Air Travel

Ideas for air travel and how to really run an airline

Secrets of the "Clear" airport security line

Yesterday it was announced that "Clear" (Verified ID Pass) the special "bypass the line at security" card company, has shut its doors and its lines. They ran out of money and could not pay their debts. No surprise there, they were paying $300K/year rent for their space at SJC and only 11,000 members used that line.

As I explained earlier, something was fishy about the program. It required a detailed background check, with fingerprint and iris scan, but all it did was jump you to the front of the line -- which you get for flying in first class at many airports without any background check. Their plan, as I outline below, was to also let you use a fancy shoe and coat scanning machine from GE, so you would not have to take them off. However, the TSA was only going to allow those machines once it was verified they were just as secure as existing methods -- so again no need for the background check.

To learn more about the company, I attended a briefing they held a year ago for a contest they were holding: $500,000 to anybody who could come up with a system that sped up their lines at a low enough cost. I did have a system, but also wanted to learn more about how it all worked. I feel sorry for those who worked hard on the contest who presumably will not be paid.

The background check

Can airports do paging as well as a restaurant?

I have a lot of peeves about airports, like almost everybody. One of them is the constant flow of public address announcements. They make it hard to read, work or concentrate for many people. Certainly it's hard to sleep. It's often even hard to have a phone call with the announcements in the background.

One solution to this is the premium airline lounges. These are announcement-free, but you must watch the screens regularly to track any changes. And of course they cost a lot of money, and may be far from your gate.

Some airlines have also improved things by putting up screens at the gates that list the status of standby passengers and people waiting for upgrades. This also saves them a lot of questions at the gate, which is good.

But it's not enough. Yet, even in a cheap restaurant, they often have a solution. They give you a special pager programmed to summon you when your table or food is ready. It vibrates (never beeps) and they are designed to stack on top of one another for recharging.

Airports could do a lot better. Yes, they could hand you an electronic pager instead of/in addition to a boarding pass. This could be used to signal you anywhere in the airport. It could have an active RFID to allow you to walk though an automatic gate onto the plane with no need for even a gate agent, depositing the pager as you board.

Each pager could also know where it is in the airport. Thus a signal could go out about the start of boarding, and if your pager is not at the gate, it could tell the airline where you are. If you're in the security line, it might tell you to show the pager to somebody who can get you through faster (though of course if you make this a regular thing that has other downsides.)


Virgin America Airways and on-demand ordering

Yesterday I took my first flight on Virgin America airways, on the IAD-SFO run. Virgin offered a tremendous price (about $130 one way) but it's worth examining how they have made use of technology on their planes. Mostly I usually end up on United, which is by far the largest carrier at SFO. Because of this, I fly enough on it to earn status, and that it turn provides a seat in their Economy Plus section which has more legroom, priority boarding and in theory, an empty middle if there are empty middles. This is 90% of the value of the status -- the other main value, ability to upgrade, is hard to actually make use of because business class is usually full. The extra legroom is surprisingly pleasant, even for a widebody individual like myself who would much prefer extra width if I had a choice.

Other than Economy Plus (and some very nice business class on some of the long-haul planes,) United is falling behind other airlines. It would be hard to recommend an ordinary coach seat. The one big amenity that more and more other airlines are providing is power in coach, in particular 115v AC power which is more flexible than the older 15vdc "Empower" system United uses in business class. The main downside of the 115v connections is they tend to be mounted under the seats, making them hard to get to. Air Canada has put them in the personal video panels. Virgin placed them under the seats but high and forward enough to be reached (if you knew what you were looking for) but also so close as to make wall-warts bump against your legs. Virgin also offered USB jacks down under the seats, also hard to get to. Even if you don't want to put 115v up higher, USB charging jacks are better placed in the video console/seatback I think.

American Airlines has a mix of DC and AC power, but still makes it available in coach. Continental has put EmPower on some planes in the front half of coach, but some newer planes have AC power all the way through coach.


Powered USB Hub in my hotel room, and more

What should be in a good hotel room?

Well, one thing that's easy to add to the list is a powered USB hub, with as many as 6 ports and a 3 amp power supply. Toss in some mini-USB cables (possibly just built into the hub) as they have become, for better or worse, the present-day universal charging standard. (At only 2.5 watts, USB is a bit anemic as charging standard, but it's what we have for now.) A mouse would be nice too, but is a security risk.

Alas, we can't have a keyboard on it, as nice as that would be, since that can't be trusted. It might have a keylogger put in it (even by the previous occupant of the room) to grab passwords.

Now this is a fairly cheap item (under $20) and like many other hotel items, it could also be available at the front desk, though it's so cheap I don't see a reason for that. While you could not be sure it would be there at every hotel, it would still be useful, since it can add to the charging you bring, and most laptops can be a charging station if you are willing to leave them on overnight. It's also useful as a hub. Indeed, have two, one on the desk, and one by the bed for cell phones.

We're almost ready to not need the hotel phone unless you are coming from overseas and pay ridiculous roaming charges. But they still need it to call you sometimes, and I don't want to have to hand over my mobile number at check-in.

Most hotel rooms now are getting a flat-screen HDTV. That's great, but rarely do they offer up the VGA port that many of these TVs have, or a cable to plug it in. I recommend a 1080p TV for each room, located in such a way that it can be an external monitor for my laptop. As such there should be a VGA cable connected or handy. The TV could also be connected to the USB hub, and use a video over USB protocol for devices that have USB out but not video out. (This usually needs a driver and has some limitations.)


Digital cameras, embrace your inner eBook

Lots of people are doing it -- using their digital camera as a quick way to copy documents, not just for taking home, but to carry around. Rather than carry around a large travel guidebook (where most of the weight is devoted to hotels and restaurants in other towns) we normally just photograph the relevant pages for the area we will be exploring. We also do it even with portable items like guides and travel maps since we don't really want the paper. We also find ourselves regularly photographing maps of cities, facilities and transit systems found on walls.

Airlines should sell an empty middle seat for half price

Coach is cramped, but not everybody can afford business class. In addition, there are airlines that require fat people to purchase a second seat if they can't fit into one. Fortunately I am not in that department, but it seems there is an interesting alternative that might make sense for all -- selling half of a middle seat, for half price (or less) to somebody wanting more room in coach.


Providing what travelling guests need

I'm back from my 3-country tour that started with being guest of honour at Helsinki's "Alternative Party" which introduced me to the Demoscene, something I will write about in some future blog posts. While I have much to say about this trip, and many gigs of photos, I thought I would start with some travel notes.


A plane that goes on a train

As I noted, at DLD Lufthansa had a contest (which I won) for suggestions on how to innovate to compete with trains. They set the time horizon out 15 years, which really means a lot is possible, so while I mostly threw in ideas from this blog which are short term, I put in some longer term ones too.

One was the equivalent of "multi modal transport." To do this, you would build new short-haul planes which consisted of an empty shell, like the cargo planes you have seen where the nose hinges up, and cargo modules are slid in on rails. This would be combine with "passenger modules" which can slide into the shell, and which can also slide into a special rail car. There might be one module on a plane, though it is also possible to have several.

Passengers would board a train normally at the train station. Then, as the train moved to the airport, they could move to the passenger module car. They would place their luggage onto a belt to put it down low into the luggage module (under the passenger module) or be assisted by a porter. They would enter the passenger module, stow their carry-ons and otherwise get ready in their seat. By the time the train got to the airport, all passengers would be in their seats, belted and ready.

The train would split up into different cars if there were several flights on it, and each would move to a terminus where the plane-shell was waiting. Yet to be invented technology would laser-align the train and the parked shell in advance, and then the passenger module would slip into the aircraft hull on special rails. Connecting passengers could board the train at the airport before it moves to the hull, and their bags could be loaded into the bottom the standard way. (Though this is for short-haul flights, so there may not be connecting passengers.) An automated system would connect power, data and air venting on the passenger modules. Water/sewage would be self-contained and processed at the train station. Catering would probably be handled there too.

The nose would come down, the pilots board via their own door and takeoff would begin shortly.

Videocall terminals, with scanners and printers, for customer service

I just went through a hellish weekend at the hands of United Airlines, trying to change planes at Dulles on Saturday, and not getting to California until Monday. I wasn't alone, and while I do wish to vent at the airline, there are things that could have been better with a bit of new thinking.

As flights were canceled or delayed, and planes filled up, for most customers the only answer was the customer service centers inside the terminals. These quickly had lines of hundreds of people with waits of several hours. In some cases, just for simple transactions like getting a hotel voucher because you had been moved to the next day. (While it is possible to get such vouchers at the ticketing desks outside the secure area, Dulles is not an easy airport to move around, and people were reluctant to take the shuttles to the master terminal and leave the secure area without knowing their fate.)

Among the many things the airline is to be faulted for is having no real way to deal with the huge numbers of customers who need service when a cascading problem occurs. Multi-hour waits simply don't cut it. The answer lies in extending the facilities of the self-service kiosks. At those kiosks you can do basic check-in, changes of seating and some other minor changes. You go up, put in your card or confirmation number, and you can do some transactions. You can also pick up the phone and talk to an agent sitting in their Nova Scotia call center. The kiosk has a printer that can print boarding passes. Unfortunately the agents are not empowered to do more than help you with what the kiosk can do. They can't be like the other customer service agents and rebook flights or issue vouchers.

When you have a big company like an airline, that may suddenly need hundreds of agents for one trouble spot, video kiosks with printers (and scanners) seem like a great idea. Stations could be installed where customers can come and talk to an agent by videocall. They can feed documents into scanners or show them to the camera. They can feed documents into hoppers that will destroy them if that's needed. And a more full printer could print them any documents they need -- boarding passes, tickets, hotel, food and transportation vouchers. In fact, unless agents have to physically handle luggage or control who gets on a plane, they don't need to be right there at all.

Of course this is not as personal as a live human in front of you. But it's much better than a phone agent (and lots of listening to Rhapsody in Blue.) And, if the need arises, you can suddenly have 100 agents serving a problem area instead of 5, and focus the on-site agents on on-site problems.

Of course, the scanners and printers are only needed at rare intervals during the transactions, so another approach would be to let people have a combined web/videocall experience on any laptop computer, and to contract with the providers of airport wifi service to make access to the airline's support website a free feature. Do that and suddenly there can be a thousand customer service videoconference tools in an airport that needs one. (They can all show video, and a growing number of laptops can also send it.) A smaller bank of scanners and printers can handle the portions of the transaction that need that. For example, you contact customer service on the laptop and the agent tells you to line up at scanner #5 and scan your documents. Then you work out your problems, and the agent tells you to go to printer #3 and get your new documents. (Destruction of old documents can be handled by the machine or possibly an on-site agent who does little but that.)

In fact, a lot of the stuff done at airport gates could be done this way. All the hassling at the desk is easy to do remotely. Only the actual ushering onto the planes needs live people. It may be less personal but I would rather have this than standing in line for long periods. They key factor is the ability to move agents around to where they are needed in an instant, so that there is no waiting (and little wasted time by agents.)

Of course, agents can also be very far away. Though I would resist the temptation to make them too far away (like India.) Not that there aren't good workers in India but too many companies fall for the temptation to get employees in India that are even cheaper than the good ones, and simply not up to the jobs they are given. The Nova Scotia crew were helpful and their distance was not a problem.

This principle can apply to conference and tradeshow registration as well. Why fly in staff to a remote tradeshow to do such jobs which tend to be quite bursty. Have local staff to man scanners and printers, and remote staff to talk on the videophone and solve my problems. It's so much cheaper than the cost of transporting and housing staff.

Of course, you can also just plain have a good internet/web customer service center. But I'm talking here about the problem of people who are at your facility, and deserve more than that. They need a live person to solve their problems, they need to combine what they can do on the computer with what a skilled (and authorized) agent can make happen, and because they are on location and upset, and not just at home on the computer, they deserve the expense of a bit more money to provide good service.

Miles for charity

Many people accumulate a lot of frequent flyer miles they will never use. Some of the airlines allow you to donate miles to a very limited set of charities. I can see why they limit it -- they would much rather have you not use the miles than have the charity use them. Though it's possible that while the donor does not get any tax credit for donated miles, the airline does.

Backwards airplane middle seats

It's annoying (and vidicating at the same time) when you see somebody else developing an idea you're working on, and today I saw one such idea announced in Europe.

Last year while flying I mused about how sitting in a row makes us bump up against one another at the point we are all widest -- the elbows and butts. We are not rectangles, so there are roomier ways to pack us. I toyed with a number of ideas.

First I considered staggering the rows slightly, either by angling them back or front a bit, or simply having the middle seats be about 6" behind the aisle and window seats. Then our elbows would not overlap, but it would make the "corridor" (if you can call it that) to the window seat have some narrow corners, and would suffer some of the problems I will outline below.

Then I realized it might make sense to just reverse the middle seat. All the middle seats in a section could face backwards, and we would then have more space because wide parts would mesh with narrow parts. Somebody else has also worked up the same idea and has even got some prototypes and drawings, which are better than the ones I had worked up to show here. However, I will outline some of the issues I came up with in my experiments -- mostly done with household chairs laid out in experimental patterns.


An airliner mesh network over the oceans

A friend (Larry P.) once suggested to me that he thought you could build a rural mobile phone much cheaper than Iridium network by putting nodes in all the airliners flying over the country. The airliners have power, and have line of sight to ground stations, and to a circle of about 200 miles radius around them. That's pretty big (125,000 square miles) and in fact most locations will be within sight of an airliner most of the time.

Censored and uncensored soundtrack on the airplane

A recent story that United had removed all instances of the word "God" (not simply Goddamn) from a historical movie reminded me just how much they censor the movies on planes.

Here they have an easy and simple way out. Everybody is on headsets, and they already offer different soundtracks in different languages by dialing the dial. So offer the censored and real soundtrack on two different audio channels. Parents can easily make sure the kids are on whatever soundtrack they have chosen for them, as the number glows on the armrest.

Flying Cars -- Airport Carshare system

Parking at airports seems a terrible waste -- expensive parking and your car sits doing nothing. I first started thinking about the various Car Share companies (City CarShare, ZipCar, FlexCar -- effectively membership based hourly car rentals which include gas/insurance and need no human staff) and why one can't use them from the airport. Of course, airports are full of rental car companies, which is a competitive problem, and parking space there is at a premium.

Right now the CarShare services tend to require round-trip rentals, but for airports the right idea would be one-way rentals -- one member drives the car to the airport, and ideally very shortly another member drives the car out of the airport. In an ideal situation, coordinated by cell phone, the 2nd member is waiting at the curb, and you would just hand off the car once it confirms their membership for you. (Members use a code or carry a key fob.) Since you would know in advance before you entered the airport whether somebody is ready, you would know whether to go to short term parking or the curb -- or a planned long-term parking lot with a bit more advance notice so you allocate the extra time for that.

Of course the 2nd member might not want to go to the location you got the car from, which creates the one-way rental problem that carshares seem to need to avoid. Perhaps better balancing algorithms could work, or at worst case, the car might have to wait until somebody from your local depot wants to go there. That's wasteful, though. However, I think this could be made to work as long as the member base is big enough that some member is going in and out of the airport.

I started thinking about something grander though, namely being willing to rent your own private car out to bonded members of a true car sharing service. This is tougher to do but easier to make efficient. The hard part is bonding reliability on the part of all concerned.

Read on for more thinking on it...

Better forms of differential pricing that don't punish flexibility so much

Differential pricing occurs when a company attempts to charge different prices to two different customers for what is essentially the same product. One place we all encounter it a lot is air travel, where it seems no two passengers paid the same price for their tickets on any given flight. You also see it in things like one of my phones, which has 4 line buttons but only 2 work -- I must pay $30 for a code to enable the other 2 buttons.

Beware the Weather Warn

This weekend I experienced an air travel policy that I had not seen before and which I found quite shocking. I was flying on United Express (Skywest)'s flight from San Francisco to Calgary. As we waited for the early morning flight, they announced this "weather warn." Visibility was poor in Calgary due to low clouds. Below 0.5 miles they plane would not be allowed to land there. They rated about a 1/3rd chance of this happening, 2/3 chance we would land normally.


On forging boarding passes

You've seen the flap recently because a student, to demonstrate the fairly well discussed airport security flaw involving the ease forgeability of boarding passes, created a web site where you could easily create a fake Northwest boarding pass. Congressman Markey even called for the student's arrest, then apologized, but in the meantime the FBI raided his house and took his stuff.


Redesign airline seat backs & pockets for cleanliness, utility

I recently read how airline cabins are getting more and more grotty of late. This is due to having fewer cleaning staff on hand, shorter turnaround times for cleaning, and passengers now bringing aboard more of their own food. This got me thinking on how we might improve the airline seatback.