Technology has revolutionized the way we travel and will continue to do so.
Perhaps, I should have been livid. Several of my fellow passengers were mutinous.
The circumstances were indeed trying. We had been diverted, re-accommodated, slowed by an airport systems failure, waylaid by crew dispatch, and subjected to an ATC push-back hold; the last bit announced at the instant you are thinking, “Finally, we are on our way!” Ultimately, the delay was over 19 hours.
Meal vouchers and a free night at an airport hotel are appreciated but poor substitutes for missed events, lost interactions, and postponed greetings with loved ones: the very essence of why we travel.
And yet, I only found myself inconvenienced – disappointed to wait an extra day to connect with friends, but not raging. To an extent this disposition reflects my personality and my profession. Berating staff, even if they are unhelpful and surly, is an ill-mannered and usually fruitless exercise. I am also all-too aware of the plethora of challenges faced by customer service agents in the travel ecosystem we inhabit.
The other reason? Technology. The digital transformation has placed the awesome power of information and choice at our fingertips. Like every other dimension of contemporary life, it has reshaped the way we travel, transferring elements of control and decision-making from the producer or operator to the consumer. This revolution eased my frustrations, quenched my curiosities, and alleviated my anxieties.
I began this particular journey in Kyiv. The morning after a sumptuous dinner upon the Dnieper, and I was in the thick of the routine: e-mail over cappuccino, draft proposal text, pack, finish client presentation, check out (via the Marriott app, of course), Uber to airport, security, passport control, board, fly, back to that proposal draft – this is when I find the blocked middle seat (the hallmark of intra-European business class) most valuable; laptop in front of me and food to the side – land at Heathrow, deplane, security (again), lounge.
OK, enough of that. So far, so good. So far, so normal.
After five hours in the Terminal 5 Galleries First lounge, I plodded to gate B47. It had been a long day and a very long week. I looked forward to a drink (or two), dinner, and many hours of sleep on the overnight to Santiago. Alas, it was not to be.
When viewing the IFE interactive map, one is filled with a deep sense of consternation as the plane icon deviates radically from course. I imagine for some such behavior even elicits fear. Our flight crew were quick to declare that a technical fault had eliminated a system redundancy, and while we were in no danger, the decision had been taken to return to LHR. There was little joy in those 40 minutes of return flying as evidenced by the looks on most passengers’ faces. Despite ample information provided by BA staff, as anyone who has experienced a diversion/return-to-origin can attest, the ordeal is only beginning.
OK, back to it…deplane, walk to main terminal (trains no longer running), passport control, collect vouchers, shuttle to hotel… Wait a minute. Looking at the few people scattered around the bus stop, I was struck by a thought. I was one of the first off the plane. I had no bags to recollect. This shuttle is going nowhere until the present trickle of passengers becomes a flood. And when we get to the hotel? Check-in bedlam will ensue.
Five minutes later, I had gone up a level and was sitting in an Uber. Ten minutes after that, I was at the Renaissance London Heathrow. A few minutes more, and I was in my room having passed effortlessly through a no-line, check-in experience. I paid £19. Yes, nineteen pounds. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and value is in the mind of the buyer. As I settled on the bed, I thought, “There’s three hours I won’t get back.” However, I was less frustrated. Because I saved some time? Sure. But the truth is that Uber empowered me. I had a choice, and I was not at the mercy of a schedule, a queue, or the potential exploitative motives of a taxi driver. I slept well.
Speedbird 251, the delayed 22:00 to Santiago had been rescheduled for 16:00 the next day. I returned to Terminal 5 just after noon and beheld long lines and disgruntled expressions in abundance. Even at the usually subdued First Wing, a trail of people snaked its way out into the main terminal area. I learned this was the result of a BA systems outage. By my count, these occur too frequently with BA. Though now operable, check in and baggage handling remained agonizingly slow for all involved parties. But this does not fit into my story (unless forced, I do not check bags).
Being an aviation geek is sometimes a tall order. Once in the lounge, I was thinking about last night’s aircraft. Was it already returned to service or not? Would it operate today’s SCL flight or would we have a different tail? Important matters to me (I log all my flights and entering diversions is, ahem, fun). For many years these questions were difficult to answer unless said airline happened to be one where I enjoyed internal systems access. Today, have no fear, FlightRadar24 is here!
The previous night, I had been on G-ZBKR, one of BA’s newest 787-9s. I looked up the aircraft. Well, well, G-ZBKR had already departed for LAX, operating BA 281. Question one, done. Unfortunately, my new flight was not showing (likely, as later proved correct, because it was under a different flight number unknown to me). I began searching BA’s 789 tails. Ah-ha! G-ZBKO was already listed as operating the earlier of tomorrow’s return flights from SCL. I had found my plane and answered question two.
The relevance of this to the non-nerd community was later revealed onboard. Our cabin services director announced that ‘as he had been asked by numerous passengers, he wanted to report that this was not the same plane’. Apparently, such knowledge was significant to others, but in a very different context. FlightRadar24 would have helped these concerned individuals see that G-ZBKR was already more than half-way to LA by the time we departed, and that this SCL flight was now aboard G-ZBKO.
My mind immediately drew a parallel to the many times over the past few months that I have heard passengers ask crew if a new 737 was a MAX aircraft. Maybe some do not know about the grounding, or do not trust that the ban is maintained. Yet, consider when, eventually, the MAX returns to service. As we reported last month, just 20 percent of total U.S. fliers would positively fly the MAX during its first year back in service. Easier said than done. One can make arrangements at time of booking, but airlines swap aircraft regularly. With FlightRadar24 in hand, a passenger would be aware of most such changes. Will managing the outcome be simple? No, probably not. But the passenger can have the information, and that information gives her/him freedom of choice.
My curiosities satisfied, I could turn to my personal anxieties. While I am not one to fret over many operational matters, I do like knowing the gate and boarding information in a timely fashion. My Santiago flight was missing from the lounge FIDS. I am also not one who likes speaking to agents unless out of dire need. I suppose discovering the departure gate is one such situation.
An unlikely savior came to my aid: the BA app. There are some nice features in the BA app, but I would not place managing flight disruptions in that category. It still trails the Delta app in which one can easily control the whole process, including rebooking. Regardless, a glance at BA’s in-app flight status showed an updated Gate B37 even though other flight details remained unchanged from the day before. I guessed, and upon exiting the lounge and locating a screen with the Santiago flight, my hunch was confirmed: B37 is indeed the gate! The process and interface could be dramatically improved. Nonetheless, I was grateful for a small piece of data that calmed my nerves and permitted me to more thoroughly enjoy my afternoon.
Many people really do not like the act of traveling, particularly by air. Flying a quarter of a million miles a year and spending 200+ nights in accommodation have convinced me that the key drivers are not comfort and product, but the feelings of impotence and helplessness stemming from lack of information (or its poor delivery), limited options, and misappropriated time.
I got to Santiago, and everything else turned out fine, but as my trip illustrates, restoring some measure of knowledge, power, and choice through the application of technology can mitigate many a frustrating situation.
There are already many tools available, and I am sure many more to come.
As the cross-section of technology and travel is our bread and butter, Kambr Media is launching a new series: The Future of Travel, where we will feature both existing products and our own musings for yet-to-be innovations that are leading us into the golden age of the traveler.