Oh the places you'll go...

It could have been worse

All things considered I'm a pretty good traveler. I've racked up more than a handful of frequent flyer miles criss-crossing the globe to help deliver Open Source software to places far and wide.

Given the number of days I've spent in airports and on their companion tubes hurdling through the air a few tricks to make things easier have been picked up along the way. In addition there is plenty to know about scheduling and when to do certain things. This all brought me to the airport early Friday morning for a short flight from Boise to San Francisco for work. Arriving at the airport and flitting through security, my laptop was coming to life as soon as it touched the desk in the business center.

A few checkins on the code that needed updates were good to go. With a swoosh a couple emails left for their destinations and all was good. Then there was the changing of the hotel. A trip booked at the last minute my "regular" haunts were booked and I was set to stay more like a 30 minute drive from the office in traffic. Not ideal but it would do in a jam. But knowing that hotels often have last minute capacity I was able to login and snag a room. A quick call to my travel agent later and my previously booked room was also resolved.

Would you like the full can?

With the regularity of early morning operations we filed onto the plane, stored baggage and away we went. Surprisingly the plane was full when just a few days before it had been booked about half full. Talking to the gentleman next to me explained why. He and several others had been scheduled to fly the previous afternoon on a flight that was cancelled.

Cancellations aren't all that uncommon on afternoon flights from Boise to San Francisco. The planes that fly this route spend their days going back and forth, in and out of San Francisco and other places mostly in the states immediately around California. As a result when the fog sets in early in around San Francisco's airport overnight and ground holds are handed out to incoming flights, it takes just a couple of turns before these flights are backed up for hours. Eventually a flight from San Francisco to Boise and back ends up paying the price. The resulting backlog can easily take days to resolve given the ever falling capacity leaving Boise.

Right on schedule we pushed back from the gate and shortly we were airborne. After leveling at altitude the flight attendant came around with beverage service and I took my customary apple juice. "Would you like the full can?" she asked as she scooped ice cubes into the plastic cup.

Contemplating the extra calories briefly I replied with a quick "Sure," and went on to read the label on the can. 160 calories. That's a lot but it would likely be my whole breakfast I reasoned. Settling in for a rest on the remainder of our flight I woke briefly as our decent began.

A kick in the seat of the pants

As I was continuing to sleep through the early morning dawn we made our way down towards the runway. 28-R or 28-L from the way the approach setup. On the glide slope the plane is progressively slowing and coming down towards the runway.

"That's four," I think to myself as the familiar kick in the seat occurs. When a pilot determines they cannot land while on approach the procedure is pretty universal. The details differ a bit from place to place. But the first step is always the same. Clean up the plane, retracting the flaps and preparing to climb and move the throttles to full power. Whenever the goal is changed from landing to missing the ground this is the case. WIth this the GE Turbofans crank out 26,720 pounds of thrust and we won't be landing this time around.

Of all those hundreds of landings in commercial aviation I had only had three previous missed approaches. The last one came just over a month ago when we were preparing to land on 28-R at San Francisco. That time had been just three days after the crash of an Asiania Airlines flight on the parallel runway. The remains of the Boeing 777 would be visible after we circled and made another, this time successful, attempt to land.

This time there would be no circling and no second attempt. As the pilot came on the intercom he explained that no planes were landing at SFO. We'd head to Sacramento, take on fuel and wait for the fog to break. Half an hour later we landed, very hard and very fast, but landed none the less in Sacramento. At the time I thought to myself "it wouldn't be a bad thing to be on a different plane next time it lands as there could be some damage to the gear."

Oh the computers

As we land in Sacramento the flight attendant suggests we can use the app to get more information and look into options. So as we get off the runway I pull up the app to check what it says about the status of our flight and when it might arrive. "Flight 5484 does not fly between BOI and SFO" it unhelpfully tells me. The flight plan was updated when we diverted and now, according to all the public-facing information was that the flight had landed in Sacramento, it's final destination.

Usually I don't fly out of a Friday morning but this time I wanted to make a meeting in the office. When the prospect arose that they would let passengers disembark I thought to myself that I could rent my car in Sacramento and drive to Cupertino instead of waiting it out. In the absolute best of circumstances I'd match my time if I waited, flew back to SFO, got a car and drove down to Cupertino.

Figuring that I had a car rental with unlimited mileage I placed a call to Hertz to see about changing my reservation. Indeed the agent told me she could arrange for me to pick up in Sacramento instead and return as planned at SFO. Great. Then she hit me with the line that the change would result in a $650 increase, more than my initial rate for the week. Because this news came while some announcements were being made in the cabin I knew I'd heard incorrectly.

"$650 is the difference in price?" I asked.

"Yes," she confirmed.

OK never mind that plan leave my reservation alone. Next I went online and found that renting a car from Sacramento to San Francisco for the day would cost only $160. Already a much better option. I called up the company travel agent and they made arrangements for $65 as well as changing my original reservation to be picked up Friday evening.

I was already planning to meet a friend near SFO for dinner so the car-swap would be little more than an quick detour (or so I imagined). So I gathered, most of, my belongings and let the flight attendant know I was going to disembark. A few minutes later I was standing with a handful of others on the tarmac beside the plane. With the plan being to refuel and leave when possible the plane wasn't parked at the terminal but out away from the terminal.

The other passengers who needed to get luggage waited as the crew went through the baggage hold looking for the luggage. As they waited a ramp agent came and escorted those of us ready to leave into the terminal. A minute later I was walking down the terminal talking to another passenger. As we walked I touched my shirt pocket feeling my iPhone where I had put it. Then I reached into my pants pocket to check that my phone case/wallet was there.

Wallet? Who needs a wallet?

The gentleman I'd been talking to walked on as I stopped suddenly. My wallet wasn't in my pocket. Perhaps I'd put it in my computer bag as I do when going through security. Nope. Not there either. So there I was in the terminal with a non-scheduled flight sitting out there on the tarmac and my wallet in the seat back pocket attached to the back of seat 6C. This could be a really long week I thought.

I turned and walked back to the gate where some of the ramp agents escorting passengers were gathered. I explained my plight to the agent who had escorted me into the building and he went out to see if the flight attendant could find it. Seeing the flight attendant reach out and hand my wallet to a ram agent improved my day a great deal.

This time I set off with all of my belongings. Off to find the rental car counter. Having never been to Sacramento I didn't know where to find the rental cars and never once saw a sign in the airport for anything more than "Ground Transportation" which at Sacramento definitely does not include rental cars. A taxi driver was nice enough to point me in the right direction and I was off to Hertz.

Gold or something?

As a member of Hertz's super duper whistles and bells program, Club Gold as they call it, I usually just look for my name on a board, pick up the car in the proper stall and I'm on my way. This time however, there was no name on the board. Not surprising given that the reservation had been made just a couple dozen minutes earlier. So I go inside the office to wait in line.

Wait, and wait, and wait. It's a serial queue and any thought of processing people out of order is strictly forbidden. There was a single customer in front of me. Repeatedly they argued with the agent that they just wanted to keep their reservation and would the agent call the bank to find out that the charge was OK. The agent patiently explained that it was a problem with the Hertz computers and any attempt to charge the same card on the same reservation number would fail. All the customer needed to do, he explained, was call in and ask the center to duplicate the reservation so he had a different number to charge. Rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat and for good measure repeat some more. After ten minutes going around in this circle the customer finally called and handed the phone over to the agent who explained what was needed and all was well.

So with one less obstacle I inched closer to that terrible Jetta destined to be my rental. At one time we had owned a Passat that was a fantastic car to drive. Somewhere over the last decade that has become misery for the VW line. Much like the last time I rented a Passat the Jetta was sluggish and anything but nice to drive. However it was appropriate for a drive that would include ten miles of rubber-necking induced crawl. If you want to go slowly and stop often the Jetta is a perfect car for you. If you're used to driving a Prius or other car that actually responds to the driver you'll be disappointed.

The right call?

So with the delay at Hertz and the time spent crawling through rubber-necking drivers was it the right decision to drive instead of fly? I wasn't sure of the answer because the system in place for figuring out what happened to my flight is poor to say the least. I spent some time trying to figure out what might be an alternate flight number for the same flight.

About three hours after I left the airport I got a "Customer Appreciation" email apologizing for what happened on our flight. Finding it a bit odd for a flight that was delayed I followed the link and claimed the accommodation they offered. It was then that I found out the ultimate fate of the flight:

As you know, this flight diverted to Sacramento due to weather in the bay area and then cancelled after a mechanical issue arose that could not be addressed prior to the crew reaching their FAA mandated maximum duty time.

Yeah it was the right call.

And so what?

Well much of it is just what it is. Not much other than a story. But there is a lesson here for those who are developing applications. Not just in the travel space but in any place where you're communicating with users. The planned use case when things go right is certainly an important one to understand. However, at least as important think about how things work for your users when there are problems. Does United need to update their computer system to know where the plane is actually landing? You bet. Will the next flight have a new flight number? Seems likely. But what matters to travelers is "where is my friend who was supposed to land at 6:15 this morning?"

There are plenty of applications and services out that try to make the process of traveling and sharing information about one's travels. But these all work best with the expected. Even minor things like delays are handled pretty well. Throw a curve like a diverted flight at them and you're in rough shape. Add to it the inability of airlines to share and communicate information in a meaningful way. Perhaps the airlines need to invest in an RSS infrastructure.