Saturday, January 15, 2011

Obligatory Airline Rant

Everyone has a rant against the airline industry at some point or another.  This one is mine.  But I'm going to try to make an insightful observation or two along the way, so the purpose of this post is to improve the system, not just to denigrate it.

So, yes, in this case, I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him.  (Shakespeare had it the other way around.)

I will briefly relate the two anger-inducing experiences I've had on airline flights recently, then we'll dive into identifying what this feels so frustrating, and then maybe what can be done about it.  You might find the connection interesting (some more than others.)

The first leg of my two leg flight had a delayed departure due to maintenance.  (Ironically, one of the 3 navigational computers was down, but the pilot was able to cajole the maintenance crew into letting him fly with only 2. Huh; that didn't make me feel any better.)  My connection to Leg #2 was very, very tight ... but the airline KNEW that I was on Leg #1.  I was in the back of the plane, but there was one other passenger on the plane making my same connection.  I ran to the next gate, only to be told that they had shut the door 5 minutes ago.

I tried to reason.  I tried to argue, politely.  All they had to do was open the door (the plane was still there!!) and let me on.  Otherwise, since this was the last flight of the night, they would have to buy me a hotel room and a few meals ... so, clearly, the better option for them was to open the plane back up and let me on.

"It's our policy; we can't open the door once it's closed.  You can call the service desk at one of our courtesy phones at the other end of the terminal."

I ended up spending the night in Cincinnati.  The best advice I got, all night, was from the hotel concierge: "Oh, sir, don't feel bad about it.  There wasn't a seat for you on that plane -- they had already sold it to someone else."  That made a hell of a lot more sense than anything the airline had told me.

I was boarding a smallish plane out of DCA on a recent snowy evening.  The boarding started 30 minutes late, and just at the start of boarding, they told us they were overbooked by 13 seats.  13 SEATS??!?  On a small plane?  That's hard to do.

Again, this was the last flight of the night.  Only one or two people jumped at the offer of a $400 voucher.  So they called a list of 10 names, although I have no clue how they determined who was on that list. (They said it was by check-in order, but I had checked in 3 hours early and was still one of the 10.  I find that unlikely.)

The airline began boarding a bunch of people, while the 10 of us cooled our heels by the side.  We were confused and slightly frustrated, and said as much to a passing supervisor.  He then said, "Folks, let me see your tickets."  At which point he selected a few of us, randomly, and told us to board ... at which point we leapfrogged all the other people who were in line to board.

Once on the plane, they told us that they had to bump some people because of weight restrictions, and the need to carry extra fuel in case our primary destination was snowed in.  They only revealed that fact once we were on the plane, and there only ended up being 4-5 empty seats on the plane, not 13 like they originally claimed.

So, what's going on here? The two examples might seem unrelated (albeit annoying), but there's a fundamental tenet in human factors and interface design that I think is very, very relevant here.  The field of human factors and the man / machine interface is a surprisingly interesting field ... I've worked on a couple of projects where you have to pare a lot of technical information down to the minimum necessary for an operator to perform a job.  At first blush, it seems ridiculous.  But when you actually try to do it, and you realize the guy on the operating end of the screen doesn't have a PhD in the technology you're dealing with, it can get very interesting to try to reduce something down to its bare essentials.  It has always been one of Apple's strong suits: the Human Interface Guidelines.

Anyhow, one of the basic laws of human factors, and GUI design in general, is the following:

Never let the user feel like he has lost control.

Think about it the last time you got frustrated at a computer: the mouse icon had switched to an hourglass, your window was completely unresponsive, and you couldn't fix it.  All you had done was hit "Control-S" to save your document.  The computer was chasing down some infinite loop, you were forced to sit by idly and listen to the cooling fan spin up and go crazy.  You had no idea why you had gotten into this predicament.  If you were lucky, control-alt-delete would bring up the Task Manager, and you could kill the process.  If you were unlucky, you gave the computer a one-finger salute and hit the power button.

Or how about when you're sitting on the other end of customer service, and they've put you on infinite hold Muzak?  You are forced to sit there listening to the crap they pipe over the phone line, with no way of getting immediate assistance.

Life is the same way.  It's totally understandable, but we get frustrated when we lose control.  Even more so when we don't know why.  So when airlines, computers, customer service, or any other activity takes control away from us and turns us into pawns, we get frustrated.  Some folks lash out.

The answer?

Give customers a choice.  Make them feel like they have some control.

For instance: some customer service lines tell you how many minutes you have remaining until the next agent is available.  This is FANTASTIC.  The customer now has a choice: I can wait 20 minutes until the next agent is available, or I can bail and call back another time.

In the case of a stuck computer, a simple window could pop up, with a "Cancel" button in the corner: "Word is trying to save your file."  Of course, Microsoft would never do anything like that -- Microsoft is far too intelligent to be bothered to give you a status update or to give you any input into what it does.  Microsoft knows what's best for you.  ()

Or, in the case of the airlines, being honest with me and giving me a choice would have gone much farther: "Sir, we've given your seat to a standby passenger.  You can go standby on the next flight, or you can get a hotel room for the night."

In Situation #2 above, they started out very well by offering passengers a chance to get the voucher, but they dropped the ball, badly, by calling people out at random -- and then letting them board at random.

So, other industries and service communities could take a good lesson learned from the human factors group.  And although Admiral Hyman Rickover famously hated the human factors group with vitriol, I think they provide some useful guidance in today's society.

1 comment:

  1. The problem in these scenarios is passengers beforehand are not aware that this will happen to them. The airlines will surprise them to the point that it is hard for them to choose for alternatives, and they have little time to do so.