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.
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.
Merged Airlines, Divergent IT
The plane may all be in US Air colors, but the right hand of US Air often doesnt know what the left hand of the former America West is doing, and vice versa. Spare parts, passenger lists, flight information, you name it; if its tracked by computer it seems to be either fouled up or to require a great deal of manual effort by US Air staffers to make sense of it all.
Now thats bad. Its also all too typical of enterprise IT company consolidation efforts. But when youre trying to get home, you dont really care. You just want to get home. My trip from San Francisco to Asheville should have taken me about 7 hours. It took me 27.
Its been closing on a year and a half since the two airlines started work on merging their IT operations. The plan was, as Joe Beery, CIO of US Airways, told eWEEK at the time, to switch over from SABRE to SHARES with outsourcing powerhouse EDS doing the heavy lifting on the reservation systems. The rest of IT was going to be brought in-house on the grounds that it would be cheaper that way.
Based on what I saw last week, they got what they paid for: a system that doesnt work when the going gets tough.
Whats even worse is that my misadventure is all too typical of summer 2007 travel. Its not just US Air. United had a 2-hour computer outage that delayed nearly 270 domestic and international flights on June 20. Twenty-four domestic flights were also canceled. A full 24 hours later—remember what I said about there being no slack?—United was still playing catch-up.
Its not just the airlines. On June 8, a major failure in a U.S. FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) computer combined with severe thunderstorms in the eastern United States to cause serious delays around the entire country.
So between cheap airlines with bad IT and the FAA, whats a summer business traveler to do?
I ended up talking with a lot of my fellow SFO > CLT victims. They are all finding that summer air travel is being a real misery. They see the same problems I did. In addition, they noted that the airlines have cut back on flights, spare aircrafts and spare parts. In short, when any single flight goes wrong, the entire system quickly follows.
They —and there were a couple of million-mile travelers in the crew—recommended always taking the first flight out in the morning if you hope to make it from A to B in a single day. That way, even when—notice I didnt say if—you run into a delay, you still have a shot of getting to your meetings.
Next, no matter what the bean-counters say about costs, always fly direct. The logic is simple. Even if the flights pricier, it still costs less in the long run to make it to your meetings rather than waste time cooling your heels at an airport.
Finally, and they were quite serious about this one: If humanly possible, reschedule your meetings for the fall. Several said summer 07 is the worst season theyve ever seen for travel. I cant disagree.
eWEEK.com Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols can be reached at [email protected]