The federal government said Monday that it will inves tigate the airline mix-ups that disrupted holiday travel over the weekend.
U.S. Department of Trans portation Inspector General Kenneth Mead said the department will review the reasons for a computer system failure at Comair that forced the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights. It will also exam ine the causes of flight cancel lations, delays and baggage handling malfunctions associ ated with US Airways.
The cancellation of 1,100 Christmas Day flights by Comair is prompting calls for more investments in backup systems and other technolo gies to prevent further groundings and damage to an already struggling industry.
The foul-up was hardly the first: A computer glitch grounded 40 Delta flights in May. A power failure created a computer problem that forced Northwest to cancel more than 120 flights in July. A worker keystroke error grounded or delayed some American and US Airways flights for several hours in August.
‘‘Obviously, the airlines have become way too depen dent on computers,’’ said Terry Trippler, an airline industry expert in Minneapo lis. ‘‘Imagine a computer glitch and all the Wal-Mart stores across the country shut down — (founder) Sam (Walton would come out of his grave.’’
A spokesman at Tempebased America West Airlines said the carrier has enough backups in its system to be immune from glitches. The company backs up its data on a nearly continual basis and it stores data at a handful of offsite locations so if one system goes down, another is ready to pull up information.
"Not all of our eggs are in one basket so if something were to happen at a certain location, then data is backed up somewhere else," Phil Gee said.
It wasn’t always that way. In February 2000, the airline’s automated flight management computer system failed for more than five hours. America West ground to a near halt with the cancellation of more than 280 flights and thousands of delays during a three-day period. Approximately 1,000 passengers were stranded overnight at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the airline’s major hub.
Gee said the airline built redundancy into its system after the episode so it wouldn’t happen again.
A spokeswoman at Southwest Airlines, America West’s largest rival in the Valley, declined comment.
Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert in Mountain View, Calif., said the issue boils down to cost versus benefit.
Airlines could upgrade existing computers to handle more transactions, install sophisticated backup systems that come on when the primary system fails or buy highperformance software that is used by NASA, nuclear plants and medical facilities to keep critical systems running at all times, Schneier said.
‘‘It’s certainly feasible, but it’s my guess it’s not economic,’’ Schneier said. ‘‘My guess is it is cheaper for the airline to absorb this loss, which doesn’t happen often, than to fix the problem.’’
Michael Boyd of the Boyd Group, a Colorado-based aviation consulting group, said computer problems in the industry simply go with the territory.
"Computers are machinery made by man,’’ he said. "As long as we insist upon
having man-made computers and we run them, we’re going to have computer glitches."
Several major airlines, though struggling with huge losses and high fuel costs, say they have taken steps to fix the problem.
Comair spokesman Nick Miller said the Delta subsidiary already had planned to replace its scheduling system with one that can handle more transactions, but the new system was not set to come online until mid-January.
Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American Airlines parent AMR Corp. of Fort Worth, Texas, said the carrier already has solidified a backup system to prevent problems like one it had faced in August.
Thomas Becher of Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest Airlines Corp., which blamed its July cancellations on a power failure affecting its computer systems, would not say Monday whether the carrier has implemented a backup system since then.