"Technology has a bad habit of not going away," Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani told me last year. He could have gone further: technology also has a bad habit of biting back, as British Airways is the latest to discover. The airline has yet to explain adequately what caused the IT meltdown that hit 75,000 passengers. But it is no surprise that a "power surge" could trigger such a damaging chain reaction. The longest established carriers are at the knotty nexus of everything that makes IT investment complex, costly and potentially risky. In the 1960s, airlines were in the vanguard of technology innovation. As computers advanced, IT managers had to make new programs work with embedded systems. Consolidation obliged airlines to marry their technology with partners’ systems. More recently, competition from low-cost rivals with no burdensome legacy, investor demands to save money, pressure to provide ever more sophisticated smartphone applications for restless frequent flyers, and eve...

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