEO in May, told The Associated Press Wednesday that the problem started when an electrical component failed and let to a shutdown of the transformer providing power to the airline’s data center. The system moved to backup power but not all of the servers were connected to that source, which caused the cascading problem.

Below are the highlights of Bastina’s interview, edited for length and clarity.

Q: You and other Delta executives have touted the airline’s record of days without cancelations. Did that set false expectations of service for passengers that compounded their disappointment this week?

A: It certainly disappointed us as well as our passengers. It does not reflect the quality of service Delta provides. Through the first two days of this outage – and we’re largely back to normal this afternoon – we have canceled on the mainline close to five times the number of flights that we have canceled year-to-date. While this has been an unfortunate week – and it’s been a week we’ve been very sorry about – I see no continuing effect in terms of the quality and reliability of the product we’ll be putting forth.

Q: Has there been any short-term impact on bookings?

A: The period of time is really too short to determine that.

Q: Do you expect any long-term impact?

A: I hope not. Clearly, we have disappointed customers. And I’m sure there are customers that decided in the short-term to book away from us. I don’t know the numbers. But we are determined to win those customers back.

Q: You posted a three-minute apology video Tuesday saying this isn’t Delta and the quality of service that passengers expect. You said you were “sorry” four separate times. What changes are you making as a result of this?

A: We’re going to do everything we can to make certain it does not ever happen again. We made a significant investment in our technology infrastructure over the last several years. In addition to the disruption this has caused to our people and our customers, that is the thing I am most disappointed about. We’re going to spend this year over $150 million in technology infrastructure and upgrades alone. We have to analyze how this could happen given the size of the investment we’re making.

Q: In February you replaced your chief information officer. Has the new executive found any major problems with your technology since taking over?

A: Those changes were driven because we were not getting the type of performance out of technology that we wanted. The new leadership is in the midst of a transformation of technology investment both for infrastructure as well as applications. We knew there were investments to be made in this area but we did not believe, by any means, that we had this type of vulnerability.

Q: Delta ended an agreement last year with American Airlines where you placed stranded passengers on each other’s flights at a discount following mechanical or weather delays. Did the end of that pact make it harder for you to recover from this week’s computer outage?

A: I’m sure in isolated situations it could have been a bit more difficult but on average no, I wouldn’t say that was the case.

Q: How much sleep did you get this week?

A: Not a lot. The frontline teams have been amazing. We’ve certainly gotten a number of emails and comments from irate customers. There are certain emails I could not talk about given the nature of the language used. At the same time I’ve been impressed how many emails of support and encouragement I’ve received from customers telling us to hang in there, the great efforts of the team, the professionalism and the spirit of can do. I’m very proud of the Delta team.

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