Airline System Glitches – Is the Chaos Avoidable Through Better Testing & Qa?
October 9, 2017
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  • An enterprise-wide testing strategy will aid airlines in avoiding technical glitches that can be costly to their business and their brand.

    To say the airline industry is beleaguered is putting it mildly. If it isn’t Ryanair and its cancellation of thousands of flights, or Monarch going into administration, it’s an airline or airport tech issue hitting the headlines on almost a weekly basis.

    The latest is last week’s glitch in the Amadeus Altea system, used by BA, Air France-KLM and Lufthansa. The system crashed for 15 minutes, but that caused hours-long delays at Heathrow, Gatwick and other airports around the world, including Charles de Gaulle, Washington, Singapore and Zurich.

    British Airways has been struck with no fewer than seven tech failures this year alone.  BA’s problems peaked during the summer holidays, when its check in systems went down, leaving angry passengers queuing for hours. The system, called FLY, was introduced last year and replaced a series of old systems covering seat allocation, baggage and passport checks.

    This followed BA’s fiasco in the spring bank holiday when over 600 flights were cancelled, leaving 75,000 passengers stranded. This was due to a power failure that led to BA’s computer systems failing – allegedly, an IT worker had taken out the wrong plug at a data centre causing misery for thousands and costing BA’s parent company £58 million in compensation.

    Of course, it’s not just the airline industry that suffers glitches. But compared to other industries – and because the effects on passengers are so immediate and so extreme – it probably attracts more negative media coverage. Of course, the reputational fall out from all this is extremely damaging – it affects customer loyalty, market share and investor sentiment. Some airline industry analysts believe that BA’s tech woes have cost the company north of £80 million.

    And the cause of most of these tech disasters? Almost all of them can be put down to undetected software bugs and inadequate testing and quality assurance (QA). If not tested properly, bugs can slip through the net and go into production, causing all manner of problems. Even the BA IT worker who took out the wrong plug – this was a failure in the QA process and methodology that should be part and parcel of testing strategy.

    An enterprise-wide test strategy (EWTS)

    A major issue for organisations is that QA and testing are often in silos and are parceled out to specific projects rather than having a centrally managed approach – it is piecemeal and disparate, not cohesive. But in the same way organisations have a single financial strategy in place, a HR policy or a focused approach to procurement, in a bid to create alignment, stop duplication of effort and streamline costs, they need to take the same approach to testing and QA.

    In a bid to raise testing and QA out of the tactical doldrums, organsiations need to realise how much they would benefit from having a EWTS in place, which becomes the driving force behind the implementation of an enterprise-wide test process. The strategy is a powerful thing. But it is important that it becomes a living, breathing document and doesn’t just sit on the shelf gathering dust.

    A major element of the strategy is that the mundane aspects of testing become part of a repeatable, industrialised process. If this happens, it frees up testers to focus on more strategic elements of their role, applying test activity appropriately to projects using skill and judgement, such as anticipating defects and challenging specifications and also focus on innovations, implementing improvements or spending more time on areas of high risk or complexity. The strategy is the first step in giving testing a framework and real foundation.

    And the importance of “buy in” from the top can’t be underestimated, something that airlines need to be aware of. It helps to give the strategy the impact and gravitas it needs for the team to start believing in it. It’s important to have senior input when socialising the testing strategy across the organisation – their involvement is a really powerful way of getting the message across.

    Making testing a measurable process…

    Assessing how testing is performing as a whole as a service to the business is vital in making it a successful business function. Issues, such as how good the testing team is at finding defects, and how efficient the development team is at fixing them, is important to measure. It is only when assurance becomes measurable is it possible to improve areas that aren’t doing so well.

    This leads to the quality assessment framework. Gauging the facts and figures needed to measure quality is important in being able to measure the testing goals – for example, reducing cost, improving quality or getting a product to market quickly. It might be a measure of the number of defect reports being raised – but if the tester working on it doesn’t understand the business functionality very well, they will erroneously raise reports, which skews the effectiveness of the function. A holistic approach and proper training of the testing team is vital.

    And will it be a risk based testing approach, a model based testing approach, or a test early approach? This needs to be carefully weighed up and will also be dictated by the type of change the organisation is going through – for example, business as usual (BAU) change will involve “lite touch” testing whereas bigger transformational change will involve more in-depth, risk-based testing. It will also depend on the development model – waterfall or agile, or if a DevOps culture is being adopted.

    There are some tactical testing activities that all organisations do and the enterprise wide test strategy become a home for them. These include: the test tools that are needed at an organisational level; incident management process; and also an approach to performance testing and test automation.

    What is to be gained from EWTS?

    For a start, avoiding technical glitches – or doing your level best to avoid them – is the primary aim of an EWTS. If it’s not in place, how can a team effectively perform an upgrade or implement a new application? Cross their fingers and hope for the best?

    That’s not good enough, when consequences can have such a negative effect, as we have seen in the multiple tech glitches in the aviation industry. In the same way a company might future proof against a potential catastrophe in disaster recovery or reputational terms, companies have to think about any potential tech pitfalls. And a fully comprehensive EWTS with the appropriate governance in place – even though it won’t solve all your problems – is an excellent place to start.