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A Fine Mess

Computer failure

The recent ransom-ware saga poses an interesting question: "How could travel function without computers?" "It can't" is the answer one hears. I actually asked this very same question some 25 years ago and was, of course, told that such a disaster could never happen. One thing we all know and one thing we all should remember, however, is that there are only two things certain in life - death and taxes.

Recently, the UK's National Health Service was brought to a grinding halt as were some multi-national firms and a countless number of smaller users. The reason given for this calamity was that the main unfortunates were using outdated systems, had not updated their security systems and so on and so forth. If a tech melt down on such a scale can happen today, then there is no reason why it cannot happen tomorrow and we do not know who may be affected. Further, it is not about keeping things simply up to date.

Travel, of course, managed quite happily without computers for a very long time. Indeed, it was only during the 1980's that the advent of the GDS saw the first real major advance in - or any - travel technology (and one which is still going, in more-or-less the same format, today).

Since then we have advanced through viewdata, e-tickets, smartphone itineraries, bar and QR code tickets, automated check-in... to the extent that the whole travel experience revolves around an automated process, with occasional human intervention when and where the opportunity lies to nickel-and-dime some unfortunate passenger.

Due to this dependency, in the advent of any major system collapse (which will happen, sooner or later) there is no fall back system which allows for manual processing. There are no physical tickets (and few who know how to write one out), there is no manual (emergency) process such as those systems which existed in the 1970's or 1980's; worse, the people that knew how such a system would or could work, have mainly retired or even passed away, for no one thinks it a necessity to offer suitable training to any younger colleagues, so that some sort of a manual system could be made to work.

The ransom-ware tale should be a lesson heeded by all and by any industry that has become so computer-dependent. Training in manual ticketing and systems, holistic training for airline airport staff on the subject of travel in general, stress testing any organisations functions (in part and/ or in whole) to establish just how tech dependent they have become and how vulnerable they are to system meltdowns should be considered and actioned as a matter of urgency. Looking at any bypass arrangements that could mitigate system failure either wholesale or in part, will go towards making sure that in the event of a large-scale tech failure, industry and more specifically the travel industry, may still be able to function.

We need to guard against the sort of situation envisaged by George Orwell.

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