Air Travel

What every AirBNB needs

I wrote earlier about tips for hotels and AirBNBs naming things like desk space, amenities, good illumination and more, but let me add some things I would like to see in every unit (and listing) for AirBNB hosts, not all of which apply to hotels.

Universal power strips

So many places don’t have enough plugs for the modern electronics-laden technomad. So get some power strips. In particular, get the ones that have universal sockets which take US, Euro, UK and Aus/China plugs. Yes, I bring adapters but it’s always nice to have some extra plugs. Put one of these power strips by the bed (especially if the plugs by the bed are occupied by lamps and other things.) Put one by the desk space — you do have desk space, right?

Select your main photo well

What is the most important feature of your unit? Most of the time it’s the view or the location, though also high on the list are its internal quality (fancy and new vs. older and plain,) the living space or the kitchen. But while everybody wants a place with a nice kitchen, living room and bed, few are shopping primarily on that.

Pick the most important feature and make it your main photo. Possibly combine two photos for that main photo. However, if you choose to show the view, make it a realistic photo or include one after. If you show the location by showing a nearby sight, put text in the photo saying “Near to this” or similar.

When I shop for properties, that main photo should grab me. If I’m looking for a view, that’s probably what you want to show me. On the other hand, while location is important to me, AirBNB is already showing me that. Having a picture of the famous local landmark is pointless, unless you can see it out your window.

Realistic photos

It is important that your photos be realistic. Many are tempted to photograph things to make them look bigger than they are, or to hide something. Don’t do it. People will be disappointed and leave you bad reviews, which is worse than an unflattering photo. Yes, your “competitors” are using misleading photos but in the end they will pay for that.

This is particularly true when photographing the view. Don’t take a small view only visible if you lean out on the terrace and crop it to make it seem like the view from the property. If your view is only from the terrace, use a wide angle to make it clear you’re standing on that. If the view is inside, take some photos inside of the window, showing what you will see walking around the room that has the view. Photos of rooms should not be super wide angle (that makes the room look bigger than it is) but photos of the view often should be.

If you include photos of nearby things, like the town’s main tourist site to show that you are near it, mark these photos as “Not from the home, 200m away” or similar.

You should show your “view” even if you have no view. People should know if the unit looks out on a courtyard or back street, and what it looks like. You may be surprised — even a quiet back street may be exotic to the tourist.

When shooting inside including the windows and view, use a camera with an “HDR” mode (most phones do this now) or get some HDR software so your photo can show the inside and outside at the same time. And seriously, no crappy, blurry photos. I know you’re not a professional photographer but today’s devices make it easy to get a good shot if you hold reasonably still. You’re trying to make serious money — borrow a friend or their camera if you have to.

Throw in photos of the amenities I describe below, if you have them, to let people know they are there.

If you rent your place for longer-term tenants, consider a photo of a floor plan, if you have one, or sketch one if you can. When renting for more than a week, this is very handy.

Talk about the flights of stairs

Many AirBNB users are older and don’t want a unit where they have to walk up 4 flights of stairs, or even 1 in the case of those with a mobility problem. AirBNB lets you say “elevator in building.” which is good, but it should really be “Elevator in Building OR unit is on ground floor” — and I think that people should actually check that box for ground floor units until AirBNB fixes that. Of course be clear in the listing on that, or on how many floors the guest will need to climb, and whether there will be assist for luggage.  read more »

Whoops, UA you could sure do a lot better with long delays and cancels

Last night, as they were towing our plane from the gate in Miami there was a very unusual bump — turns out they put the tow bar on wrong and damaged the landing gear. It became clear in time that we would not fly that night (FA timeout loomed.) I’ve seen this a lot, so I was on the phone immediately to book another flight, but I would still need a hotel voucher for the night, as would most other folks on the flight, even if they took the same flight the next day after the repair.

They sent everybody back to the check-in counters to get processed, and they only had a few staff since all other flights had left. As such there was a long line, and the first 3 people in it took 10 minutes each to process because they were trying to change flights as well as get vouchers. Overall, it’s a terrible experience, and it’s been this way for a very long time — a decade ago I saw multi-hour waits for people to get vouchers after weather in Dulles.

There is so much they could have done better, and since this happens all the time, and has for decades, I am not sure why they don’t. Here are some things they could do.

Everything should be doable over the phone or online

I rebooked my flight on the phone. So should everybody. There are a thousand phone agents. Non-status passengers were getting long hold times, so perhaps they should have a special priority code for passengers who have had a major problem like an overnight delay or cancel.

More to the point, the agents should be regularly announcing to people in line, “If you need to rebook, please call this number or use our app.” Several times passengers came up to the counter to say, “would you please announce to the line what’s going on?”

These vouchers are just a piece of paper with a one-time-use credit card number and other relevant info on them. They should be electronic. Everybody should be able to just get their voucher on their phone. Failing that, they should be able to use the check-in kiosks to print a voucher. Go to the kiosk, scan your boarding pass, get your vouchers. How hard can that be? (Update: Apparently Delta does this giving UA no excuse.) Only go to the agents for special requests. Failing that, if you really need to talk to a phone agent to get your voucher confirmed, let them enable you to print it at the kiosk.

Ideally, the customer should not need to do anything. You should get a notification by app or text saying, “Sorry your flight is delayed overnight. Here are your vouchers.” The people who don’t have the app downloaded will have it pretty quickly rather than wait in line.

Electronic vouchers

Sure, some vendors might not be ready for electronic vouchers. But if airlines said, “Take electronic vouchers or don’t get all this business” I think they would change pretty quickly. As long as a few vendors take them, you can tell passengers, “Here is your electronic voucher, good at these vendors. If you wish a different vendor, go to a UA kiosk or counter to exchange for a paper voucher.” I don’t think most passengers would bother.

If you can’t do it online, do it in bulk

The terminals at the gate should simply have spewed out the vouchers in a big stack and the gate agents (not the counter agents) should have handed them out quickly to people by calling names or forming lines based on last name. Then they could deal with the special requests. Doing it at the gate is important because all the people there are passengers — out at check-in you need to re-verify that. At the gate, if need be, they can flash their boarding pass — there are scanners for that of course — and get their vouchers.

Use Lyft or Uber for transport and handle other airports

I rebooked out of Fort Lauderdale. It’s only a 30 minute drive at night. They were quite unprepared for that and took a long time to issue me vouchers for there. This can be improved, or I can be a special case if need be.

They gave me a voucher for supershuttle to get to Fort Lauderdale. I was surprised to see that Supershuttle’s fare for a shared ride was $39, while Lyft was $36 for a private ride. I wanted sleep so I took the Lyft at my own expense, but it would save them money if they allowed Lyft and Uber to be providers for ground transport.

Make it all frictionless

It was the airport that broke the gear, but the airline had to deal with it. One measures the quality of a company by how it handles failures even more than how it works when all is right. Here’s what I think would have been the best result.

  1. As soon as a delay was likely, the computer should have reserved an alternate flight for me, and sent me a message to select my preferred alternates. These seats would be protected against other people in the same boat, though I might lose them to paying external customers. (As a 1K in first class, I expect to be treated better here.)
  2. As soon as the delay or cancel is confirmed, my phone should have beeped to let me confirm whether I want to take the continuation or the alternate flight.
  3. Next the phone app should have generated the vouchers and put them in the phone. Or better still, the information should have been transmitted to the hotel and my booking made and already checked in (if I’m an out of towner.) Instructions on how to get to the hotel and its shuttle schedule should come with that.
  4. While I am in transit, I should be able to browse my food options on meal vouchers, and order online if the restaurant offers that.

Discouraging voucher use

The only reason I can imagine the airline keeps it so painful is they wish to discourage voucher use. For example, if flying from your home city, they surely want you to go stay at home. If they make the process really painful, people who would find it convenient to stay at the airport (due to long trips, traffic, parking or early flights) might give up and go home, saving the airline money.

The airlines could make automatic issuance of vouchers happen only for people who don’t live in the airport town. That leaves the people who were visiting friends or family and have a place to stay for free. The airlines will prefer you use that. One solution would be to offer visitors some flyer miles or flight credit if they are willing to handle their own expenses. Flight credit is cheap for airlines, as many people never get around to redeeming it.

How do other airlines do?

Does United just suck at this? Are there airlines which do what I propose, or otherwise handle this a lot better?

Your eclipse guide (with the things not in many eclipse guides)

I will be heading to western Idaho this weekend to watch my sixth total Eclipse. That makes me a mid-grade eclipse chaser, so let me tell you some important things you need to know, which are not in some of the other eclipse guides out there. For good general sites look at places like NASA’s Eclipse Guide which has nice maps or this map.

Totality is everything

The difference between a total solar eclipse and a partial one — even a 98% partial one — is literally night and day. It’s like the difference between sex and holding hands. They are really two different things with a similar sounding name. And a lunar eclipse is again something vastly different. This does not mean a high-partial eclipse is not an interesting thing, but the total eclipse is by far the most spectacular natural phenomenon visible on this planet. Beyond the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Norway, etc. So if you can get to totality, get there. Do not think you are seeing the eclipse if you don’t get into the zone of totality.

People debate about how total it should be

Many people seek to get close to the centerline of the eclipse. This provides the longest eclipse for your area. You will only lose a modest number of seconds if you are within 15 miles of the centerline, so you don’t have to get exactly there, and in fact it may be too crowded there.

On the other hand there are those who deliberately get close to the edge, giving up 30-40% of their eclipse time in order to see more “edge effects.” Near the edge, the edge effects are longer and a bit more spectacular. In particular the diamond ring will be a fair bit longer, and you may see more prominences and chromosphere for longer. If this is your first eclipse, I am not sure you want to get too close to the edge. But try any of the map web sites that will tell you your duration, and get somewhere that has within 30-40 seconds of the centerline time.

You look at the total eclipse with zero eye protection

You’ve been hearing endless talk about eclipse glasses and how well made they are. Eclipse glasses are only for the boring partial phase. They give you a way to track the progress of the moon while waiting for the main event. Once totality is over, everybody packs up and does not even bother to watch the 2nd half of the partial eclipse, that’s how boring the partial part is.

But don’t be one of those people who, told about the danger of eclipses, does not watch totality with your bare eyes. In fact, use binoculars in addition to your naked eyes, and perhaps a short look through a telescope — but not during the diamond rings or any partial phase.

Update: There is a nice large sunspot group that should still be there on Eclipse day, making the partial phase more interesting to those with good eyesight.

In totality you are looking not at the sun, but its amazing atmosphere — the “corona” — full of streamers, and many times the size of the sun or moon. You may also see jets of fire coming off the sun, and at the start and end of totality you will see the hot red inner atmosphere of the sun, known as the chromosphere.

If you are crazy enough to be outside the total zone but close to it, you still can’t look with your bare eyes at any part of the eclipse.

There are some cool things in a 99% partial eclipse (which you see just before and after totality.)

An eclipse is most glorious in the sky but a lot of other things happen around it. As it gets very close to total you will see the nature of the sunlight change and become quite eerie. Shadows of trees will turn into collections of crescents. About 20-60 seconds before and after totality, if you have a white sheet on the ground, you will see ripples of light waving, like on the bottom of a giant swimming pool. And the shadow. You will see it approach. If you are up on a mountain or in a plane this will be more obvious. It is going at 1,000 to 2,000 miles per hour.  read more »

Car Rental: Rent me a cooler and lots of other gear for road trips

Something I do from time to time is a road trip in a rental car. And while car rental companies much prefer the business customer who rents a big car at a high price, then just drives it to their meeting and back to the airport, they are not averse to the less profitable road trip business.

So here are some things they could do to make it better for that sort of customer.

Cooler

When I road trip, I want a cooler to keep drinks and food cold. I will pack a fold-up cooler (they make good protection for stuff as well) but they can’t quite cut it in a hot car in a hot place all day.

So it would be nice if they would rent a nice solid cooler, maybe with some freezer packs. It’s easy to make your own freezer packs from used drink bottles, but also useful would be a leakproof bag to put gas station ice in. Those bags of ice you buy at stores always leak, so you need to protect against that. Depending on where you stay you can usually re-freeze packs or get ice from an ice machine.

Now a typical small cooler only costs about $30. And if I know car rental companies, they will charge more to rent you one, since they have to stock it and clean it. The big advantage of an overpriced rental car unit is time. You don’t want to spend time hunting these things down.

What would make sense would be a company which does “road trip provisions” which partners with all the rental car companies, and will either provision your car, or be located near the airport to make it easy for you to pick up and drop off.

Those 12v coolers that run off car electricity don’t do anything. You have to have ice. Though it could be a backup.

Another interesting option would be to partner with stores that do online ordering, so that you could get your cooler pre-loaded with ice and groceries. That’s of value in places you know well — in new countries I actually enjoy visiting a grocery store and picking out local products.

(No, I didn’t rent a Lotus Super Seven on my road trip to the hotel where the Prisoner was filmed, but somebody else drove one there and parked it to show off.)

Other travel supplies

Long ago, you could not depend on your hotel to have a hair dryer and an iron. So they sold travel versions of these that people packed. Nobody packs them any more. Now there are other things starting to be found in hotel rooms, but you still have to pack them because you can’t be sure. Some are things almost everybody wants. Some are specialty items. I would love for them to be on the inventory of a hotel, road trip rental company or car rental company:

For the road

  • A good tripod. I have one of course, but these are bulky things to bring. I can bring the tripod head — those vary too much.
  • Swim fins, masks, beach towels, beach mats and sun umbrellas — if going to a swimming/beach location.
  • Folding chairs for the same reason.
  • Camping gear is avilable for rent in some camping stores. Would be nice to get all this in one place, though.
  • Trekking poles. They make hikes better exercise and lower impact. I have collapsing ones but they are still a pain to fit in luggage and don’t go in carry-ons.
  • Coats. No, they won’t fit very well, but I’ve been on trips where you only needed a coat (or a heavier coat) in one location on the trip, and an ill-fitting coat woudl be better than carrying your own on the whole trip. Sometimes you can rent these — for example on Mt. Etna in Sicily, it’s the only place on the island anybody wants a coat in summer.

For the room

Earlier I wrote on what should be in every hotel room. Every room should just have those things, and the things below, but until then, trip gear rental service should have them too.

  • A universal power strip for the local plug style — because so many rooms don’t have enough plugs.
  • Tools for doing repairs. One of the most frustrating things on the road is breaking stuff and not having your complement of basic tools. Yeah, I pack a multi-tool, but I would also like a hot glue gun and other glues, a soldering iron and electrical repair tools with other useful things. Some Duct Tape, of course. And a tiny voltmeter.
  • For people who did not check a bag, a multi-tool, and a pair of scissors.
  • Video cables (HDMI, VGA, dongles) to let me connect my computer to the TVs in hotel rooms. Now 95% of them are flat-screen HD units, though often just 720p, and often fixed to the wall in a way that’s not useful as a computer monitor. But I don’t know what cable I will need or if I will be able to use it so it’s nice not to have to pack it.
  • For trips where you will stay a long time in one place, a nice large monitor is wonderful if you will be working on the computer. As I pretty much always will be. Recently on extended trip I bought one — just $120 — and sold it to the landlord who will provide it to future guests.
  • Alas, USB charging probably is still best for you to bring or rent. Problem is there are now 5 USB charging systems (Qualcomm QC 2 and 3, USB C, general high-current USB, basic USB and probably more) and everybody needs more than basic 2.5w charging, and to not have this is a complete non-starter.

What else would you add to the road trip rental inventory?

Can't we make overbooking more efficient and less painful with our mobile devices?

I’ve written before about overbooking and how it’s good for passengers as well as for the airlines. If we have a service (airline seats, rental cars, hotel rooms) where the seller knows it’s extremely likely that with 100 available slots, 20 will not show up, we can have two results:

  1. As soon as all 100 are taken, they declare it sold out. People reschedule or abandon trips, or at least take 2nd choices. However, the sold out plane takes off with 20 empty seats. If half of all flights sell out, you would find yourself blocked from taking the flight you want in 1 out of 10 of the flights you book on short notice.
  2. Instead of declaring it sold out, they oversell. When they mispredict, they find ways to compensate people to give up their reservation, or eventually, but ideally rarely or never, force some people to do so. A small fraction of people voluntarily yield, and a very tiny fraction do so involuntarily. (About 1 passenger in 10,000 faces involuntary bump, and it never happens to people who buy more expensive tickets or have status with the airline, unless they are late for the flight.)

I know which travel world I want to live in. To me that’s not the question. The question instead is, in the world where every traveler has a smartphone, why isn’t this done a lot better.

So many of our institutions were designed before the arrival of smartphones — it was just 10 years ago that they started taking over — and they are still the same today. In fact, many things are still designed for a world where people don’t even have email when they travel.

One step taken last week is United Airlines’ new Flex-Schedule program.

In this new program, first you must sign up and be a member of their Mileage Plus FF program. If you do, and you have already booked a seat on a flight that looks like it will be over-over-booked — ie. it will need volunteers — they will email you well in advance asking you to volunteer early. They promise an alternate flight with the same day and airport, and will compensate you you one of their travel vouchers. Those vouchers are not very valuable, of course, but this is what they offer.

When a flight is sure to overbook, the airline still sells tickets, but raises the price up high. This assures that the people buying last minute are very keen to get on that flight. They are premium customers, and unlikely to volunteer. The volunteers have to come from more price conscious customers who booked earlier. And so United realizes that most of those customers have e-mail and phones, and can respond quickly to such an offer.

I think they can go much further than this. Every airline, hotel and rental car should be tracking demand and supply at all times — which they already do. They are making models of just how many people are likely to really show for the flight. They track the history of passengers, to see if they are the sort who always shows or if they often change flights. They know the on-time records of all the feeder flights making connections, and on flight day, they know the actual times for those flights.

What they don’t have is information on the moods and locations of the passengers. Truth is, if I’m not going to use a seat, my phone probably knows that in advance, without me telling it. Or if I’m uncertain, my phone has the ability with notifications to get me to quickly confirm my intentions.

Yes, this means some minor loss of privacy — but actually very little. First of all, this is a very specific yielding of data, which is not nearly the sort of problem that allowing general access to data like your location is. Secondly, the airline doesn’t need to see your data at all. Instead, it can tell your phone, “If he’s not within 20 minutes of the airport by 3:30, ask him if he wants to give up his seat.” The airline does not learn where you are, just that you were not close to the airport. They just give the phone (or a server based tool that knows your location) the parameters of where you need to be if you will make the reservation.

In extreme cases, your phone can know where it is in the airport, and figure out if you have a chance of making the flight or not. But if it’s smart, it buzzed you long ago with the worry that you might not make it, perhaps providing an offer, or another flight if you’re an elite status passenger. You might not even waste the trip to the airport. Likewise, flights might be held slightly (or at least not takeoff early) if important passengers are known to be almost there.

Done well, you could very much love this for they might actually offer you a better deal if you tell them sooner you are going to miss the flight. With most tickets, you pay a penalty if you miss a flight or simply don’t take one, and they could make it smaller, in exchange for their ability to resell that seat sooner.

This is even more important with rental cars and hotel rooms. Unlike airline seats, most of these are reserved without penalty. You can no-show at no cost. Which means more no-shows. In airlines, the number of people who no-show and forfeit their ticket are few. Most of the no-shows are actually people who missed connections. The car rental companies get your flight number to know when you will land but also to know if you won’t make it at all. The hotels could also benefit in how they manage things.

I love the ability to make reservations without any penalty for not showing up. At the same time, that has to come with overselling to make sense, and so I’m willing to see slight reductions in my ability to do this. For example, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to have to re-confirm these reservations using my online connectivity. (Since phones and batteries and connections die, this can’t be 100% but it could still be pretty good.

United Part 2: Misconceptions and realities

There’s a lot of bad information circulating on the famous United/Republic “passenger drag” so I wanted to consolidate a 2nd post with some of them.

Myth: This was an oversold flight

It turns out the flight was probably not oversold. A UA spokesman said it wasn’t. It was a fully sold flight, but a sudden need arose to move 4 flight attendants to SDF (Louisville) and they arrived at the gate after the flight had boarded. In United’s contract of carriage, it defines an oversold flight as a flight where there are more passengers with confirmed reservations checked in by the check-in deadline than they have seats on the plane. That does not appear to be the case on this flight, but Republic and UA got confused about it.

That, in turn, means Republic did not have the right to invoke the clauses of the contract for oversold flights. If so, they are just plain in the wrong, and this becomes a case with far less interesting nuance. United has changed their tune (of course due to public pressure) and are going full mea culpa.

Airline reservation computers oversell all the time, and carefully calculate exactly how much to oversell. It looks like the algorithms decided to not oversell this flight. And they were right — when they called for volunteers, nobody accepted, even at a very high price ($800 to $1,000) for a flight where most tickets are under $200. The algorithms performed perfectly.

Myth: This was United Airlines

Technically it was Republic Airline, a small regional airline dba “United Express.” However, United sells and and manages the tickets and they use the brand, and it’s under United’s contract, so United certainly gets a lot of the responsibility. And I am impressed that UA has not tried to throw Republic under the bus here.

Republic Airways actually operates lots of regional flights for United, AA and Delta, so this could have probably happened to any of them. I don’t know if they have a lot of airline specific training on bumping procedure for their teams. United may have just gotten some very bad luck of the draw here — and then made it worse by defending it at first. And it may be that the bumping policies UA gives to Republic might have made this more likely than the ones Delta and AA give it, but I don’t think they are tremendously different. Some hinges on whether the flight crew was a Republic crew, or a United crew.

But still, though it was not United, the buck stops with United, and at least now, they are not resisting that at all.

Myth: On an oversold flight, they can pull passengers off the plane.

If this had been an oversold flight, their contract still does not let them remove passengers from the plane involuntarily. It says they can “deny boarding.” Deny boarding does not mean remove — there is another section of the contract on removal. More bad news for United/Republic, but again, it makes the case less interesting as it’s an example of something you sort of expect — junior employees of a regional affiliate not being properly trained on what to do in an unusual situation and thus screwing up. That happens in 100 different ways all the time, but each particular incident is rare and probably does not indicate a systemic problem. That’s good — but it is only systemic problems that are of interest to the public, and which would make you boycott a company. If the junior employees make mistakes like this too often, then you have a systemic problem to worry about. (United does not have a good reputation on this count, of course.)

Update: These flight attendants were “must ride” passengers

New information reveals the flight crew declared themselves “must ride.” I don’t have a lot of details, but this is a special designation in the law (not the UA contract) which declares the crew are needed somewhere to avoid cancellation of a flight. Once a passenger is declared “must ride” the plane is required, reports say, to do everything possible to get that passenger to their destination, including delaying the plane and apparent, yes, even involuntary bumping. I am waiting for more information on this status, which would invalidate partly what I say above. They can’t pull you for an oversell, but they may be able to pull you for a must-ride. The law is there to keep the aviation system humming. Once flight crews don’t get to flights, it can mean disruption to more than just that flight.

Myth: If the doctor had just handed one of the police officers a Pepsi, it all would have been defused.

No, but that’s the best joke on this that I’ve seen.

Myth: It’s overselling that’s the problem

With the mistaken impression that overselling was the cause here, a lot of people are stating overselling is evil, and Chris Christie has even called to prohibit it. That’s a big mistake. Overselling is very good for airlines and the flying public. I explained that in yesterday’s post but I will go into more details below. You want an airline that does at least some overselling, though one can debate how much you want.

Myth: The airline prioritized employees over paying customers

In this situation, it needed to move those employees to crew a flight first thing out of SDF. If they had not gotten a crew there, that flight gets cancelled. Roughly 70 paying passengers get stranded against their will. While clearly nobody wants to be stranded against their will, the hard truth is you want to fly an airline that will strand (with good compensation) 4 people to avoid doing it to 70. (Here I am talking about the normal approach, which is to deny boarding to 4 people, not to try do drag people off the plane.) Still, I have to view it as prioritizing 70 passengers over 4, not employees over passengers.

Maybe: They could have driven the flight attendants there or chartered a jet

This is possibly true but possibly not. First of all, these airlines are all about procedure. They don’t authorize junior employees to be innovative or authorize them to spend money. So chances are if somebody thought of that, they had no system with which to do it. That is a fault of the airline but the sad norm of corporate bureaucracy.

Secondly, while I don’t know this to be true, all flight crew operate under a set of complex rules about required rest. You don’t want a sleepy pilot landing your plane, or a sleepy flight attendant helping people get onto the evacuation slides. These rules are very hard and fast. I suspect trying to sleep in a car doesn’t count, and an overnight ground ride is out of the question. Had they acted very quickly, and had a system in place, they could have probably gotten the crew there a bit after 11 — not long after the flight actually landed due to the chaos — so that might have worked, in hindsight.

They could have offered the passengers a limo ride, but again probably had no way to do something that out of the ordinary.

The same applies to an air charter. Getting an air charter on short notice is difficult, but they could have gotten one for the flight crew (or another flight crew) in the early morning if they had a system in place. This is very expensive of course, and so not likely to be in their playbook.

Maybe: They should never have gotten to the point where it was so urgent to get that flight crew moved

Airlines move flight crews a lot. There are airline pilots who live on one coast and mostly work on the other, commuting by “deadheading” on one of their airlines planes.

When you design a system that needs various parts — planes and flight crew — you have to “overprovision,” which is to say leave some wiggle room. That means you have some number of planes, crews and other resources sitting idle or on call, and you use them when something else fails. Everybody does it because you don’t want to run so close to the wire all the time. If you do, the slightest problem causes a cascade of cancellations. Airlines have to worry not just about small problems but even big ones like storms that cancel or delay many flights.

It’s not practical, however, to overprovision to the point that you never fail. You can do it, but it’s really expensive. You have to waste a lot of money, and you don’t have a competitive company. So every systems designer tries to figure out how to overprovision just the right amount. An amount that will have a few failures, but not too many. On top of that, you try to plan so you handle those failures with the least amount of pain, but you accept they will still happen.

What that means — and I don’t have any specific facts about this flight — is that sometimes you will be skating the edge, and sometimes you will fail. Sometimes you will find that crew are not going to make a flight unless you do something a little extra.

The bumping law, I think, is where the airlines find their “extra.” They don’t want to bump paying customers — it’s expensive and hurts customer relations. But they don’t want to cancel flights even more. So every so often, every airline has to find a solution. The bumping law offers them that solution. They can legally deny boarding to paying passengers against their will to make room for crew. This is much more workable, and under their control, than other options like using charter jets, or if distances are short, ground service.

True, but: Just about anything would be cheaper than the hit they’ve taken

That’s true — but only in hindsight. No playbook for these situations is going to say, “If you have to, spend $10,000 rather than bumping passengers just in case it turns into the PR nightmare of the year.” By definition, nobody knew that would happen.

In reality, airlines involuntarily bump 50,000 pax per year and while they grumble, this is the first time it’s ever gone done like this, with eviction from the plane, blood, camera phones and Facebook. So I don’t blame them for not seeing this could happen. I do blame them, however, for not understanding that any time you bring the police into a situation you bump the risk of something bad happening.

True, but: They should have known this would happen once they called the goons.

They should have known, but I can suspect why they didn’t — because they actually do this all the time and don’t have PR problems. Flight crews face unruly passengers reasonably often. They have training for it and procedures. And those procedures do call for getting the police, even knowing how that can go south. What those plans obviously did not account for was doing this when it was completely clear the passenger was the victim, that they only removed him because they wanted his seat. The rules for removing passengers mostly deal with safety issues. When they declare a passenger a safety risk, and the passenger makes trouble and even (rarely) causes a scuffle they are protected if the passenger was really a safety risk, or they can even come up with a credible lie why they thought he was a safety risk. No such story is possible here. Sure, the law says anybody who refuses a flight crew order can be removed from the plane. Technically it says this. In reality, it’s insane to think you can remove somebody for refusing the order “leave the plane” when the order is not given for a valid reason. The law says obey, but every sense of justice goes the other way. In fact, more than that, I don’t think a court would convict somebody for refusing that order, even if they are guilty, because society does not intend to grant the airlines that sort of power.

Put another way, three things are true:

  1. They can’t order you off the plane just to take your seat (but they didn’t know that.) We don’t want airlines to have that power.
  2. Once somebody refuses a flight crew order, you can then order them off the plane.

As such, it’s clear that “we removed him because he disobeyed our order to leave” is a loophole that would never stand up to scrutiny.

Myth: I should worry this can happen to me.

Well, I have to concede this is true — part of this did happen to me! The first flight I took with Kathryn, the airline came up to us after we had boarded, and insisted she give up her seat for a deadheading pilot. The pilot never sat there — instead he went up to use the jumpseat in the cockpit. We were quite angry, especially when her later flight lost an engine in the middle of the Pacific.

But a lot had to go wrong for this to happen. Here’s my guess as to the list of things that went wrong:

  • Something failed in the planned movement of flight crew, and they needed to get a crew to SDF for a Monday Morning flight. They looked over their options, and decided to try to get on UA3411
  • They decided that very late, so the flight had already boarded full when the flight crew came to the gate and said they needed to be on that plane. (I don’t know why they selected this one over the next, I presume both were full, or the next one might even have been oversold. You want to avoid the last flight in any event.)
  • They tried the normal approach — offer an incentive for volunteers. They got to $800. (UA says $1,000.) It failed. Nobody bit. This is a flight where everybody needed to get to SDF.
  • They didn’t know their contract well, and decided they could do involuntary bump to solve their problem. Why not, it’s what they usually do, right? They got mean, declaring the plane would not fly until 4 got off.
  • They really didn’t know their contract well, and figured they could involuntary bump by removing passengers from the plane. They can’t, but they told people they had to leave.
  • Usually that works. In fact, I suspect it’s worked pretty much every time for decades. Not this time. One man refuses to leave. Now they had a passenger refusing flight crew orders.
  • A non-compliant passenger is something they are trained for. They follow their procedure. He won’t leave. They follow their procedure and call in airport cops.
  • The airport cops are thugs. They manhandle him, injure him and drag him. All recorded on camera phones.
  • It explodes on the social networks. The company has no idea how to handle it, and botches that too.

Because so many things had to go wrong, the particular situation is not important. Rare things go wrong all the time. Junior staff at small airlines are not fully trained on contract nuances. Because things had never gone south like this before (and not in the way the plane was supposed to literally fly south) nobody had ever thought to write up procedures to remind gate crews that they can’t remove passengers, and that they can’t bump at all if it’s not actually oversold.

Those of us writing so much about this online only really want to care about systemic problems. What is wrong with the system, not just one gate crew or flight crew. If there is a pattern of errors, what can be done to fix it.

Myth: That poor doctor!

I am hesitant to include this one, because I don’t want to give the impression that I am defending in any way what happened to him, but it is an important fact. I am not saying anybody should be forcibly removed from a plane because the airline wants his seat. This was not just your ordinary passenger. Reports claim Dr. Dao lost his licence to practice medicine from 2003 to 2016 because he was convicted of trading prescription painkillers for sex, and his psych evaluations listed him as having anger management issues. One reason this escalated is that normally nobody dares to defy orders from the flight crew and especially from police. The orders were improper, and the bumped passengers deserve lots of compensation, but you have to attribute some portion of the blame for how far it escalated to Dr. Dao.

So, is overbooking evil or good?

The big question I have found most interesting is the subject of overbooking. Almost all airlines sell more seats on a plane than it actually has. They give you what they call a “confirmed reservation” and that name certainly makes people imagine they have a guaranteed seat on the plane. They don’t, but they almost do, and that’s as I will explain, a good thing for the flying public.

One basic statistic — the no-show rate on flights is around 8%. So a plane with 100 seats, if it is considered “sold out” after 100 reservations. On average, with no overselling or standby pax, it would take off with 8 empty seats. The number is not the same for every flight. Complex algorithms predict the actual number based on history of that flight and the passengers.

Myth: The airlines primarily do this as a fraud to make money by selling the same seat twice

Turns out, when people don’t fill their seat, only rarely does the airline get any money, or a profit from them. Airlines do make money from overbooking, but not the way you think. Most of those no-shows are because of late or cancelled connections. Those are money losers for the airline, big time. They have to rush to find another flight for that passenger, and get no money. Some of them are people who did free same-day changes or otherwise switched off the flight for low fee. A few have tickets with no change fees. A few more did a late flight change and paid a change fee. The change fee is sometimes as high as the ticket, but sometimes it’s much less. The airline pockets the change fee, but not without cost — the biggest one being they turned away passengers they would not have turned away because of the booking.  read more »

What went wrong and how could United do better on bumping a passenger?

Update: More careful reading of United’s Contract suggests both that this didn’t fit the definition of an oversold flight, and that even if it did, they only have the power to “deny boarding” to a bumped passenger, not to remove them from an aircraft. If this is true, then this case is simple and much less interesting: UA/Republic should admit fault and compensate those involved and retrain staff. End of that part of the story. Later-update: This might might have involved a special “Must ride” classification put on the flight crew which changes the rule yet again.

I have a follow-on post on misconceptions and realities about these issues.

The viral video of the day is that of police pulling a main from a United Airlines flight. He doesn’t want to go, and they pull him out, and bash his head on the armrest, then drag out his unconscious body. It’s a nightmare for everybody, and the video sends clear chills into every viewer. (Once, after I changed my flight to fly home from Hawai`i with Kathryn, they involuntarily removed her from the plane for a crew member. I spent the flight next to an empty seat as the crew member went to the cockpit jumpseat, and she flew on a later flight that lost an engine. We’ve never flown on that airline again.)

In spite of that, I have some sympathy for both sides, and while clearly things went very wrong here, as even United will eventually admit, the more interesting question for me is “what should airlines do to make this work better”? I do believe that UA clearly didn’t want this to happen, though their policies created a small risk that it would. I am sure they don’t want it to happen again. So if you were the person writing the policy for these situations, what would you do?

The situation:

  • This was UA3411, UA’s 2nd last flight from ORD to Louisville. UA (or rather Republic airlines, a small regional flying under the United Express logo) had 4 flight crew who were needed for an early flight from Louisville and, I presume, had no other option for getting them there. (The next flight was obviously more oversold.) If they don’t get there, and sleep the legally required amount, that flight is canceled and a whole lot of people don’t fly, and a bunch of other flights are affected too. Aviation rules are strict on this.
  • In an unusual situation, the four flight attendants are not expected. It is quite common for flight crew moving to their next job to be on flights and displace paying passengers, but unusual for it to be a surprise, to happen after the passengers have already boarded a full flight.
  • So they ask ( as is required by law) for people to volunteer to get off in exchange for a reward. Unfortunately, all they can offer is a flight Monday afternoon. Nobody wants that, apparently, and the offer gets up to $800 plus hotel. Tickets on this 90 minute flight are only $187, but nobody wants the offer. That’s also unusual.
  • The law then gives the airline another option, involuntary bump. They tell the passengers they will do this if nobody volunteers. They select a pool of “low priority” passengers (those who took super-discount fares, removing elites and the disabled and a few others.) They pick 4 at random.
  • 3 of those selected get off. The law requires they get a compensation of around $800 but in cash, not coupons. One, a doctor, refuses. He tells some people he has to see patients in the morning.
  • They say the plane can’t take off until this passenger leaves. He won’t. They call the airport cops. The airport cops come to his seat to remove him.
  • You can see what happens next on the video. He won’t go. They physically try to pull him out. He screams and clings to the seat. They pull harder. He hits his head on the opposite armrest and is knocked out.
  • They drag his limp form from the plane — you can see that on video.
  • Amazingly, he somehow gets back on the plane, bloodied and a bit confused. He keeps repeating, “I have to get home.” He does not appear to be wearing leggings.

New information reveals that a whole bunch of things went wrong at once, which does not excuse police manhandling a passenger, but helps us understand why it went pear-shaped.

First, understanding overselling — and why the flying public wants it

Most flights these days are oversold, because a lot of people don’t show for their flights. The system of overselling, then calling for volunteers when too many show up makes the planes fly mostly full these days on many routes. It’s a fact of flying and allowed in the law. It makes flight more efficient, perhaps 5-10% more. On competitive routes, that makes tickets cheaper for everybody. It has another benefit to the flying public — more people get to fly on the flight they want, because the airline is willing to sell you a seat on a “full” flight, knowing that 99% of the time you and everybody else will actually get to fly. The alternative is that an empty seat flies, and you wastefully take another flight. Passengers really like more availability, though they don’t directly see how it happens. The reality is many of the flights you see in your web search are technically oversold. If it is really sold out, it’s actually oversold past their limit.

Airlines could elect to not oversell, or not oversell as much, but that comes with a cost. More people denied the flight they want. More expensive tickets. More emissions per passenger. The world doesn’t want that, so the world allows and the law regulates, overselling.

Of course, there is a way to avoid ever being bumped. Pay more for your ticket, or be an elite flyer, as I am. (In fact, as an elite, they actually guarantee me a seat on “really, really sold out” flights 24 hours in advance, which really means they push their oversell percentage by plus-one for elites. If I do this — I never have — they just decide it is cheaper to pay a volunteer to get off the flight than to deny one of their elites the flight they need.)

So the most obvious solution, “Don’t oversell,” comes with a cost I don’t think the airlines or flying public actually want. Consider it this way. A flight you need with 100 seats has had 100 bookings. The airline knows that on average 7 of them won’t show up. Do you want the airline to let you “reserve” on that plane, or tell you “sorry, fly the next day?” Do you want them to only offer you a standby ticket because other people, who paid far less than you for their tickets and who barely fly on their airline, got there first? (And yes, those people who buy late pay a premium.) The airline hates taking off with an empty seat, but you hate being told you can’t get on a flight that ended up with empty seats even more.

Airlines are getting quite good at it. In 2015, only .09% of passengers were bumped, and only .01% involuntarily.

The public wants bumping for flight crew, too!

Turns out, it’s in the public interest that flight crew needed for another flight have higher priority than we do, even to the point of removing us from planes we already boarded. That may not be allowed, but one has to consider the difference between one person removed (voluntarily or not) with compensation and the very large group of people who will have their flight cancelled (sometimes with no compensation) if the flight crew doesn’t get there, properly rested and ready. You don’t want to be either, and utilitarianism is not always the right philosophy, but here the numbers are overwhelming. One guy doesn’t fly or 70 people don’t. So we want a system where that can happen, but smoothly and ideally voluntarily.

Understand involuntary bumping

Usually, the system of offering fat compensation — $800, a hotel and meals for a $180 flight is a pretty good deal — works fine. There are people who actually relish it. I met one guy who says he deliberately tries to get bumped the day before Thanksgiving — when the offers get very high. But nobody was taking it. Most would miss a day of work, which is not an easy thing to do.

The law then allows the airlines to do an involuntary bumping. They have an algorithm that picks people and they are “denied boarding.” The law specifies compensation. In this case 4 times the ticket price and other compensations. And this is cash, not flight coupons. Cash is worth a lot more.

This law is one of the culprits here. The law effectively puts a cap on the offer you will get. The airlines, in a move they thought at first was rational, don’t want to offer you a lot more than the price the law defines for an involuntary bump. Why give a passenger $2,000 when you can do it for $1,000 under the law. Well, one reason is bad PR — which is true in spades here.

The airlines don’t want to do this. About 1 in 1,000 passengers are bumped, and 1 in 10,000 are involuntarily bumped, and has been going down as they get better at working their systems. But it happens.

Without the involuntary rule, the airline might have considered the next solution…

Make better offers for voluntary bumping

This problem would have been defused if they had kept increasing the offer until somebody took it. (Those who took it early will of course be upset, but that’s how it goes.) While there is a practical limit, a volunteer should be found long before it.

They could also consider other things that are not money. Often bump offers come with things like first class upgrades which can be cheap for the airline and very nice to the passenger. They could offer a very coveted thing to some passengers — elite qualification. At the extreme, if they offered 20,000 elite qualification miles or a full-tier bump in elite status, I could see even elite passengers jumping up to volunteer. We don’t usually. We know we will never get involuntarily bumped. We usually have places to go. But we crave that elite status so much that some people fly “mileage runs” — flights to nowhere just to accumulate miles — to keep and increment it. If UA said, “get off this plane and we’ll make you 1K” they would have had a line out the door of volunteers.  read more »

Flying cars are coming, what will they mean?

Earlier I posted my gallery of CES gadgets, and included a photo of the eHang 184 from China, a “personal drone” able, in theory, to carry a person up to 100kg.

Whether the eHang is real or not, some version of the personal automated flying vehicle is coming, and it’s not that far away. When I talk about robocars, I am often asked “what about flying cars?” and there will indeed be competition between them. There are a variety of factors that will affect that competition, and many other social effects not yet much discussed.

The VTOL Multirotor

There are two visions of the flying car. The most common is VTOL — vertical takeoff and landing — something that may have no wheels at all because it’s more a helicopter than a car or airplane. The recent revolution in automation and stability for multirotor helicopters — better known as drones — is making people wonder when we’ll get one able to carry a person. Multirotors almost exclusively use electric motors because you must adjust speed very quickly to get stability and control. You also want the redundancy of multiple motors and power systems, so you can lose a rotor or a battery and still fly.

This creates a problem because electric batteries are heavy. It takes a lot of power to fly this way. Carrying more batteries means more weight — and thus more power needed to carry the batteries. There are diminishing returns, and you can’t get much speed, power or range before the batteries are dead. OK in a 3 kilo drone, not OK in a 150 kilo one.

Lots of people are experimenting with combining multirotor for takeoff and landing, and traditional “fixed wing” (standard airplane) designs to travel any distance. This is a great deal more efficient, but even so, still a challenge to do with batteries for long distance flight. Other ideas including using liquid fuels some way. Those include just using a regular liquid fuel motor to run a generator (not very efficient) or combining direct drive of a master propeller with fine-control electric drive of smaller propellers for the dynamic control needed.

Another interesting option is the autogyro, which looks like a helicopter but needs a small runway for takeoff.

The traditional aircraft

Some “flying car” efforts have made airplanes whose wings fold up so they can drive on the road. These have never “taken off” — they usually end up a compromise that is not a very good car or a very good plane. They need airports but you can keep driving from the airport. They are not, for now, autonomous.

Some want to fly most of their miles, and drive just short distances. Some other designs are mostly for driving, but have an ability to “short hop” via parasailing or autogyro flying when desired.  read more »

Thank you, United, for finally charging for the overhead bin

I’ve seen many enraged notes from friends on how United Airlines will now charge for putting a bag in the overhead bin. While they aren’t actually doing this, my reaction is not outrage, but actually something quite positive. And yours should be to, even when other airlines follow suit, as they will.

I fly too much on United. I have had their 1K status for several years, this year I logged over 200,000 miles, so I know all the things to dislike about the airline. Why is it good for them to do this?

Strictly speaking, what they are doing is creating a new fare class, which is extra discount, and it includes no bin space and no assigned seat before departure. They claim the new class will cost less than existing fares, and you can still buy the regular economy fare which comes which bin space and a seat assignment. Naturally, we can suspect they will soon raise the price. The other reason people can complain is that when you comparison shop, you tend to look for the cheapest price, and it’s annoying when the products are not similar. (To fix this, shopping sites will need to start having options so you can ask for a comparison of what you really want to buy.)

The reason it’s good is that it means it’s more likely that I will get bin space when I show up late, and more likely I will get a tolerable seat when I book late. Airlines that give those things to all passengers, even the ones who don’t care that much about them, do not serve their more frequent flyers well. If I have to pay for seat assignment and bin space, it’s great, because I truly need them and will not have a better chance of getting them. Of course, as a super-elite, I won’t have to pay directly, I pay by all the other money I have given the airline, which is even better for me.

I need bin space because I am a photographer who carries a lot of cameras and lenses. Even if I check a bag, I still bring along a big carry-on, and everything in it is too fragile to go in the hold. If they tell me they need to gate check it, I will either talk them out of it, or if that ever fails to work I may take another flight. Of course, elite flyers board first, so we don’t have a bin space problem, but sometimes we need to get to a flight late, or have a short connection, and then we can find ourselves with no bin space today.

I won’t take a middle seat because I’m big. My fault or not, it’s the way it is. Sometimes I need to book last minute, or change flights or even go standby. This can mean a flight with nothing but middle seats. If it’s a flight of any duration, this is also just not an option anybody wants. Since in today’s system, everybody gets a seat based on when they bought, the guy with the discount ticket who bought 3 months ago has the aisle, and the elite flyer who paid a lot more for their ticket (possibly even downgraded from business class due to changes) is in the middle seat. Not the way you want to serve your better customers. (Since the airline will assign seats on day of flight, it will only help this moderately.)

But the point is the same — I would rather pay for what I really need than have it come by default and end up not being available to me because a lot of people didn’t actually want it that much. People who don’t need a big carry-on. People who are small and can tolerate a middle seat easily and would rather do that than pay money. An airline that charges for these things is the airline I want. In fact, I would even be OK if they charged a bit more for aisles and less for windows and middles, even on the day of the flight. And yes, elites sometimes solve all these problems with a business class upgrade, but on the big popular routes, that is far from certain. United has gotten too good at filling its planes, and other airlines are also getting good.

The overhead bag problem is partly a result of the charges for checked bags. Those do me no good (though again, elites don’t pay them.) There is no shortage of hold space, so charging for bags is just pure money for the airline, and that’s why they all started doing it. The problem, of course, is it makes people carry bigger carry-on bags, not for the reason that I or other frequent flyers do, but because they want to avoid the bag charge. I would be very pleased if they made sure the overhead charge is larger than the checked bag charge, or if they charged you to gave you the choice — either an overhead space or a bag in the hold, but not both.

There is another good reason for this — bigger overhead bags from those doing it simply to avoid charges slow down security lines. Leave the overhead bins for those who truly need them, because they have lots of fragiles, or because they value their time more than money and don’t want the delays of bag checking. (I continue to show up for flights quite late, another reason I don’t want to check a bag and be forced to meet the deadlines for that. But I notice I am almost always alone — everybody else listens to the crazy advice about showing up 60, 90 or even 120 minutes before flights. I’m glad everybody else listens; but in reality this has not caused me to miss flights, so I will continue to not listen. And if you fly enough, that time makes a big difference.

In the end, all airlines face the problem that on full planes, there is not enough room for everybody to put a big bag in the overhead bins. So the only question is who it will be that get the space? Today, it’s “who boarded first?” which is tolerable to many (until you have a late connection or other factors make you on time but later than others.) United now wants to make it “Those who didn’t give up the space for a discount” which seems pretty fair to me.

I am curious as to just how they will enforce this. I know some airlines tag cabin baggage, does this actually work? Passengers not using the overhead bin also do not stand in the aisle loading it, though they do often stand there pulling things out of the bag they will be putting under the seat. One way to enforce would be to have the no-bin folks board last, though it causes a problem when people together have different boarding groups. Some airlines, I think, give you tags for overhead bags and under-seat bags.

So while I don’t usually like how United does it, this one’s an exception. (Their new business class redesign also looks good, if long overdue.)

Museums in ruins and old buildings will take on new life with Augmented Reality

We’re on the cusp of a new wave of virtual reality and augmented reality technology. The most exciting is probably the Magic Leap. I have yet to look through it, but friends who have describe it as hard to tell from actual physical objects in your environment. The Hololens (which I have looked through) is not that good, and has a very limited field of view, but it already shows good potential.

It’s becoming easier and easier to create VR versions of both fictional and real environments. Every historical documentary show seems to include a nice model reconstructing what something used to look like, and this is going to get better and better with time.

This will be an interesting solution for many of the world’s museums and historical sites. A few years from now, every visit to a ruin or historical building won’t just include a boring and slow audioguide, but some AR glasses to allow you to see a model of what the building was really like in its glory. Not just a building — it should be possible to walk around ancient Rome or other towns and do this as well.

Now with VR you’ll be able to do that in your own home if you like, but you won’t be able to walk very far in that space. (There are tricks that let you fool people into thinking they walked further but they are just not the same as walking in the real space with the real geometry.) They will also be able to populate the space with recordings or animations of people in period costumes doing period things.

This is good news for historical museums. Many of them have very few actual interesting artifacts to see, so they end up just being placards and photos and videos and other multimedia presentations. Things I could easily see on the museum web site; their only virtue is that I am reading the text and looking at the picture in the greatly changed remains of where it happened. These days, I tend to skip museums that have become little more than multimedia. But going to see the virtual recreation will be a different story, I predict.

Soon will be the time for museum and tourist organizations to start considering what spaces will be good for this. You don’t need to restore or rebuild that old castle, as long as it’s safe to walk around. You just need to instrument it with tracking sensors for the AR gear and build and refine those models. Over time, the resolution of the AR glasses will approach that of the eyes, and the reality of the models will improve too. In time, many will feel like they got an experience very close to going back and time and seeing it as it was.

Well, not quite as it was. It will be full of tourists from the future, including yourself. AR keeps them present, which is good because you don’t want to bump into them. A more advanced system will cover the tourists in period clothing, or even replace their faces. You would probably light the space somewhat dimly to assure the AR can cover up what it needs to cover up, while still keeping enough good vision of the floor so you don’t trip.

Of course, if you cover everything up with the AR, you could just do this in a warehouse, and that will happen too. You would need to reproduce the staircases of the recreated building but could possibly get away with producing very little else. As long as the other visitors don’t walk through walls the walls don’t have to be there. This might be popular (since it needs no travel) but many of us still do have an attraction to the idea that we’re standing in the actual old place, not in our hometown. And the museums would also have rooms with real world artifacts to examine, if they have them.

What should be in every hotel or AirBNB?

My recent efforts in consulting and speaking have led to a lot more travel — which is great sometimes, but also often a drain. I’ve been staying in so many hotels that I thought it worth enumerating some of the things I think every hotel room should have, and what I often find missing.

Most of these things are fairly inexpensive to do, though a few have higher costs. The cheaper ones I would hope can be just included, I realize some might incur extra charges or a slightly more expensive room, or perhaps they can be offered as a perk to loyalty program members.

Desk space for all occupants

Most rooms usually only have a workspace for one, even if it’s a double room. The modern couple both have computers, and both need a place to work, ideally not crammed together. That’s also true when two co-workers share a room. And in a perfect room, both desk spaces share the other attributes of a good desk, namely:

  • The surface is not glass. I would say more than half the desks in hotel rooms are glass, which don’t work well with optical mice. Sure, you put down some papers, but this seems kinda silly.
  • Of course, 2 or even 3 power outlets, on the desk or wall above it. Ideally the “universal” kind that accept most of the world’s plugs. (Sure, I bring adapters but this is always handy.) Don’t make me crawl under the desk to plug things in, have to unplug something else.

To my horror, Marriott has been building some new hotels with no desk space at all. Some person (I would say some idiot) decided that since millennials use fewer laptops and just want to sit on a couch with their tablet, it was better to sacrifice the desk. Those hotels had better have folding desks you can borrow, in fact all hotels could do that to fix the desk space shortage, particularly if rooms are small. Another option would be a leaf that folds down from the wall.

Surfaces/racks for luggage and other things for everybody.

Many rooms are very lacking in table or surface space beyond the desk. Almost every hotel room comes with only one luggage holder, where a couple might find themselves with 3 or in rare case 4 bags. I doubt these folding luggage holders are that expensive, but if you can’t put more than one in every room, then watch people as they check in, and note how many bags they have, and have somebody automatically send up some extra holders to their room. At the very least make it easy for them to ask. I mean these things are under $30 quantity one. Get more!

Bathrooms need surface space, too. Too often I’ve seen sinks with nowhere to put your toiletries and freedom bag. In fact, I want space everywhere to unpack the things I want to access.

Power by the bed (and other places)

Sure, I get that older hotel rooms did not load up with power outlets, and modern ones do. But aside from the desk, most people want power by the bed now, for their phone charger if nothing else. If you just have one plug by the bed, put a 3-way splitter (global plug, of course) on that plug so that people can plug things in without unplugging the light or clock. And ideally up high, so I don’t have to crawl behind things to get at it.

A little more controversial is the idea of offering USB charging power. Today, we all carry chargers, but the hope is that if charging becomes commonplace, then like the travel hair dryer people used to carry and no longer do, we might be able to depend on finding a charger. Problem is, charging standards are many and change frequently — we now have USB regular (useless) and fast-charge, along with Qualcomm quick-charge and USB C. More will come. On top of this, strictly you should not plug your device into a random USB port which might try to take it over. You can get what’s called a “USB Condom” to block the data lines, but those might interfere with the negotiation phase of smarter power standards. A wireless “Qi” charging plate could be a useful thing.

As a couple, we have had up to 8 things charging at the same time, when you include phones, cameras, external batteries, headphones, tablets and other devices. So I bring a 5-way USB fast charger and rely on laptops or other chargers to go the distance.

Let me access the HDTV as a monitor, or give me a monitor.

Some rooms block you from any access to the TV. Some have a VGA or HDMI port built into a console on the desk. The latter is great, but usually the TV is mounted in a way that makes it not very useful as a computer monitor for working. It’s primarily useful for watching video. I pretty much never watch video in a hotel room, so given the choice, I would put the monitor by the desk, and it should be 1080p or better — in fact 4K should be the norm for any new installations. If you don’t have one, have one I can call down for, even at a modest fee.  read more »

Wanted: A better method for multi-leg flight booking

I’m doing a lot of flying these days for international speaking and consulting, and I try whenever possible to have 2 or more clients when I fly overseas, since the trips and time-changes can be draining.

By far my favourite flight search tool is Google flight search. That’s because it’s an order of magnitude faster than most of the other tools, and while it lacks some features I would like, once you have speed, there is no substitute for it. I also like routehappy when I am being particular about seats, though it doesn’t cover all airlines which makes it useless for primary search.

To save money, however, what I really need is a tool that can get smart about the various arcane prices airlines put on flights which can vary tremendously. In particular the situations where airlines have decided not to simply sell one-way fares at around half the price of return trips. This is almost universally true between the USA and Europe and on some domestic routes, and less true on travel involving Asia. It is quite common for one-way trips to cost the same as round trips, and sometimes, bizarrely, even more. In the case of some KLM flights, I have found a one way costing double the price of a round trip. The Dutch know this and commonly book returns on KLM and don’t fly the return leg. There are stories of airlines punishing people who do that but they are rare. (The airlines are much more upset about “hidden city” booking, where people notice a flight to X connecting through Y is much cheaper than the direct flight to Y, so they book to X and just walk off the plane there.)

Throwing away the return leg doesn’t stop the trip from costing as much as a return. Your goal is to pay a more fair price, and that usually means making sure that you fly all your flights (or certainly your transatlantic flights) ticketed by the same airline. That works some of the time, but not always. The best airline to fly out may be a terrible airline to fly back on. You may have to take a flight with a painful time and routing one way to get the schedule you need the other way. Of course, this is the supposed purpose of the pricing — to make you buy both directions from the same airline, but it’s often a false victory, I suspect it loses for the airline almost as much as it wins, and it pisses off customers.

Trying all the permutations

Airlines have tons of hidden fare rules that jack up or seriously reduce fares involving certain cities. If you are going to these cities, you want to use them.

If we consider a complex trip that goes A -> B -> C -> D -> E -> A (4 stops) you can put that into most of the flight search engines as a “multi city” trip. You’ll sometimes get back a great answer, but usually you get back a ridiculous one. That’s because the engine just shops that out to all the airlines, which means you only get airlines that sell all 5 routes. And if the itinerary is far flung, there may be no airlines that sell them all at a good price, or with a good routing. (Of course, rarely does any one airline fly all the routes, but they all have tons of partners they can build tickets from.)

So it turns out the best way to fly this trip means combining one-ways (where they are fairly priced) and open jaws. I have found, for example, that you can often save a huge amount of money by buying something like “A->B, D-E” from one airline and “B->C, E-A” from another and “C->D” one way from a third. Bizarrely, adding the right extra legs to certain itineraries triggers serious price drops. This is particularly true when you involve cities with lots of competition (like New York) or inherently low prices (like India.)

So what I want is a flight search engine that will try all the combinations. There are engines that will check if sets of one-ways will do the trick (Kayak calls it a hacker fare) but that’s not enough. Price all 5 together, and then the sets of 4 with a single one-way, then the sets of 3 with the different sets of 2 and so on. You want to combine the price search with a flight quality search too, so that you flight on shorter, better flights.

When I do this as a human, I do it with some knowledge of the geography. For example, if you have a short leg which is only flown nonstop by one airline, it’s pretty obvious you want to price that out independently from the other flights, because if your ticket comes from an airline that doesn’t partner with the nonstop airline, they will put you on a ridiculous connection instead of a cheap one-hour flight.

In addition, there is another advantage to breaking up a flight into smaller groupings. It gives you more ability to change the flights or even to skip them. In many cases, to avoid people playing tricks, airlines will cancel the rest of an itinerary if you don’t show up for an early leg, often with no refund. Once, when a change in plans put me in Copenhagen instead of Bergen, Norway the night before my planned flight from Bergen back to San Francisco (via Copenhagen), SAS insisted I fly to Bergen just so I could turn around and get on the flight back to Copenhagen for my connection.

Round the world

This gets worse when you do a multi-leg trip, and worse, a “round the world” trip involving Asia, Europe and the Americas. In the latter case, sometimes your best course is the special around-the-world tickets offered by the 3 big alliances. These tickets cost around $10,000 in business class, around $4K in coach. For certain types of trips they are the clear winning choice. They are flexible — you can book them as little as 3 days in advance, and you can change your flights, even the cities, for free or low cost. They are refundable with a small penalty! You can add side trips for personal travel at little to no extra cost, and you can go to obscure airports that are expensive to fly to for the same price. They have a small number of downsides:

  • They can cost more than many directly booked trips. If your client is paying, it may not be fair to charge them $10K for something you could book for $7K. Though you can always eat the extra cost if you are doing side-trips as it can easily be worth it.
  • You are limited to one alliance only, though most of them have several airlines to fly you on the route.
  • They fetch from a more limited inventory if flying in business class, so quite often, particularly if booking late or changing your plans, you may see the flight you want is not available in the class you paid for.
  • Of course, they have their RTW restrictions — you must cross each ocean exactly once, along with a few others. Usually not a problem, but sometimes.

So if you ever see that your complex trip is adding up to a high cost, look into these. OneWorld also has some subset trips that don’t require a Pacific crossing.

Smart travel agents

While a computer should be able to do all this, perhaps there are still members of the dying profession of travel agents who can do a decent job on this. Let me know if you know of some. In the past, there were ticket consolidators, who buy up buckets of tickets and then have the power to sell them at reasonable one-way prices. This can be good, though sometimes it means being a 2nd class passenger, not getting loyalty miles and not being able to deal directly with the airline for service.

Robotic landing pad gets more serious

In 2010, I proposed the idea of planes with no landing gear which land on robotic platforms. The spring loaded platforms are pulled by cables and so can accelerate and turn with multiple gees, so that almost no matter what the plane does, it can’t miss the platform, and it can even hit hard with safety.

Today I learned there is a European research project called Gabriel with very similar ideas. In their plan, the plane has landing pillars which insert into the platform, rather than wheels. This requires retractable pillars but not the weight of the wheels. The platform runs on a maglev track but can tilt and rotate slightly to match the plane as it lands or takes off.

Overall I still prefer my plan — and I have added some refinements in the intervening years.

  • I am not quite sure of the value of maglev, which is quite expensive. Cables can provide high acceleration quite well.
  • The pillars still need a complex mechanism (which can fail) though they make a very solid connection — if you can place them just right.
  • Their platform tilts up — this may mean it can provide power longer which could be useful. It also allows easier release of pillars.
  • My approach allowed, in theory the ability to land in any direction, eliminating crosswinds. Gabriel uses a linear track.
  • I don’t think there is much need for communications between the aircraft and the platform. Can’t see much the platform can’t figure out — it can easily track the aircraft with its cameras and position itself. There are a few things that could be communicated, but why not have it work fine even if the communications are out — which could happen.
  • My goal was to have a super short runway, taking off and landing with high acceleration.
  • My aim was to handle small aircraft, Gabriel seems aimed at larger ones. Admittedly larger ones may be more tolerant of landing only at prepared airports.

One refinement I have added involves the hard question of what to do if you lose power at takeoff. This is the scariest thing in flying, and you must be able to recover. You could have a longer takeoff runway, so that there is enough space to slow down again if the aircraft loses power just before being released.

An alternative, as suggested by Gregg Maryniak is to have a “catch” airfield downrange from the main airfield. In this case, if you lost power, the system could keep accelerating you and even release you, with enough power that you can climb over the intervening space and then glide to a landing on an emergency catch platform — which would grab you no matter what, and let you land hard. The intervening land could be farmland or any sort of land use willing to be at the end of an airport, but it need not be airstrip. The downside of this is you must take off along a vector which lets you get, with no power, to the catch robot, so you may have to deal with crosswinds. You could have more than one catch robot allowing different takeoff vectors, but it’s still vastly less land than a typical airport would require, with most of the land finding other uses. Indeed it might be possible to have a small set of catch robots arrayed around the takeoff airstrip and allow takeoff in almost any direction.

The emergency catch robots, being only for emergencies, might stop you faster than an ordinary landing, and thus require less land. For example, if you can take 20m/s/s of deceleration (2gs) you can stop from 40m/s in just 40 meters, meaning the emergency catch strip could be very small, an insignificant amount of land. At such a small size, it’s easy to imagine an array of pads around the main takeoff-zone. Admittedly it’s a hard landing, but it would be a rare exception. Better be belted in on takeoff and everything stowed in the back.

It seems concluded for now, but it will be interested to see if anything develops further.

How to avoid a pilot suicide

After 9/11 there was a lot of talk about how to prevent it, and the best method was to fortify the cockpit door and prevent unauthorized access. Every security system, however, sometimes prevents authorized people from getting access, and the tragic results of that are now clear to the world. This is likely a highly unusual event, and we should not go overboard, but it’s still interesting to consider.

(I have an extra reason to take special interest here, I was boarding a flight out of Spain on Tuesday just before the Germanwings flight crashed.)

In 2001, it was very common to talk about how software systems, at least on fly-by-wire aircraft, might make it impossible for aircraft to do things like fly into buildings. Such modes might be enabled by remote command from air traffic control. Pilots resist this, they don’t like the idea of a plane that might refuse to obey them at any time, because with some justification they worry that a situation could arise where the automated system is in error, and they need full manual control to do what needs to be done.

The cockpit access protocol on the Airbus allows flight crew to enter a code to unlock the door. Quite reasonably, the pilot in the cockpit can override that access, because an external bad guy might force a flight crew member to enter the code.

So here’s an alternative — a code that can be entered by a flight crew member which sends and emergency alert to air traffic control. ATC would then have the power to unlock the door with no possibility of pilot override. In extreme cases, ATC might even be able to put the plane in a safe mode, where it can only fly to a designated airport, and auto-land at that airport. In planes with sufficient bandwidth near an airport, the plane might actually be landed by remote pilots like a UAV, an entirely reasonable idea for newer aircraft. In case of real terrorist attack, ATC would need to be ready to refuse to open the door no matter what is threatened to the passengers.

If ATC is out of range (like over the deep ocean) then the remote console might allow the flight crew — even a flight attendant — to direct the aircraft to fly to pre-approved waypoints along the planned flight path where quality radio contact can be established.

Clearly there is a risk to putting a plane in this mode, though ATC or the flight crew who did it could always return control to the cockpit.

It might still be possible to commit suicide but it would take a lot more detailed planning. Indeed, there have been pilot suicides where the door was not locked, and the suicidal pilot just put the plane into a non-recoverable spin so quickly that nobody could stop it. Still, in many cases of suicide, any impediment can sometimes make the difference.

Update: I have learned the lock has a manual component, and so the pilot in the cockpit could prevent even a remote opening for now. Of course, current planes are not set to be remotely flown, though that has been discussed. It’s non trivial (and would require lots of approval) but it could have other purposes.

A safe mode that prevents overt attempts to crash might be more effective than you think, in that with many suicides, even modest discouragement can make a difference. It’s why they still want to put a fence on the Golden Gate Bridge had have other similar things elsewhere. You won’t stop a determined suicide but it apparently does stop those who are still uncertain, which is lots of them.

The simpler solution — already going into effect in countries that did not have this rule already — is a regulation insisting that nobody is ever alone in the cockpit. Under this rule, if a pilot wants to go to the bathroom, a flight attendant waits in the cockpit. Of course, a determined suicidal pilot could disable this person, either because of physical power, or because sometimes there is a weapon available to pilots. That requires more resolve and planning, though.

Fixing the sad state of in-flight entertainment (your own or the airline's)

When Southwest started using tablets for in-flight entertainment, I lauded it. Everybody has been baffled by just how incredibly poor most in-flight video systems are. They tend to be very slow, with poor interfaces and low resolution screens. Even today it’s common to face a small widescreen that takes a widescreen film, letterboxes it and then pillarboxes it, with only an option to stretch it and make it look wrong. All this driven by a very large box in somebody’s footwell.

I found out one reason why these systems are so outdated. Apparently, all seatback screens have to be safety tested, to make sure that if you are launched forward and hit your head on the screen, it is not more dangerous than it needs to be. Such testing takes time and money, so these systems are only updated every 10 years. The process of redesigning, testing and installing takes long enough that it’s pretty sure the IFE system will seem like a dinosaur compared to your phone or tablet.

One airline is planning to just safety test a plastic case for the seatback into which they can insert different panels as they develop. Other airlines are moving to tablets, or providing you movies on your own tablet, though primarily they have fallen into the Apple walled garden and are doing it only for the iPad.

The natural desire is just to forget the airline system and bring your own choice of entertainment on your own tablet. This is magnified by the hugely annoying system which freezes the IFE system on every announcement. Not just the safety announcements. Not just the announcements in your language, but also the announcement that duty free shopping has begun in English, French and Chinese. While a few airlines let you start your movie right after boarding, you don’t want to do it, as you will get so many interruptions until the flight levels off that it will drive you crazy. The airline provided tablet services also do this interruption, so your own tablet is better.

In the further interests of safety, new rules insist you can only use the airline’s earbud headphones during takeoff and landing, not your nice noise cancellation phones. But you didn’t pick up earbuds since you have the nicer ones. The theory is, your nice headphones might make you miss a safety announcement when landing, even though they tend to block background noise and actually make speech clearer.

One of the better IFE systems is the one on Emirates. This one, I am told, knows who you are, and if you pause a show on one flight, it picks up there on your next flight. (Compare that to so many systems that often forget where you were in the film on the same flight, and also don’t warn you if you won’t be able to finish the movie before the system is turned off.)

Using your own tablet

It turns out to be no picnic using your own tablet.

  • You have to remember to pre-load the video, of course
  • You have to pay for it, which is annoying if:
    • The airline is already paying for it and providing it free in the IFE
    • You have it on netflix/etc. and could watch it at home at no cost
    • You wish to start a movie one day and finish it on another flight, but don’t want to pay to “own” the movie. (Because of this I mostly watch TV shows, which only have a $3 “own” price and no rental price.)

How to fix this:

  1. IFE systems should know who I am, know my language, know if I have already seen the safety briefing, and not interrupt me for anything but new or plane-specific safety announcements in my chosen language.
  2. Like the Emirates systems, they should know where I am in each movie, as well as my tastes.
  3. How to know the language of the announcement? Well, you could have a button for the FA to push, but today software is able to figure out the language pretty reliably, so an automated system could learn the languages and the order in which they are done on that flight. Software could also spot phrases like “Safety announcement” at the start of a public address, or there could be a button.
  4. Netflix should, like many other services, allow you to cache material for offline viewing. The material can have an expiration date, and the software can check when it’s online to update those dates, if you are really paranoid about people using the cache as a way to watch stuff after it leaves Netflix. Reportedly Amazon does this on the Kindle Fire.
  5. Online video stores (iTunes, Google Play, etc.) should offer a “plane rental” which allows you to finish a movie after the day you start it. In fact, why not have that ability for a week or two on all rentals? It would not let you restart, only let you watch material you have not yet viewed, plus perhaps a minute ahead of that.
  6. Perhaps I am greedy, but it would be nice if you could do a rental that lets 2 or more people in a household watch independently, so I watch it on my flight and she watches it on hers.
  7. If necessary, noise-cancelling headphones should have a “landing mode” that mixes in more outside sound, and a little airplane icon on them, so that we can keep them on during takeoff and landing. Or get rid of this pretty silly rule.

Choosing your film

There’s a lot of variance in the quality of in-flight films. Air Canada seems particularly good at choosing turkeys. Before they close the doors, I look up movies — if I can get the IFE system to work with all the announcements — in review sites to figure out what to watch. In November, at Dublin Web Summit, I met the developers of a travel app called Quicket, which specialized in having its resources offline. I suggested they include ratings for the movies on each flight — the airlines publish their catalog in advance — in the offline data, and in December they had implemented it. Great job, Quicket.

Let me be a bit late for the plane, occasionally.

One of air travel’s great curses is that you have to leave for the airport a long time before your flight. Airlines routinely “recommend” you be there 2 or 3 hours ahead, and airport ride companies often take it to heart and want to pick you up many hours before even short flights. The curse is strongest on short flights, where you can easily spend as much as twice the time getting to the flight as you spend in the air.

The reality, though, is that it’s not nearly that strict. I often arrive much later. I’ve missed 3 flights in my life — in two cases because cheap airlines literally had nobody at the counter past their cutoff deadline, and once because United’s automated bag check line was very long (I got there before the deadline) but their computer is fully strict on the deadline while humans usually are not. In all cases, I got on another flight, and the time lost to these missed flights is vastly less than the time gained by not being at the airport so early.

But it’s getting harder. Airlines are getting stricter, and in a few cases offering no flexibility.

The big curse is that many of the delays can’t be predicted. It may almost always take 20 minutes to get to the airport, but every so often traffic will make it 40. Security is usually only 5-10 minutes but there are times when it’s 30. Car rental return, parking shuttles, called taxis and Ubers can have unexpected delays. Parking lots can be full (as happened to me this xmas after Uber failed me.) Immigration can range from 2 minutes to 1.5 hours if you have to go to secondary screening. While in theory you could research this, sometimes at strange airports you are surprised to find it’s 30 minutes walk and people-mover to your gate.

If you ever fly privately, though, you will discover a different world, where even if you’re just a guest you can arrive a very short time before your flight. (If you’re the owner, of course, it doesn’t take off until you get there.) But there are many options that can speed your trip through the airport without needing to fly a private jet:

  • Tools like Google Now track traffic and warn you when you need to leave earlier to get to the airport
  • If you take a cab to the airport, you eliminate the delays of parking and car return
  • Though rarer today, ability to check bags in advance at remote locations helps a lot
  • Curb checking of bags is great, as of course is online check-in sent to your phone
  • (Not checking bags is of course better, and any savvy flyer avoids it whenever they can, but sometimes you can’t.)
  • Premium passengers get check-in gates with minimal lines, and premium security lines
  • If you have a Global Entry or Nexus card, you can skip the immigration/customs line
  • TSA PRE, “Clear” and premium passenger security lines provide a no-wait experience. Of course nobody should ever have to wait, ever.
  • Failing that, offering appointments at security for a predictable security trip can remove the time risk
  • Sometimes they also let people who are at risk of missing a flight skip past the security line (and some other lines)
  • In some cases, premium passengers are shuttled in vehicles within the terminal or on the tarmac
  • Business class passengers can board as late as they want (or as early) and still get a place in the bins on most flights

In addition, I believe that if you wanted to get your checked bag cleared quickly by the TSA for money, it could happen. Of course, we can’t have everybody do this all the time, or so I presume, because it would require too much in the way of resources. But what if we allow you to do this occasionally when factors beyond your control have made you late.

What is proposed is that every so often — perhaps one time in twenty — when factors like traffic, long security lines or other things mostly beyond your control made you late, you could invoke an urgent need, and still make your flight.

This would allow you to budget a more reasonable time to arrive

What does this all add up to? It should be possible, at an extra cost, to get a quick trip through the airport. Say that cost is $200 (I don’t think it’s that much, but say that it is.) You could pay $10 extra per flight for “insurance” and be able to invoke an urgent trip every so often when things go wrong. It’s worth it to pay every trip because it gives you a benefit on every trip — you leave later, knowing you will make it even if traffic, security lines or similar factors would delay you too much.

Some of the services you might get would include:

  • Somebody meets your car at the curb, takes your keys, and then parks it or returns it to the car rental facility
  • Another employee meets you and checks in your bags at the curb. Your bags are put in a special urgent queue in TSA inspection. If need be a staffer walks it through.
  • A golf cart takes you to security if it’s not close, and you get to the front of the line.
  • If your gate is far, another golf cart or escort takes you there

The natural question is, “why wouldn’t you want this all the time?” And indeed you would, and a large fraction of passengers would pay a fairly high fee to get this when they need it. Airlines might make it just part of the service with high-priced tickets or super-elite flyers, and I see no reason that should not happen. The price can be set so that the demand matches the supply, based on the cost of having extra employees to handle urgent passengers.

When it comes to more “public” resources like TSA screening, they have a simple rule. You can give premium services to premium passengers if what you do also speeds up the line for ordinary passengers. A simple implementation of this is to just pay for an extra screening station for the premium passengers, because now you don’t butt in line and in fact by not being in the regular line at all, you speed it up for all in it. You don’t need to be so extravagant, however. For example, the “TSE PRE” line, which allows a faster trip through the X-ray (you don’t have to take anything out, or remove your shoes in this line) speeds up everybody because we all wait behind people doing that. If you can show that the amount you speed up the whole process is greater than the delay you add by letting premium passengers jump the queue, it is allowed.

But as fancy as these services sound, with extra staff, they are really not that expensive. Perhaps just 20 minutes of employee time for most of it — more if they are driving your car to a parking lot for you. (Note that this curb hand-off is forbidden by most airports because car rental companies already would like to offer it to their top customers but it is believed that would be too popular and increase traffic. Special permission would need to be arranged.)

For the “insurance” approach, a few techniques could assure it was not being abused. The frequency of use is one of them, of course, but you could also give people an app for their phones. This app, using GPS and knowing a flight is coming, would know when you left for the airport. In fact, it could give you alerts as to when to leave based on information about traffic, parking and security wait times. If you left at the reasonable departure deadline, you would get the urgent service if traffic or other surprise factors made you late. If you left after that deadline, you would not be assured the fast track path.

What would be better would be an app that actually works with all the airport functions you will interact with — check in, the gate, bag check, passenger screening, parking lots, rental cars, traffic etc. Their databases could know their state, any special conditions, and both recommend a time to leave that will work, but even make appointments for you and tell you when to leave for them. Then your phone could guide you through the airport and do all the hard work. It would provide an ID to get you your appointment at security. It might tell you to not drive your own car and take a car service instead if that’s easier than parking your car for you. It would coordinate for all the passengers using the system to make sure they flow through the airport in a well regulated manner, with no surprises, so that people don’t have to try to get there hours in advance.

Sell me cheap, flexible tickets if I'm flexible too

Dave Barry once wrote that there is a federal law that no two people on a plane can pay the same price for their seat. Airlines use complex systems to manage ticket prices, constantly changing them based on expected demand and competition, and with over a dozen fare classes with different rules.

When it comes to the rules, a usual principle is that only the more expensive tickets give you the flexibility to change your plans. For any reasonable price, you will have change and cancellation fees, and for the lowest cost tickets, changes are next to impossible. This is compounded by the fact that changes usually require paying the difference to the current price, but the current price in the few days before a flight is the very expensive flexible price. Missing a flight or deciding to move a fight a day can be hugely expensive.

The flexible tickets are ridiculously expensive as well, often 2x or even 3x the inflexible cost. In general, unless you change your plans a lot, you are still better off buying the cheap inflexible tickets and then eating the high cost on the relatively rare times you make changes. (Many airlines do offer cheap “same day” changes, particularly to status flyers.)

Flexible tickets can command this price because they are of greatest use to business passengers. We fly more on short notice, and need to make sudden changes, while people on vacation generally do have a fixed schedule. Airlines know business customers will pay more, and so they search for things that only business passengers want, and charge heavily for them.

Sell me a ticket where I have to be flexible

For leisure travel, here’s an alternative. Sell me a ticket that allows reasonable and low-cost changes when seats are available. Make it not a big deal to let me leave when I want to. To make this ticket cheap, but a big burden on me — the airline can also delay my flight.

What this would mean is that up to some amount of time, like 24 hours before the flight, the airline can email me and say, “Sorry, that flight is selling out, we’ve moving you to another flight.” The other flight would be within a time window — the longer the window, the cheaper the ticket. 24 to 48 hours would usually be enough.

The typical business passenger is not going to tolerate this. In business, time is money and losing a day just isn’t an option.

Some leisure passengers would not tolerate it either. If you have other bookings that are hard to change, like sold-out hotels, or a cruise, you don’t want to miss them. (Though in the world of flight cancellations you have to prepare for this sometimes.) But many hotels and other things are pretty flexible.

Most could handle such a rule going home, unless they are going home and must get to work the next day. For retired people, and the many people who work flexible schedules (consultants, writers and many other self-employed) it is not a big issue to get home a day or two late. And for many of these people it’s also not a big issue to arrive at the destination a day late, and certainly not a few hours late. In addition, many people taking an extended trip to multiple cities would be perfectly fine with the idea that they might spend an extra day in Rome and a day less in London, or vice versa. (On shorter trips with several flights a day, the delay might well be only a few hours.)

You could also offer the airline the power to make you leave earlier, but they would have to give you more notice on most legs.

This is great for the airline. They get the power to move people off full planes to replace them with high revenue customers at no cost, and put them on planes that are less full, where the seats are almost free. (If both planes are full, they would not move you.) Today they do this by asking for volunteers and paying them with vouchers, or on some occasions doing a forced bumping.

This is like standby, in a way, but less uncertain than that. A bit more like the way employees fly free on their off-hours.

There is one class of business passenger who might tolerate this, namely those making a visit to a branch office. They might be able to continue work for another day at the branch rather than go home if they don’t have meetings scheduled. I don’t think there would be a lot of this, unless you could also do it for business class tickets.

As part of the deal, the airline would also offer you a guaranteed low rate on an airport hotel for your extra day. They already have negotiated rates and spaces. With advance notice, though, you will probably be able to stay at your own hotel unless you travel at a sold-out time. These fares might make more sense in shoulder seasons, where hotel changes are easy.

As a passenger

As a reminder, you do all this to save money on a flexible ticket. You get a ticket where you can leave whenever you want without a large change fee. For a certain class of voyager (the retired in particular) this is the sort of ticket they want. Of course, seats have to be available, you can’t switch to a sold-out flight, and seat selection may be limited if you do things on short notice. But it need not always be on short notice.

The notice from the airline could even be long, too. Their computers are estimating the load all the time, and they might send you a request to move even a week or month in advance. For a higher cost, you might lengthen the window so you need a week’s notice if you are going to be moved (and they might then move you forward or backward.)

I was a robot for 3 days in London

In August, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) in London. I did it while in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho by means of a remote Telepresence Robot(*). The WorldCon is half conference, half party, and I was fully involved — telepresent there for around 10 hours a day for 3 days, attending sessions, asking questions, going to parties. Back in Idaho I was speaking at a local robotics conference, but I also attended a meeting back at the office using an identical device while I was there.

After doing this, I have written up a detailed account of what it’s like to attend a conference and social event using these devices, how fun it is now, and what it means for the future.

You can read Attending the World Science Fiction convention on the other side of the world by remote telepresence robot

For those of you in the TL;DR crowd, the upshot is that it works. No, it’s not as good as being there in person. But it is a substantial fraction of the way there, and it’s going to get better. I truly feel I attended that convention, but I didn’t have spend the money and time required to travel to London, and I was able to do other things in Idaho and California at the same time.

When you see at new technology that seems not quite there yet, you have to decide — is this going to get better and explode, or is it going to fizzle. I’m voting for the improvement argument. It won’t replace being there all of the time, but it will replace being there some of the time, and thus have big effects on travel — particularly air travel — and socialization. There are also interesting consequences for the disabled, for the use of remote labour and many other things.

(*)As the maker will point out, this is not technically a robot, just a remote controlled machine. Robots have sensors and make some of their own decisions on how they move.

Near-perfect virtual reality of recent times and tourism

Recently I tried Facebook/Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype. It has more resolution (I will guess 1280 x 1600 per eye or similar) and runs at 90 frames/second. It also has better head tracking, so you can walk around a small space with some realism — but only a very small space. Still, it was much more impressive than the DK2 and a sign of where things are going. I could still see a faint screen door, they were annoyed that I could see it.

We still have a lot of resolution gain left to go. The human eye sees about a minute of arc, which means about 5,000 pixels for a 90 degree field of view. Since we have some ability for sub-pixel resolution, it might be suggested that 10,000 pixels of width is needed to reproduce the world. But that’s not that many Moore’s law generations from where we are today. The graphics rendering problem is harder, though with high frame rates, if you can track the eyes, you need only render full resolution where the fovea of the eye is. This actually gives a boost to onto-the-eye systems like a contact lens projector or the rumoured Magic Leap technology which may project with lasers onto the retina, as they need actually render far fewer pixels. (Get really clever, and realize the optic nerve only has about 600,000 neurons, and in theory you can get full real-world resolution with half a megapixel if you do it right.)

Walking around Rome, I realized something else — we are now digitizing our world, at least the popular outdoor spaces, at a very high resolution. That’s because millions of tourists are taking billions of pictures every day of everything from every angle, in every lighting. Software of the future will be able to produce very accurate 3D representations of all these spaces, both with real data and reasonably interpolated data. They will use our photographs today and the better photographs tomorrow to produce a highly accurate version of our world today.

This means that anybody in the future will be able to take a highly realistic walk around the early 21st century version of almost everything. Even many interiors will be captured in smaller numbers of photos. Only things that are normally covered or hidden will not be recorded, but in most cases it should be possible to figure out what was there. This will be trivial for fairly permanent things, like the ruins in Rome, but even possible for things that changed from day to day in our highly photographed world. A bit of AI will be able to turn the people in photos into 3-D animated models that can move within these VRs.

It will also be possible to extend this VR back into the past. The 20th century, before the advent of the digital camera, was not nearly so photographed, but it was still photographed quite a lot. For persistent things, the combination of modern (and future) recordings with older, less frequent and lower resolution recordings should still allow the creation of a fairly accurate model. The further back in time we go, the more interpolation and eventually artistic interpretation you will need, but very realistic seeming experiences will be possible. Even some of the 19th century should be doable, at least in some areas.

This is a good thing, because as I have written, the world’s tourist destinations are unable to bear the brunt of the rising middle class. As the Chinese, Indians and other nations get richer and begin to tour the world, their greater numbers will overcrowd those destinations even more than the waves of Americans, Germans and Japanese that already mobbed them in the 20th century. Indeed, with walking chairs (successors of the BigDog Robot) every spot will be accessible to everybody of any level of physical ability.

VR offers one answer to this. In VR, people will visit such places and get the views and the sounds — and perhaps even the smells. They will get a view captured at the perfect time in the perfect light, perhaps while the location is closed for digitization and thus empty of crowds. It might be, in many ways, a superior experience. That experience might satisfy people, though some might find themselves more driven to visit the real thing.

In the future, everybody will have had a chance to visit all the world’s great sites in VR while they are young. In fact, doing so might take no more than a few weekends, changing the nature of tourism greatly. This doesn’t alter the demand for the other half of tourism — true experience of the culture, eating the food, interacting with the locals and making friends. But so much commercial tourism — people being herded in tour groups to major sites and museums, then eating at tour-group restaurants — can be replaced.

I expect VR to reproduce the sights and sounds and a few other things. Special rooms could also reproduce winds and even some movement (for example, the feeling of being on a ship.) Right now, walking is harder to reproduce. With the OR Crescent Bay you could only walk 2-3 feet, but one could imagine warehouse size spaces or even outdoor stadia where large amounts of real walking might be possible if the simulated surface is also flat. Simulating walking over rough surfaces and stairs offers real challenges. I have tried systems where you walk inside a sphere but they don’t yet quite do it for me. I’ve also seen a system where you are held in place and move your feet in slippery socks on a smooth surface. Fun, but not quite there. Your body knows when it is staying in one place, at least for now. Touching other things in a realistic way would require a very involved robotic system — not impossible, but quite difficult.

Also interesting will be immersive augmented reality. There are a few ways I know of that people are developing

  • With a VR headset, bring in the real world with cameras, modify it and present that view to the screens, so they are seeing the world through the headset. This provides a complete image, but the real world is reduced significantly in quality, at least for now, and latency must be extremely low.
  • With a semi-transparent screen, show the augmentation with the real world behind it. This is very difficult outdoors, and you can’t really stop bright items from the background mixing with your augmentation. Focus depth is an issue here (and is with most other systems.) In some plans, the screens have LCDs that can go opaque to block the background where an augmentation is being placed.
  • CastAR has you place retroreflective cloth in your environment, and it can present objects on that cloth. They do not blend with the existing reality, but replace it where the cloth is.
  • Projecting into the eye with lasers from glasses, or on a contact lens can be brighter than the outside world, but again you can’t really paint over the bright objects in your environment.

Getting back to Rome, my goal would be to create an augmented reality that let you walk around ancient Rome, seeing the buildings as they were. The people around you would be converted to Romans, and the modern roads and buildings would be turned into areas you can’t enter (since we don’t want to see the cars, and turning them into fast chariots would look silly.) There have been attempts to create a virtual walk through ancient Rome, but being able to do it in the real location would be very cool.

Hotel rooms and temporary apartments need to adapt better for the digital nomad

I’ve been on the road for the last month, and there’s more to come. Right now I’m in Amsterdam for a few hours, to be followed by a few events in London, then on to New York for Singularity U’s Exponential Finance conference, followed by the opening of our Singularity University Graduate Studies Program for 2014. (You can attend our opening ceremony June 16 by getting tickets here — it’s always a good crowd)

But while on the road, let me lament about what’s missing from so many of the hotel rooms and AirBnB apartments I’ve stayed in, which is an understanding of what digital folks, especially digital couples need.

Desk space

Yes, rooms are small, especially in Europe, and one thing they often sacrifice is desk space. In particular, desk space for two people with laptops. This is OK if you’ve ditched the laptop for a tablet, but many rooms barely have desk space enough for one, or the apartments have no desk, only the kitchen table. And some only have one chair.

We need desk space, and we need a bit of room to put things, and we need it for two. Of course, there should be plugs at desk level if you can — the best thing is to have a power strip on the desk, so we can plug in laptops, camera chargers, phone chargers and the like.

Strangely, at least half the hotels I stay in have a glass tabletop for their desk. The once surface my mouse won’t work on. Yes, I hate the trackpad so I use a mouse if I am doing any serious computing. I can pull over a piece of paper or book to be a mousepad, but this is silly.

Monitor

Really sweet, but rarely seen, is an external monitor. Nice 24” computer monitors cost under $150 these days, so there should be one — or two. And there should be cables (HDMI and VGA at least) because while I bring cables sometimes, you never know which cable the monitor in a room will use. Sometimes you can plug into the room’s TV — but sometimes it has been modified so you can’t. It’s nice if you can, though a TV on the while is not a great monitor for working. It’s OK for watching video if I wanted to.

For extra credit, perhaps the TV can support some of the new video over wireless protocols, like Miracast, Widi or Apple’s TV protocol, to make it easy to connect devices, even phones and tablets.

Sadly, there is no way yet for you to provide me with a keyboard or mouse in the room that I could trust.

Power

Though when it comes to phone chargers, many use their phone as their alarm clock, and so they want it by the bed. There should be power by the bed, and it should not require you to unplug the bedside lamp or clock radio.

Another nice touch would be plugs or power strips with the universal multi-socket that accepts all the major types of plugs. Sure, I always have adapters but it’s nice to not have to use them. My stuff is all multi-voltage of course.

Luggage holders

Most hotel rooms come with a folding luggage stand, which is good. But they should really come with two. Couples and families routinely have 3 bags. A hotel should know that if you’ve booked a double room, you probably want at least two. Sometimes I have called down to the desk to get more and they don’t have any more — just one in each room. If you are not going to put them in the room, the bell desk should be able to bring up any you need.

Free Wifi (and wired) without a goddamned captive portal

I’ve ranted about this before, but captive portals which hijack your browser — thus breaking applications and your first use — are still very common. Worse, some of them reset every time you turn off your computer — or your phone, and you have to re-auth. Some portals are there to charge you, but I find that not an excuse any more. When hotels charge me for internet, I ask them how much the electricity and water are in the room. It’s past time that hotels that charge for internet just have that included in the online shopping sites like Kayak and Tripadvisor when you search for hotels. Or at the least I should be able to check a box for “show me the price with internet, and any taxes and made-up resort fees” so I can compare the real price.

But either way, the captive portals break too many things. (Google Glass can’t even work at all with them.) Cheap hotels give free wifi with no portal — this is a curse of fancier hotels. If you want sell premium wifi, so be it — but let me log into the basic one with no portal, and then I can go to a URL where I can pay for the upgrade. If you insist give me really crappy internet, 2G speed internet, with no portal, so that things at least work, though slowly, until I upgrade.

If you need a password, use WPA2. You can set up a server so people enter their room number and name with WPA2-Enterprise. You can meet certain “know your user” laws that force these portals on people that way.

And have wired internet — with a cable — if you can. At a desk, it’s more reliable and has no setup programs and needs no password or portal at all.

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