Air Travel

Ideas for air travel and how to really run an airline

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Complain somebody is suspicious, you miss your flight too.

We should all be disturbed by the story of a man who was questioned and missed his flight because he spoke on his cell phone in Tamil. Some paranoid thought it was suspicious, reported it, and so the guy gets pulled and misses his flight.

This is not the first time. People have been treated as suspicious for speaking in all sorts of languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Urdo or just being Arabs or Sikhs. Sometimes it's been a lot worse than just missing your flight.

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Airline loading followup

I've written several times before about airplane loading so it's worth pointing to the article from Wired News on the subject today. Academics have been running a lot of simulations, and favour the reverse pyramid, which is a system that boards the rear-windows first, then the rear-middle and wing-windows, then rear-window, wing-middle and front-window and so on.

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External laptop batteries, especially on planes

Recently I purchased an external battery for my Thinkpad. The internal batteries were getting weaker, and I also needed something for the 14 hour overseas flights. I picked up a generic one on eBay, a 17 volt battery with about 110 watt-hours, for about $120. It's very small, and only about 1.5 lbs. Very impressive for the money. (When these things first came out they had half the capacity and cost more like $300.)

Best company in each country to buy a prepaid SIM from

This special forum topic exists to help people identify the best local company to use for a temporary prepaid GSM SIM card when you visit that country. If you research this, put your results here. In particular look for the best results for a short term visitor, who thus won't care much about when the minutes expire and may or may not care when the number expires. A typical cost to compare would be the cost of the card and say 60 to 100 anytime minutes. However, if there is a major difference for somebody planning mostly night/weekend calling, note that.

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Enforce the "step in before storing your bag" rule?

Here's an entry in my new "solve this" cateogry, which asks for reader input on solving problems.

When flying on a very full flight yesterday, we had an example of what my approach for faster airplane loading would have helped with. But until we get that, are there other solutions?

On the full flight, passengers would stand in the aisle trying to store their bags. With the compartments full they took a long time doing it, sometimes found themselves unable to. This blocked the loading and even though we started boarding 30 minutes before the flight, we were not finished by departure time. The flight attendants were on the PA every few minutes telling people not to stand in the aisle, to instead step into the row and let people pass, but very few paid attention to it. We don't seem inclined to do this, and not just because we are desperate for storage space. (I'm one of the desperate, I carry on fragiles like camera gear that I refuse to let them throw around.) We just don't believe that our own efforts will slow things much, and we also believe it will take "just a few more seconds" to get the bag in right.

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Sell or rent me a prepaid SIM card at the airport

So if you travel to different countries, you know that cellular roaming can be a pain, even with a GSM world phone, because they ding you for very high roaming charges.

So here's a service I want. A kiosk in the airport to sell, or ideally rent me a GSM SIM card for a prepaid account, right in the airport. The kiosk would also sell me unlocking service for my phone, and of course prepaid cards. (By renting the SIM card, I mean it would sell it, and then buy it back at a reduced price on the way back out.)

Update Note: I've created a Special Forum to share information on the best SIM card sources in different countries. Search there for info on each country or enter your own findngs. ...

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Give us appointments at airport security

I've written about a few plans to get rid of the headache (and travel killer) that airport security has become. One of the great curses is that because you can't predict how long security might take, most people end up arriving way, way ahead of their flight in case the line is long, but often they clear it in just a few minutes. (Ditto the immigration/customs line at Canadian airports going to the USA.)

Do we need security on small planes?

We've gotten used to a painful, privacy invading security process when we fly. But why should we do this for shot-hop, small aircraft. Those ones on the 20 seat Canadair Business Jets and similar. Secure the cockpit with a sealed door and arm the pilot so that terrorists can't take control of the plane. Put in sealed transponders so ATC knows if the plane goes astray. Give the pilot a "disable" button that limits what can be done with the plane in the event of attempted hijack.

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