TO REALLY SCREW THINGS UP REQUIRES A COMPUTER. There are no high-speed trains in much of the country, many of the interstate highways, otherwise known as corporate welfare for the truckers, were fouled by snow, and airline employees are unhappy. To add to the troubles, airplane scheduling and crew dispatching (two good jobs for economics majors, particularly with a bit of training in operations research) have become too dependent on computer programs that are incapable of making things up on their own.

Comair was unable to schedule sufficient flight crews, stranding as many as 30,000 people in 119 cities over the weekend, after its computers crashed on Christmas Day.

The carrier continued to struggle on Monday, operating just 60% of its 1,160 flights. Comair, which was already in the process of updating its computers, said it might not operate a full daily schedule until Wednesday.

Humph. What ever happened to lots of scribbling on paper, and the telephone or the crew-caller on a bicycle?

Terry Tripler, an airline industry expert in Minneapolis, said the Comair flight disruptions were inexcusable.

“This is the equivalent of Wal-Mart having every cash register closed down the day after Thanksgiving,” he said. “Is that how a business operates? Is there not a backup system somewhere?”

No. And too many people still view the computer as some sort of god.

But the dependence on computers by the industry means passengers are likely to see more flight delays caused by computer errors in the future.

“I’m afraid so,” said airline industry analyst Michael Boyd. “As long as computers continue to be made and operated by humans, we’re going to have the problem.”

Bunk. Somewhere there has to be someone with the authority to override the computer, and check the availability of planes at the airport and rest time of crews at the hotel, and get some semblance of service running.

Perhaps part of the problem has been the belief of airline management that there is a reserve army of unemployed aircrew just waiting for their chance to work for Screwup Scarelines.

Michael Boyd, an aviation industry consultant, said the sick calls were a case of "product sabotage."

US Airways has a full-scale employee mutiny on its hands," he said. "Not everyone is involved, but enough are to give the airline heartburn and they can't afford heartburn."

I think they have employees that are fed up with being made the scapegoat for what is happening at the airline," said Boyd, alluding to US Airways' bankruptcy now pending in federal bankruptcy court. "I understand where they are coming from, but this might kill the airline. This airline cannot afford a lot of bad publicity or passengers booking away."

Perhaps Allegheny U.S. Air is more valuable as a source of aircraft for other carriers than as a going concern.

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