Alternatively, this post could be titled, "Mr. Smisek, your airline is in serious trouble."
I always raise an eyebrow whenever there's some sort of service disruption somewhere because someone says "the computers are down" or "the system won't let me do it." Chances are, they're just feeding you a line. The reality is that they don't know how to use the system (either lack of training or intelligence), or they just don't feel like working right then. Sure, systems do break, but not on the frequency that we hear about "the computers being down" constantly. We live in an age where someone sitting on their couch in Omaha can push a button and instantly trade billions of a foreign country's debt in milliseconds, but you're telling me that I can't pay for this taxi with a credit card because your reader is broken? Bullshit.
It was yesterday that I realized this. Humans fail technology more than technology fails humans.
I started upon this vision quest after our backup datacenter lost power and a few storage nodes wouldn't come back online. Mind you, the datacenter lost power because the people running it don't know much about planning for failure. The transformer exploded and shattered the Automated Transfer Switch...which was sitting right next to the transformer. Good one. Our datacenter is in Vegas so I book a flight on United for a day roundtrip. Leave at 9 AM, back at 10 PM. No problem. I've flown on United hundreds of times and have been either Premier or Premier Exec for the past 10 years. They've treated me well in the past, but the merger has started to screw things up....
Reservation made Monday for a Wednesday morning daytrip. I'm watching some Archer with Stephanie on Tuesday night when I get a text from TripIt. Your flight has been cancelled. Crap. I log on to united.com and see what's up. No message or reason about why my trip was cancelled, just a prompt saying that if I hit OK, I accept the new itinerary. Lame. I check around and there's a flight leaving 30 minutes before my original one. I wanted that one instead of the one they rebooked me on 2 hours later. 2 hours is a lot to lose for a day trip. So I ring up United and get it changed in 4 minutes. No problem. As I watched more episodes of Archer, I quickly realize that United never emailed, called, or paged me saying that my flight was cancelled. What happened here United? I'm a loyal, frequent customer of over a decade and no notice? You send me emails when I get upgraded, but you don't bother to lift a finger when you cancel my flight? That's outrageous! You *used* to call and send texts with automated systems on flight changes, but not since the merger. Your merger is seriously screwing with your experience. Fix them. Now. Your fancy 787's won't matter if you've pissed off your entire customer base. Spend the money on fixing your technology, not new planes. On the other hands, TripIt is a great service worth the price if you fly more than 6-8 times a year. Get it. I love it. Plus, you get Hertz #1 Club Gold with it. More on that later.
Wednesday morning, I hit the streets of San Francisco at 7 AM in search of a cab. 20 ft from my apartment, a cab. "You take credit cards?" "No." "Well then fuck you." As I hop out, I notice the full card reader display and stickers plastered on the window that say credit cards accepted. Another cab. "You taking credit cards?" "No reader is broken." "Get it fixed." Third time's the charm and the guy dejectedly says that he takes cards. I tell him I'm going to the airport and he suddenly perks up. Oh, now that you know you're getting a big fare you get all excited. You know what? Fuck you San Francisco cab drivers. You're a worthless lot all of you. Whenever someone tries to use a credit card, you act like they just tried to rape you and wear your skin as a suit. It's a fucking credit card. Ever heard of it? You probably have one. They've been around since the 50's. They complain that they lose 1% or whatever on every transaction. But guess what, we raised the base fare to subsidize this! They're not losing a dime! Plus, they get bigger tips as the cabbies in NYC can attest to. But oh yeah, if you're going to the airport my reader suddenly works. Asshats. All of them.
After landing in Las Vegas, I head to Hertz to pick up my car. I've got the #1 Club Gold thingy (I still think it sounds like a Japanese game show), so I bypass the counter, walk to the garage and see a big electronic display. It has everyone's names and the parking spot where their car can be picked up. I walk to my car and drive off. No waiting in line. No papers to sign. No need to see my goddamn ID and credit card for the 30th time. This is the way technology is supposed to work. Making our lives easier and better. Hertz gets it.
Work finished early so I grabbed a bite to eat and decided to call United about getting on an earlier flight out on standby. My original flight out was at 8:30 PM, it was 2 PM, and I didn't feel like hanging out on Fremont Street all day. The Premier line operator said it would cost $70 to fly standby. I informed her that she was mistaken. She said no, it's changed. Can't fly standby for free any more. $70 charge. I told her she was lying and hung up. For the record, she was American, not in India. After arriving at LAS, I use the kiosk (multi-airline ones BTW -- good job LAS) to change my flight. I change the flight, stick my ass in an exit row, and walk to security. Total charge? Free. Even the busted United kiosks know that it's free. Too bad the phone rep failed me.
I hang out for a bit, board the plane, and get ready to leave. Hey what's that noise? Pilot gets on and says something is busted. Will be 15 minutes. I know it will at least be an hour so I snooze off. Blah blah more pilot talking, we try to leave again, blah blah more talking, the plane is seriously busted (thanks Airbus) and we aint going anywhere. At this point, I'm not upset. This is one reason I fly United over airlines like Virgin*. The mechanics are good, the pilots are veterans, and they know when they can and cannot fly. I'd rather be delayed than find out that the flaps are stuck at 5000 feet. Yes, that's actually what was broken on our plane. So we jump off the plane and this is where United fails us. There are 2 remaining flights back to San Francisco that night. Does the automated system kick in and automatically rebook us all? No. Of course not. The ground operations crew at LAS springs into action and immediately starts fucking things up. Premier go to gate 55, everyone else go to gate 52. Off to a good start, but the people at the Premier line don't know what they're doing. They're literally just punching buttons like some monkeys. Meanwhile the regular line is moving quickly. Hell the gate agent (actually at the gate) is moving people quicker. Great. You're pissing off your loyal customers and pleasing the occasional flyer. Good one United. Seriously, why didn't you just rebook everyone who didn't have connections? Rebook en masse and deal with the fallout. Just like you did when you cancelled my flight. Why not? Because the people got in the way. I actually tried to call United and bypass the line but they said that local ground operations have control of the flight. Awesome. 40 more minutes of waiting in line (I felt bad for the woman with the infant standing there) and I finally get a new boarding pass. Took the gate agent 5-6 minutes. Might not sound like much, but imagine a full plane of passengers...and an outbound that leaves in 15 minutes.
In the end, I got on the first outbound (exit row, too) and made it back to SF right around the time I was originally supposed to. Oh my original flight that I booked? Delayed 2 hours.
We have a long way to go.
* Reasons I won't fly Virgin America to Las Vegas on business:
A certified Creole coonass just trying to get by. I live in San Francisco and work as a digital plumber for the joint that runs this thing. (www.weebly.com)