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Return on … Infrastructure???

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You’re probably familiar with the endless parade of ROIs out there—from return on investment to return on information. Recent incidents have called attention to another type of ROI. Welcome to the long-awaited return to the forgotten world of return on infrastructure. Infrastructure comes in many forms, including physical, IT, and knowledge. All are critical to future stability and growth across the globe.

Physical infrastructure The decay of our physical infrastructure is approaching crisis proportions. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) posts an infrastructure report card (infrastructurereportcard.org) that applies a wide range of assessment criteria, including capacity, operation and maintenance, public safety, and resilience. Ratings assigned to various types of infrastructure at-risk in the United States include aviation (D+), bridges (C), dams (D), drinking water (C-), energy (C-), hazardous waste (D+), levees (D), roads (D), schools (D+), transit (D-), and wastewater (D+).

Infrastructure deficiencies in the aviation sector in particular came to light recently during the December holiday season, as thousands of travelers were left stranded. However, the main causes of these disruptions were not physical. Rather, they were of the second type: IT infrastructure.

IT infrastructure

The first wave occurred during winter storm Elliot in late December 2022, when SkySolver, Southwest Airlines’ decades-old scheduling and routing software, crashed. More than 16,700 flights were cancelled. Southwest immediately activated a minimally staffed, phone-based backup system. The sudden burst in call volume crashed that system as well. Pilots, crews, ticketing agents, and, ultimately, customers had to wait on hold for hours. By the time the smoke cleared, the total cost to Southwest was estimated to be up to $825 million.

This was followed a few weeks later by an outage of the FAA’s NOTAM (Notice to Air Missions) software system. NOTAM sends out real-time alert messages to pilots, warning them of impending hazards or restrictions that might adversely impact the safety of their planned flights. 

The FAA immediately halted all flights. The cause is believed to have been an inadvertently deleted file. Flights resumed about 90 minutes later, after the system was reset and determined to be functioning properly. The ripple effect, however, caused more than 1,300 flight cancellations and more than 10,000 delays. Only hours after the U.S. outage, but apparently unrelated, Canada’s NOTAM system also suffered a 3-hour outage. However, unlike the FAA, Transport Canada Civil Aviation (TCCA) chose not to shut down Canadian airspace.

Throughout the lifecycle of the many interconnected and interdependent systems that essentially keep our world up and running 24/7, people play a major part, from the earliest stages of system design to correcting errors and implementing upgrades. As our physical and IT infrastructures continue to grow in size, complexity, and vulnerability, people and the knowledge they possess will play an ever-increasing role. With that in mind, let’s take a look at these same events through a KM lens. 

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