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.