Why You Now Know More Than Your Airline Does


First, let me apologize for this week’s version of “Cover Story.” The one we were planning got disrupted due to severe weather conditions. But this version might be better, because it was inspired by those conditions. Let’s start with the opening anecdote: A journalist stranded at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport when his inbound flight was delayed, forcing him to miss his connecting flight home. “I can put you on standby for the next flight -- that’s the best I can do because we are completely sold out,” says the flustered United Airlines representative working the boarding gate.

Just out of curiosity, and because he had hours to kill, the journalist did what any Internet-connected consumer would: He used the power residing in the palm of his hand to go on Kayak.com to see if there were any seats available on that flight. And sure enough, there was one -- seat number 24D -- which was currently available for $540.

The journalist then went on United Airlines’ own booking site and confirmed that seat was available. He then called the airline's customer assistance phone number, and when he was finally connected to a human named Mary, he asked why he was put on standby for an “overbooked” flight when there was a seat available to be purchased on United’s own booking site. She apologized and said it was a “mistake” and assigned the seat to the journalist, making him feel a mixture of delight and guilt. He was delighted at the prospect of not spending the night in Cleveland (even though he’s sure it’s a wonderful city). He felt guilty, because he was third on the the standby list and had just bumped two people ahead of him.

As it turned out, the flight was canceled and the journalist ended up spending the night in Cleveland, but the purpose of this anecdote is really to demonstrate an ironic shift that has occurred in the power of media: That a consumer can be more informed about an airline’s booking system than the airline itself. The even bigger irony is that this paradox was enabled by a technology -- the airline industry’s SABRE booking system -- that was originally created to give the airlines and travel agents control over their own inventory.

That was just one of several equally ironic anecdotes the journalist could relate on his 36-hour sojourn back from Muncie, IN, where he was lecturing at Ball State University, and also discussing plans for developing new media technologies that might someday give average people even more control over information that previously was not available to them, because no one had thought to organize it that way before. I will come back to the Ball State part in another story. For now, let’s stick with the irony of the airline industry’s own communications infrastructure.

Now don’t get me wrong -- I completely understand the catastrophic effects severe weather can wreak on systems that function great under normal circumstances, but it is our ability to depend on them during abnormal circumstances that determines how civilized we actually are as a society. I’ve written about this before, especially when Hurricane Sandy kept much of the Northeast off-the-grid for about a week. It was during an even smaller storm, Irene, that I first began developing a thesis that connectivity-to-the-grid is now our standard metric for measuring the severity of natural weather disasters. I’ll spare you the deep dive here now, but you can go back and read that one if you’d like. My underlying point is that we now live in a time that the best way to measure the disruptive effects of our physical world is in the way they disrupt us from the media world.

In the case of the winter storms that disrupted airline travel late last week, the breakdown ironically was not for average consumers, but for the industry that developed the communications infrastructure that a consumer could use to be better informed than the airline industry itself.

Now it may seem like I’m extrapolating one personal anecdote into way too representative a statement, but the truth is, I have no way of knowing how disorganized the airline industry’s communications actually are. I just know what happened in this one situation. But it is enough to make me worry that we’re not doing enough as a society -- and an array of industries and other institutions -- to organize the information we already have at our disposal to, at the very least, optimize what we can do about real problems in the physical world, like severe weather conditions. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot since Irene and Sandy. And it is something I’m thinking a lot about right now.

And I’m fully aware that things like this take on greater meaning when you experience them yourself, but I also thought about it a few weeks ago when I saw how severely the Atlanta area was disrupted by severe weather -- due in large part to poor communication protocols. The truth is that communication has become an even more vital link in the fabric of modern society, because of all the complex ways we are connected, and interconnected, to each other. And the conditions that caused thousands of flights to be grounded over the course of several days set off cascading effects that impacted an array of businesses, institutions and human beings.

Don’t get me wrong, my situation was not in any way life-threatening, and was merely a stressful inconvenience. But for a journalist who covers an industry that is increasingly about terms like “optimization,” “yield” and “programmatic” -- concepts that were originally developed by another industry that no longer seems to know how to optimize itself -- I have to worry about how good all that data is if no one knows how to use it.

Let me close with the anecdote depicted in the photo that accompanies this story -- the one of a propeller on the wing of a plane. It was the view from my window when I finally boarded a flight home the next morning, and I was struck that in the era of modern aeronautics my flight was being powered not by a jet propulsion, but by a propeller. But the truth is the equipment didn’t matter as much as the pilot who knew how to use it. And all the data and information associated with getting us where we needed to go, dependably, on time, and in one piece.
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14 comments about "Why You Now Know More Than Your Airline Does".
  1. William Hoelzel from JWB Associates , February 16, 2014 at 11:40 a.m.
    Great post on the paramount value in our society of connectivity and using that connectivity effectively. (Plane + Pilot = Flight.) One small fix: You dropped a word in Sandy sentence. "Hurricane Sandy KEPT thousands of Notheaserners off-the-grid . . . " (a very trivial slip!)
  2. John Parikhal from joint communications , February 16, 2014 at 11:41 a.m.
    Good insight. PLEASE use the word Ironic properly. Especially since you are a writer. Here's the proper way ... http://blog.dictionary.com/ironic/
  3. Peter Zollman from Advanced Interactive Media Group , February 16, 2014 at noon
    Joe, the airlines will often sell a very high-priced seat on a “sold out” flight, knowing that if they are paid $540 for the seat (as in your example), it’ll only cost them $200 or $300 (if that) in vouchers (which may or may not be used) if the flight shows up full. They are rarely “sold out” any more --- they just price seats at an outrageous level and hope someone actually bites. Likewise, I’ve recently seen hotels offering rooms that would ordinarily go for $150 or $200 for $500 to $600. But the hotel is sold out. So they hope to get paid ridiculous sums for a room, in which case they’ll “walk” some unlucky sucker who paid less to another hotel --- generally a hotel that’s inferior in some or many ways (location, rooms, quality, etc.). The hotel keeps the big bucks --- occasionally for two or three days --- and loses one-third or one-half of the outrageous one-day rate on someone else. The new world of new ways to screw customers. And it’s always “the last seat we have left” or “the last room we have left” in order to force an instant decision about an outrageous price.
  4. Bob Sacco from Travel Ad Network/Travora Media , February 16, 2014 at 12:05 p.m.
    Joe, you have uncovered the essence of what most of the flying public does not know. Yes, SABRE was originally created to give the airlines and travel agents ULTIMATE control over their own inventory. But the creation of SABRE produced a dark side. It's essentially a cabal called Online Travel Agencies (OTAs), we all know them as Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, etc... Now, I don't want to sound too Tony Soprano here, but this formation created a middle-man transaction between the airlines and the consumers. Unfortunately, the OTAs are not consumer advocates (though they try to advertise like they are). They are in business to make MAXIMUM profit off the consumer transaction as a middle-man. Question: How do they do it? They do it in a very simple and sneaky way. First, they don't show you all the airlines that fly the route you just searched on their site. Why? They purposely hide any NON-STOP flights because they can make more money if they sell you a connecting flight. More connections means more profit for them. Secondly, they can't list ALL THE AIRLINES in some cases because those airlines refuse to participate in the OTA system, ie, Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin Air, Allegiant Air, etc... Consumers are left with an incomplete picture of their potential options for flights/airlines. Though, there is one airline site that operates outside the "OTA" box called QuickAirLink.com that shows all airlines in a visual two-click map. If you want take greater control over your airline flights I suggest understanding all your flight options first and not just "trusting" an OTA to "find" you a flight for your next trip. Bob Sacco co-founder of Travel Ad Network
  5. Adam Kleinberg from Traction , February 16, 2014 at 12:26 p.m.
    Joe, Call my cynical, but I think it's often more sinister than simply access to Sabre. The airlines all buy into this notion that the most important metric for their industry is their on-time departure ratio. I've sat there watching the board at the airport and the flight status on the website saying on time when the flight is supposed to leave in 10 minutes and the plane hasn't arrived yet. The airlines DELIBERATELY wait beyond the last minute to declare a flight delayed to preserve this precious ratio—often to the detriment of their customers. All well and good until you spend an hour in a car in bad weather, possibly risking your life, on the way to the airport only to find your flight is delayed when they already knew your flight was going to be delayed and didn't bother to tell you out of self-interest. It's a conspiracy, dammit!!!! @adamkleinberg
  6. Joan Teitelman from WENN , February 16, 2014 at 1:13 p.m.
    I'm with Peter. This is all about money. Not new. Amazingly, Jetblue cancelled my flight from Chicago to NY the night BEFORE this big storm last week; no explanation. Booking me TWO nights out - telling me to "click on this link" if I agreed. If I didn't - I should call. Call? Impossible to get through. A simple online investigation got me on a flight the next morning (in all that weather) ... but before that I hung onto the phone 2 hours to get Expedia to ensure I wouldn't be charged hundreds of dollars extra for that seat. Equally ridiculous: I actually checked in at the counter as I wanted an explanation. They had none ... but Jetblue asked if I would like to be upgraded for more legroom....for an additional $4. Really? After I spent $$$ on a hotel room for an extra night? Chutzpah........but I made it home safe and the flight had no probs in that storm. Bottom line - that's what we all really want.
  7. Steve Sarner from Tagged Inc , February 16, 2014 at 1:17 p.m.
    Joe, et al... The bottom line here is the gate agent did not have time to check or rebook you as he/she had too many others things to do with the service disruption. The beauty of the technology is it enables one to take matters into their own hands and rebook / reroute yourself vs waiting an agent either in person or via phone. In addition to carrier sites and travel sites I use flight aware to access flifo (airline terminology for flight information) on actual aircraft and their true status... Usually better info than the carrier itself. Adam, you're giving the carriers too much credit for thinking through a situation and trying to keep you trapped. Spend a day in an airline dispatch center during inclement weather and opertation disruption and you will see that they don't have the time or sophistication to be so sinister. :)
  8. Scott Kolber from Roadify , February 16, 2014 at 1:36 p.m.
    Providing end users with the right combination of data, design and distribution at the point of consumption when they need it most is a lot harder to do than it seems. Roadify is doing just that with mass transit info. We make real-time arrival information and service conditions available to screens at retailers, sports and entertainment venues, etc so riders can see when the bus/train is coming before they hit the street. The result? Incredibly high levels of engagement with signage that provides content that people really want to see, instead of only advertising.
  9. Pete Austin from Triggered Messaging , February 17, 2014 at 4:01 a.m.
    @Steve. Exactly - the journalist had time to investigate, which the gate agent didn't and so made a mistake. Not really about tech. Interesting role reversal, because the normal situation is that journalists make loads of mistakes because they don't have time to confirm facts fully.
  10. Kenneth White from Retired , February 17, 2014 at 6:02 a.m.
    My first reaction to the scenario you described was that the airline was holding out to sell that last available seat at the high price you indicated. Without being able to explain why (top secret airline stuff?) there seems to be a bias built in to such digital matters. What I am trying to say is in the same category as: why does it often cost significantly less to fly two legs between A and B than to fly direct? The airline staff has to deal with you twice? For less? There are policy biases built into what we are allowed to see online. I am surprised you found an empty seat as you described, and that it was not somehow kept in the shade to, hopefully, allow someone to buy that seat for the bloated figure you quote. Cynic? Hell yes. Consider United and Continental merge, then prices go up appreciably and FF benefits begin to shrink forthwith. Coincidence or conspiracy, with the monopoly granting national authority complicit? I'd say the latter.
  11. Neil Klar from SQAD , February 17, 2014 at 10:57 a.m.
    Joe, Your comment -- "I have to worry about how good all that data is if no one knows how to use it"--says a great deal. Not only should we be concerned about not knowing how to use all of this data, but also be aware of how the data can be misused. Your airline story may be just the case in misuse as it relates to the consumer but not to the airline's bottom line.
  12. Tom Forsythe from Kyzen Corporation , February 18, 2014 at 8:55 a.m.
    Joe, that propeller was certainly being driven by a turbine engine, otherwise known as a jet engine. In this case it is providing thrust via a turbo shaft to the propeller. Those engines are a long way from the reciprocating engines of yore....
  13. David Bakin from Bakin's Bits , February 19, 2014 at 7:02 p.m.
    So ... this journalist calls United and forces them to admit a mistake, thus embarrassing them - and then they cancel his entire flight? I think you buried the lede!
  14. Joe Mandese from MediaPost , February 19, 2014 at 8:21 p.m.
    @David Bakin: (LMAO) You are right, sorry. Could have used your sense of humor on this trip.