SSA website fails; MV reservations delayed

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This is a screenshot of the Steamship Authority website Monday morning.

Updated 8:20 pm

The Steamship Authority website floundered Tuesday morning at the start of general reservations on the Martha’s Vineyard route for summer 2020.

Early in the day, SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll announced the SSA halted summer reservations “until at least 9 am” so it could attempt to fix the site. Later, the SSA said it would be more like 12 noon before the system was back. That didn’t work out.

“Unfortunately, although some customers were able to make reservations following the noon reopening, transactions were being processed at a much slower pace than anticipated,” a release emailed just before 5 pm stated. “Further attempts to repair the site were successfully made; by 3:30 p.m., approximately 10,000 reservations had been made in less than four hours, or roughly two-thirds of the total reservations for the Vineyard route that were made in 2019.”

In an earlier mea culpa statement, the SSA said it hit the brakes on reservations purposely so it could troubleshoot its site. 

The Steamship Authority’s website did not perform as expected when reservations opened for the summer on the Martha’s Vineyard route today at 5 a.m,” Driscoll wrote in that initial statement. “Our entire IT team, as well as representatives from our outside vendors, were immediately at work trying to diagnose and address the issue. Our team is still working on the problem, but rather than have our customers continue to attempt to book unsuccessfully, we have decided to halt all reservation activity until at least 9 am EST. We will provide an update prior to that point as to the status of our reservation system. We apologize to everyone affected by this situation.”

Meanwhile, while the public waited — many of them set their alarm clocks to get their reservations in early — the SSA met with the ferry service board in Falmouth.

At that meeting, SSA general manager Robert Davis called the breakdown “obviously unacceptable,” and promised a full analysis.

Marc Hanover, who represents the Vineyard on the board, called for a consultant to review the issue, and Moira Tierney, who represents New Bedford, asked that the administration identify the problem and report back to the board. No vote or official action was taken by the board.

In part of the statement issued just prior to 5 pm, the SSA cautiously declared website victory.

“The issues affecting the Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority’s website today that made it difficult for customers to book their summer vehicle reservations on the Martha’s Vineyard route appear to have been resolved,” he emailed, “although the site will continue to be monitored.”

In 2018, a similar meltdown of the reservation system occurred. At that time, Davis said the problems were caused by software issues. 

On Twitter, folks voiced their displeasure. “Steamship Authority founded in 1945. Tech stack last updated in 1985,” one user wrote.

“Unbelievable. Simply unbelievable. I’ve been up since 4:30 am, and I have a work meeting at 9 am. Thousands of dollars of reservations at stake,” Paige Duncan added on Twitter.

“In the 90 minutes we spent hitting refresh, we could have done a round-trip ferry ride,” tweeted Ryan Williams.

Later Wil-Holbrook tweeted: “Three things are guaranteed in life; taxes, death and the Steamship Authority website crashing on opening day.”

SSA customer Ross MacPherson of Plympton, who grew up in Vineyard Haven, reached out to wish The Times “happy crash day.”

“The SSA reservation site was up for about 94 seconds at 5 am this morning, just enough time to select the boats on a reservation and watch them disappear into a spinning cursor of purgatory,” he emailed at 6:15 am. “Site is still down. It took them until 5:55 to get a landing page up that there was an error, still nothing on Twitter or Facebook but maybe they put a status update on their website and we just can’t load it. I had a brief glimmer of hope at 6:13 when I could sign in, only to be redirected to the error page. Cornflakes with one hand, refresh button with the other.”

Dave of Edgartown, who asked that his last name not be used for fear he might be blacklisted from making reservations, called it “unconscionable” that the SSA picked 5 am to launch the reservations. “People were up early, on a work day, to buy online tickets,” he said. “Who thought that was a good time, given their past problems? It’s been a mess historically. Even when it works, you have to keep hitting refresh.”

The 5 am time slot was chosen in 2019, Driscoll told The Times. “Prior to that people used to start at midnight,” he said. 

Davis told The Times web traffic previously was “sporadic” between midnight and 1 am the SSA found “the bulk” of people went online at 5 am. 

“That’s why we determined 5 am would be a good time,” he said. 

Driscoll also said after 1 am, the SSA system goes down for backups. “Most people would try to do it before they went to work, which is why we chose 5 [am],” he added. 

Dave, who also rents his property in the summer, said there’s one thing he always tells his renters: “You’ll love the Vineyard, but the SSA is a mess.”

Though problems were reported almost immediately by customers, Steamship Authority officials told them initially, in a Tweet, “The site is operational but we are very busy. Please remain patient and keep trying.”

“This is obviously an unacceptable result on our biggest reservation day of the year, especially since we have now had issues in two of the most recent three years,” Davis said through a release.. “In the coming days, we will do a full accounting of what went wrong and what has to be fixed to make sure it does not happen again, and we will share the results of that work with the public. I apologize to our customers for what happened today and I want to assure them that it will be my top priority to address it.” 

Updated with new information from SSA. -Ed.