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The Attack of Terrible Airline Data!

by Nicholas Barnard on March 13th, 2008

I want to take a look at my customer interaction with Delta airline’s data. I surmise it’ll be enlightening.

I went to meet a friend at SeaTac airport on Monday evening. He was flying in on Delta Flight 747. (Nice nod to Boeing, Delta.) His plane was supposed to land at around 6:20 PM PST.

Wanting to curse him, I had signed up for text message alerts from Delta on their website. His plane was actually a bit early getting in from Boston to Cincinnati (the airport is actually in Kentucky, but that is a different story.) and it departed Cincinnati a bit early as well.

I get my first update at 1:59 PM PST, his flight is a minute late.

A minute later, I get a second update, his flight is still a minute late.

Nineteen minutes later, I get an update this his flight is now three minutes early.

At 3:49 PM PST, I get a notice that his flight is now one minute early.

At 5:20 PM PST, I get a call from my friend that the “…the pilot made a decision to reroute us to Bozeman, Montana. We have subsequently landed in Bozeman, Montana. The plane has not turned into a fireball of twisted metal and flesh like it could have, I guess, if its a fuel leak … I guess we’re going to find out if we’re gonna switch planes or whats gonna happen. … I don’t know how much of a delay its gonna be, I’m gonna guess somewhere between 40 minutes and an hour…”

At 6:09 PM PST, I get a notice that his flight is one minute early, and is still arriving at SeaTac, Gate A6.

Being an acculturated seattlite I took the bus to the airport and was boarding just around 5:30, I arrived to the airport around 6:10 or so and after a bit of moseying around and looking at an Eaglerock airplane and a replica of the Rutan Voyager. A couple of minutes after this I mosey over to the empty Delta airlines ticket counter and ask for an update on the flight. They tell me the new planned arrival time is 10:30 PM PST. At this point I surmise the plane my friend came in on is toast for the evening, and Delta is hauling in a replacement from Salt Lake City, Utah, their nearest hub.

At 7:33 PM PST, having left the airport, I call the airline for an update. The automated system, upon hearing that I’m looking for information on the current day’s bastard child, flight 747, plops me into a queue for a human in the Philippines or somewhere. The lady I reach has no more information than what I’ve already gathered, and as I recall doesn’t even mention anything about Bozeman until I bring it up.

Having reached home around 10:00 PM or so I use my fun little tools and unearth that the plane that is now picking my friend up has been christened Flight 9907, a flight number that is reserved for repositioning airplanes. As I guessed the plane was on its way from Salt Lake.

At 11:54 PM PST, the last time I ask for information from the airline, I’m at the airport’s cell phone lot. I get the same run around from the lovely automated system that I did at 7:33, and the flight is still on-time for its new schedule of 12:10 AM.


So the bottom line: Delta’s automated systems told me next to nothing useful and in one case even gave me completely false information. Delta’s people gave me reasonably accurate information, although they didn’t volunteer much.  If I had provided this level of information when I worked in the fruit business, my customer would’ve been talking to my supervisor faster than you can slip on a banana.

The Cranky Flier wasn’t kidding when he said that “The flight information business is a terrible one. … I’d like to see an airline take a more open approach.”

Without knowing all of the data running around and the potential scenarios, I cannot make too much of a recommendation, but I did have one that came to mind.

In an instance like this where there is a diversion instead of being popped over to a representative who knows very little about what is actually going on it would be helpful to have a recorded announcement by the operations folks or the customer service folks. In this instance it would’ve gone something like: “Delta Flight 747 was diverted to Bozeman, Montana for mechanical reasons. The airplane landed safely in Bozeman and all passengers are safely on the ground. An airplane has been dispatched from Salt Lake City to Bozeman to continue the passengers’ journey. The current estimated time of arrival into Seattle-Tacoma is currently 10:30 PM. We apologize for any inconvenience. If you would like to speak to a representative say representative…”

Two major benefits:

  1. It gives people waiting for passengers some actual information.
  2. It reduces a raft of phone calls to representatives, so it should be a cost savings.

There are significant potentials for extensions, including providing this in text format on the website, offering some type of subscriptions, and as available data to airline employee’s when they look up the flight within the reservation system.

Okay, so I’m glad that is out of my head. In other news I’m looking for employment, so if your organization needs simple solutions like this to complex problems and creative design of effective process flows, please drop me an email.

(This entry was lightly revised on March 14, 2008 at 2:36 AM EST, and again on March 21, 2008 at 12:13 PM, to correct a light revision error. Its a blog, not a wiki, so I don’t have the history of the changes. Relax.)

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