Airport 2007: The Horror, the Humanity

Opinion: Tight airline budgets and antiquated IT systems are making summer air travel more arduous than ever.

My summer travel horror show started on my way back from San Francisco after covering the inaugural Linux Foundations Collaboration Summit. About half an hour before the US Air flight to Charlotte, N.C. was to board, we were told there would be a 4-hour delay.

Not good. That delay ensured that there would be no way Id make my local connection to my home in Asheville, N.C. Still, this kind of crap happens in todays deregulated airline world. There is no slack left for travelers in any airlines schedule. One delay quickly cascades into another, and you darn well better have a toothbrush in your carry-on bag.

Then, things got worse. I stood for an hour in line to find out—surprise!—there was no way to get from here to there. The US Air staff averaged 12 minutes per person in line. I counted. With over 200 people in line... well you get the idea.

Part of the problem, I was told, is that the US Air computers were acting up. They were having fits finding out what flights were going anywhere, never mind if there was any room left on them.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read about why even major Internet travel Web sites are having trouble dealing with the summer travel volume.

I elected to take the flight and spend the night in Charlotte rather than San Francisco. Then, I curled up with my faithful IBM T40 ThinkPad, running MEPIS Linux 6.5, and wrote a story on the show. Id just filed it, when over the airports loudspeakers came the "Final boarding call!" cry for my flight—about an hour earlier than boarding had been scheduled.

Like everyone else on the flight, I charged to the gate to find—just kidding—they hadnt even started boarding yet.

Say what!? A US Air employee explained that they did this to make sure everyone was back in the area for boarding. No one bought that, and there were some really, really ticked-off people.

About this time, someone looked out the window. "Theyre still working on our plane." Sure enough, there were people on the wing with tool kits. This plane was not going anywhere soon.

Then, a while later, after we observed that while the tool boxes were still there, the workers werent, came the word: The replacement hydraulic part was also broken. They were going to bring over another plane for us at another gate.

The 100 or so of us who were left headed to the other gate. We got there, and whoops, it turned out the plane wasnt going to that gate after all. Instead, our new plane was heading to a gate next to our old plane. Off we went again, and this time, we finally got on the plane and eventually, and the key word is eventually, we took off.

In talking with some US Air staffers—not the one who announced final boarding call before the plane was even half-repaired—I discovered that part of the problem was that the computer systems at US Airways and at its newly acquired division, America West, were anything but well integrated.

Next Page: Merged airlines, divergent IT.