Travel Day from Hell

When last I left this story, I thought I was on my way home. A group of moderately happy travelers, we were boarding an airplane in Boston for San Francisco after seven hours of delays and false optimism on the part of United Airlines. I went off to buy one of those airport salads, knowing the coach-class “food” wouldn’t get me all the way home.

But as we were starting down the jetway, there was another announcement: The flight was canceled. No explanation given, just “Please see a customer-service agent,” none of whom exists. My speculation based on overheard murmurs and looking for uniforms is that they couldn’t put together a full cockpit crew. Of course, they could have figured that out a few hours earlier.

Now a weary but amicable crowd became and angry mob. Voices were raised, and people looked for someone to blame. Alas, there was no one. We all ran — and I mean ran — in different directions. Some to the Customer Service counter. Others went to the main ticket lines at United or its competitors. A few started to work their cell phones or laptops. Out at the main ticket counter where about one hundred of us went only to stand in an unmoving line, a United employee finally showed up to yell to the assembled crowd, “If you were ticketed for flight 177 please go home and call United’s reservation number. There is nothing we can do for you here.” That’s it. No information about our options or United’s policies, and no advice for those for whom home was at the other end of the canceled flight. (Regardless of who pays, are there any hotels nearby, for example?) It was one of the worst examples of customer service I have ever witnessed.

I knew that there was no way to get home last night on United so not wanting to leave the airport and navigate the unknown hotel situation, I headed over to Jet Blue. I got the last remaining seat on a flight to JFK with a connection to Oakland. The only problem: The flight was scheduled to leave in five minutes (but delayed to thirty-five) and my suitcase was checked with United.

I ran to baggage claim, quickly found the bag, went back upstairs and found the Jet Blue baggage-check line far too long to make it on time. So I rushed out and handed the suitcase to curbside check-in. Rushed back into the terminal, through security again — still carrying my tuna salad! — and dashed for the gate. Phew! I made it, or so I thought. But no, the flight was delayed an hour, which meant I would now miss the connection at JFK and be stuck overnight in New York instead of Boston. Not much choice, though. I was committed to Plan B.

Landing at JFK, I learned that the OAK flight was delayed 20 minutes which seemed like enough time before they closed the door, but then I discovered that to get to Gate 24 I had to take a shuttle bus. Run some more, salad in hand.

At Gate 24, now drenched in sweat, another delay. The flight was delayed an hour due to traffic flow restrictions. Okay, time to at least catch my breath and gather my wits. At least I was heading home.

After the hour, we boarded the sold-out Airbus A320 and taxied out, into the heavy snow at JFK. (It was now about 9pm EST.) But I had told my wife via phone not to be too optimistic. On the way in, I noticed that snow accumulated on the wings very quickly, so I knew we’d have to de-ice before takeoff. Sure enough, the pilot announced we were “number two for de-icing.” This is done at the last minute, just before takeoff, so I started to settle in for the flight. But no, 90 minutes later, we still hadn’t been sprayed.

We finally took off from JFK for OAK about 12 hours after my originally scheduled departure from BOS. It turned out to be the last Jet Blue flight out of JFK last night. But sure enough, the Travel Day from Hell wasn’t over. What else could happen? First I had the front-row bulkhead seat, so there wasn’t any room to stretch out my legs for the next six hours. And directly behind me? Of course! It was the 300-pound mother with her first-time-traveling infant. You’d think the crying and screaming twelve inches from my head for six hours was the bad part, but you’d be wrong. The worst was whatever she was doing all night long with the tray table. Must have been some sporting event; that’s all I can imagine. Glares and gentle comments didn’t help. She managed to slam that table (or bounce on it) at every opportunity I had to sleep. Ugh.

Finally, at 2:45am, after about 20 hours of travel, I met my wife at the curb and headed home for a good night’s sleep. Glad to be home.

Update: United has refunded me half of the round-trip airfare for this trip. Unfortunately, the refund is less than half what it cost me to buy a one-way ticket home on Jet Blue, but at least UAL didn’t stick me with the ticket or a rescheduling fee.

Deja Blue

I’m sitting in Logan airport (Boston) trying to get home to San Francisco. The flight was originally scheduled to depart at 11:05am, but has been delayed repeatedly and is now scheduled to leave at 5:38pm. There have been at least a half-dozen updates due to the inbound aircraft being stuck on the ground in frozen rain. At least I’m in the terminal. The folk in Dulles left their gate and taxied out about noon, and for all I know they never went back.
My fellow passengers are in reasonably good spirits, but I don’t think many of them understand that our flight has a very slim chance of not being canceled, regardless of the optimism of the smiley-faced gate agents.

I’ve been checking the aviation weather used by all pilots and airlines, and the forecast for Dulles doesn’t improve until after midnight. If the flight can’t depart now, there’s no reason to believe it will be be able to depart for the next seven hours. So why doesn’t United just cancel the flight? That would allow us to re-book on Jet Blue or American who do have aircraft leaving BOS for SFO tonight.

The reason is simple economics. If UAL has to cancel the flight from Dulles to BOS and BOS to SFO, they’ll probably have to cancel a flight out of SFO tomorrow morning as well. Together, they could lose the revenues from nearly 1,000 passenger-flights as well as end up with an aircraft and crew(s) out of position. That’s a significant loss.

So what the airlines don’t tell you is that when a flight is listed as “Delayed” instead of “Canceled” it does *not* mean they expect it to occur. They might, like me, believe there’s only a 10% chance that the flight won’t eventually be canceled, but they’re not going to tell you that.

What can you do about that? Not much. I’m afraid. I don’t know United’s refund policy for canceled flights, but I doubt I’d get a refund in any case. I’d probably just get to re-used my ticket without a rescheduling penalty. But I think it would be nice if there was a way to know the likelihood that a flight will be canceled, not just the continued false optimism the airlines present.

Uh, oh. They just changed the status from a 5:38pm departure to “Delayed.” Not a good sign. Thanks goodness for EVDO and AC outlets that work.

Update: Looks like I was right, but…

The inbound flight from Dulles to BOS is canceled. (Duh…I coulda told ’em that!) But United is going to use an aircraft inbound from LAX to BOS for the BOS-SFO flight instead. I’m glad they figured that out! Home seven hours late is better than it could have been.

Why Panels Suck

I’ve written about this before, but since I’m wedged in with 400 others at the Beyond Broadcast conference, it’s worth repeating. After publishing hundreds of conference sessions over the past four years, we continue to see that the popularity (and quality) of sessions is inversely proportional to the number of speakers. The best are always the inspirational single-speaker sessions such as Henry Jenkins’ keynote here. At the other extreme are the panels: rarely good, such as the Participatory Culture discussion during which Dave (hi, Dave), Doc, David I and others are trying to stay awake.

The problems are threefold. First, conference producers tend to staff panels using speakers they don’t think are strong enough to justify solo sessions. Second, some producers use panel-slot invitations as payback/thanks for favors. Third, there just isn’t enough time. I’ve flown from one coast to the other, burning up the better part of three days, to be one of five speakers on a one-hour panel. How much value can I transfer in just 12 minutes?

Panels *can* be good if there’s a good moderator and there’s real discussion between the panelists, but all too often panels are nothing more than an assembly of too-short individual presentations.

The Future of Radio on KQED-FM

I was a guest on Forum on KQED-FM on Friday. Host Dave Iverson began the show  with an analysis of the proposed merger of XM and Sirius satellite radio (about which I know next to nothing) then moved on to cover podcasting, public radio and the future of it all. One thing that was sorta strange was that I knew one of the producers, and the engineer was Danny Bringer, who also engineers our Tech Nation series with Moira Gunn. For now you can stream the show here. There’s also an MP3 version.

Forward to the Past

One session I did catch at the IMA conference was a conversation with Sue Gardner (CBC) and Paul Brannan (BBC) moderated by Tom Mohr (now at Charles River Ventures). Not only do I think these well-intentioned folks are going in the wrong direction, I was disappointed that the 400 public-radio folks in the audience seemed to be thinking the same way. What they heard is the kind of logic that makes emotional sense but simply doesn’t play out in practice. I know my comments will be controversial, and it’s not really my place to criticize high-level people in an industry to which I’m an outsider, but hey…that’s never stopped me before. Someone has to point out the flaws in their strategies.

The right answers aren’t always the ones that “ring true” to one’s gut. Sometimes the right answer isn’t the obvious one. It’s not the one that causes everyone in the audience to nod in hypnotic agreement. Consider needle-exchange programs to reduce the public-health problems associated with IV-drug users’ sharing of needles. At first it sounds like it would only make the problem worse by encouraging IV-drug use, but when you study what’s really going on, you discover quite the opposite is true.

Sue and Paul talked about some of the problems they’re trying to solve, and what were they? Standardization in things like Flash players. Okay, that wasn’t the only example, but it was typical. Sue said CBC suffered from having too many different players on their web sites, and it was part of her job to set a standard for what players the many CBC web sites should use. All I could think was, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” She referred to other problems she’s trying to solve by setting corporate standards, and by centralizing control of various aspects of their web technology. She specifically said something to the effect of not wanting to give their journalists access to certain web technologies so that the journalists would be more productive and to minimize their support requirements.

It’s 1984 all over again. I know; I was there in 1984. (Not at CBC, but the same situation.) The IBM PC was starting to sneak its way into corporate American, and IT departments freaked out. IT managers did everything they could do to control and limit the spread of PCs. They actually threatened users, telling them that if the users installed software that wasn’t approved by IT on their PCs, IT would no longer support their machines. Average users wanted to install Supercalc and later Lotus 1-2-3 to create their own spreadsheets, and the IT folks said this, quite literally: “No, we won’t permit employees to create their own spreadsheets. We don’t have the resources to train them, support them and fix their PCs when something goes wrong. Instead, they should write a request for their spreadhseets and we will schedule them for implementation on the mainframe, which should take no longer than a few weeks.” This wasn’t unusual. This is how it was done. The idea of giving employees tools for which they were not “trained” for tasks not part of the skill sets required for their jobs was considered at best unproductive and at worst a threat to the organization. The same thing happened when email entered organizations the next year. Executives were convinced it would destroy productivity.

We all know what happened. People ignored IT and created their own damn spreadsheets. They bought PCs for home and figured it out on their own. Did they make the most elegant spreadsheets? No. Were the spreadsheets built using “standards” and were they reusable in other applications as those created by IT were supposed to be? No. But they worked and they got the job done and at a fraction of the cost to the organization of the traditional method.

The PC empowered the employees who were lucky enough to get them. The same thing eventually happened with desktop databases and other applications. Eventually everyone was allowed to write their own letters instead of dictating them to stenographers and secretaries. The companies and departments that flourished were those that gave their employees tools that allowed them to explore and experiment and discover unintended consequences. To innovate beyond the scope of what the IT department might imagine for them.

Organizations today should be doing the same. They should not be setting standards for applications, they should be providing tools. Rather than mandate what applications or other software must be used, they should be making sure their data are standardized so that they can be used by any applications. Convert your content to XML and make that a standard, but don’t tell people what they must use to create that data or make use of it. Standardize the formats not the software.
And what’s this about Flash players? Who cares if every web site has a different player or a different skin? If some of them are no good, then let the owners of those sites solve that problem. You might provide information and resources and recommend what Flash players are good, but don’t mandate. As soon as you do, someone will find a better Flash player and want to use it. What are you going to do, fire them for subordination. Don’t waste your time at that level. Standardize on MP3 and even FLV for video (if that’s what you like), but don’t limit the ways in which those files can be played, displayed or syndicated.

Make sure you enable your data and content to be used in as many ways as possible. And don’t (!) try to figure out ahead of time what those ways might be. Don’t waste your time and money with traditional Requirements Analysis meetings and documents. Any attempt to design systems to meet all needs will fail. Guaranteed. The needs will change and they won’t be properly understood in the first place anyway. Instead, just try to understand the data and design a simple and extensible XML schema for it.

Do not (!) specify the applications, operating systems or programming languages to be used. All you’ll be doing is limiting its usefulness. Use the simplest, most interchangeable format you can find — don’t look too far; it’s going to be some variation of XML — and get the data and content into that format ASAP.

Want to go farther? Start developing APIs to existing applications that allow yet-unknown applications to interact with them, extract and (where possible) inject data or invoke functions.

And if you want to learn more, I have a book to offer you. 🙂

IMA Update

Now that I’ve got a few minutes of downtime, some notes on the IMA conference, so far. Random thoughts:

  • NPR is behind the Digital Distribution Consortium, which is trying to  solve a number of problems faced by public-radio stations trying to deal with the on-line world. I was honored to spend two hours meeting with the DDC committee members last summer. Terrific people trying to solve problems that are ultimately more political than technical. Jake Shapiro (of PRX) has posted the DDC’s overview document. Not a lot of conclusions yet, but you’ll get a sense of the problem(s) they’re trying to solve.
  • Based on sessions I’ve attended and a dinner conversation tonight, it’s clear that public-radio stations are desperate for a good content-management system. They’re trying all sorts of solutions such as Drupal and Plone. Some are writing their own, and others are pushing for a collaborated open-source project.
  • Unfortunately, one of my presentations was scheduled in the same time slot as “A Conversation with Doc Searls and Dave Winer” in the big room. Luckily, Dave immediately posted the audio on his blog, and I was able to hear it tonight.
  • A whole lotta people in radio are using The Levelator and love it. Cool.
  • Andrew Kuklewicz, lead developer at PRX, gave a three-minute presentation on Audio Monster, something they’re working on. It uses some of the same Amazon Web Services features we’re using for GigaVox Audio Lite, so I really want to hook up with Andrew to compare notes.

The Future of Public Radio

Must be something in the stars. This week I’m in Boston attending the Integrated Media Association conference. My last presentation is in 90 minutes. All the greatest minds (and there are many) from public radio are here.

Coincidentally, tomorrow (Friday) I’ll be a guest on KQED-FM Forum (88.5 FM in San Francisco) during the 9am-10am show. The first half will be about the proposed merger in satellite radio. I’ll probably just be listening in then. At 9:30 or so, they’ll start a segment on the future of public radio. Listen in!