A Christmas Bug

It’s not really a big deal for me, despite the fact that I travel to Europe in a few days for two weeks. At least, I’m fairly confident this won’t be an issue for me. A few of my fellow #sqlfamily might not be so lucky, as they use a different airline.

Apparently American Airlines has a bug in their scheduling system. It’s not a safety bug, don’t worry about that, but it’s potentially a huge bug for the company in terms of profit and cost. The bug is a part of the system that lets pilots request holiday time off. The system allowed too many pilots to take vacation, and as a result, American Airlines (AA) doesn’t have enough pilots to fly their planes.

In case you wonder about the scope of this, it’s 15,000+ flights that are affected. AA flies about 6,700 flights a day and are the world’s largest airline by some measure. They are offering pilots 150% of their normal rate, which is apparently the max allowed by contract. I’m sure some pilots will take the offer, but I’m also sure there may be some flight cancellations. After all, pilots have likely made their own plans, which they may not want to change. Apparently some have as the news as of this writing is a few hundred flights.

The complexity of airline scheduling software has to be quite high, and while this won’t really endanger lives, it will affect the profitability of AA. This is definitely a development mistake, and one that should have been caught in testing. I don’t know how often this software is updated, nor what their process is. Someone suggested this is outsourced software, but that doesn’t matter. We clearly have a software development failure here.

I certainly think developers are responsible for testing their code and meeting requirements. This includes not assuming the happy path is followed. However, this is also a place where we need (as an industry) to learn to better test the bounds and limits of our software. We need to be sure that we account for not only security, but pushing the limits of use by legitimate users. Software mistakes cost money, and as we continue to use computing more and more, we need to become better at testing our code. Our systems are very complex these days, more complex than a single person can handle. We need better testing everywhere, including the database.

Please, make an effort to test better next year, in both your application and database. Use larger data sets at some point (both numbers and dates), add automated testing as a part of your development routine, and assume that users will do stupid, silly, and malicious things with inputs.

Steve Jones

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