December 3, 2022

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Air Travel Overload Has Made A Nightmare Which Could Be Better If Airlines Did Their Digital Transformation Better

If you’ve flown this year, or heard stories from friends who have flown, you’ve heard about the nightmare it has become. Eager travelers are overloading planes and airports while airlines struggle with reduced staff and more. Of my 9 flights so far this year, 6 of them have encountered serious problems. People are driving long distances to avoid airports and tripled rental car costs; all costs are way up. Catch-22 problems abound, with very long lines and waits to resolve problems and get service.

I write a fair bit about Heathrow below, and on July 12, Heathrow announced it would require airlines to limit passengers during the summer to stop overloads at the airport. It won’t be the only airport to do this.

All the problems have their reasons, many of them factors beyond the control of the airline, or the fault of the airport rather than the airline. This has always been the case. The difference is that the airlines are unable to handle it when things go wrong. Much of that inability could be avoided if the transportation companies had done a better job at going digital. If they had done a better job of planning for and verifying the ability of their systems to handle high loads, and to resolve most problems online rather than in person, a lot of this mess would not exist. Most of these problems are not new, but so often it seems the airlines respond to them as though it was the first time it ever happened.

Below I’ll outline both what sort of problems are happening, personal horror experiences, how they could have been avoided with better automation and digital transformation and make recommendations for what could be done in the short term, and how we might make wait-free airports in the future.

My recent travels have included flight delays, diversions and missed connections from United, and a horrific lost luggage episode with Lufthansa mixed with the nightmare that Heathrow in London has become. These problems will happen; what judges the quality of an airline is how it handles it when things go wrong. So while you’ll read one of many laments about chaos in air travel below, the real story is that the airlines could have done something about it, and still can next year.

Solve it before the passenger knows about it

I fly a lot (absent a 2 year gap in recent times) and have seen many instances where problems forced me to overnight at some airport rather than making it to my destination. Each time it has seemed like the airline never handled it before. When multiple flights are disrupted, the systems break down, and you see multi-hour queues at service desks and similar waits for phone support for non-elite flyers. On a recent flight to Virginia via Newark on United, weather forced a diversion to Dulles (which is in Virginia.) Due to shortages at the airport, I could not just get off the plane there, and after 2 hours the aircraft took off to Newark, where of course the continuation back to Virginia was cancelled. In Newark was one of the longest queues I’ve seen. I resolved my flights over the phone, but if I wanted hotel and food vouchers it involved an impossible wait, so I just paid for a hotel myself.

Instead, what should happen is that every passenger disrupted should immediately see, in their phone, before they even land, the airline’s best effort at a new itinerary for them, plus a selection of other options they might pick. If they need to overnight, electronic vouchers should already be in their inbox. This has happened enough that even very simple AI could pick decent initial choices and options for all. Only people who can’t accept any of the options would need to get personal attention from the short supply of service staff.

This does happen to some extent already with some airlines, but it’s fairly basic and needs to improve.

Airlines should be recording every thing their human agents do to resolve problems and finding all the approaches that are done multiple times, building tools that can pick them and do them. Most aircraft have wifi today, and usually they allow free use of the wifi to interact with the airline, which would allow most passengers to resolve their problems in the air.

Airlines are reluctant to declare a flight cancelled, and won’t help most passengers until they do. But in the virtual world, the moment there is a hint of a problem, their systems should be able to game out possible scenarios, and allocate resources, not committing them until the problem is confirmed. As usual, passengers who paid a lot or have elite status would get priority for the best resolutions, but even ordinary passengers would fare better than they do today.

Admittedly, this problem isn’t easy. Airlines need to make more sophisticated tools. United did exactly this to me on a flight to London in June. Due to a late departure, United predicted the connection would not be made, and put me on a different flight — but they put my companion on yet another one. They did this because the reservation is severed into two independent reservations if there is the slightest variation between the tickets (such as upgrades,) even though it remembers that this happened. It took hours to resolve the cascade of problems this caused. But it’s good to see them moving in this direction.

Heathrow and Lufthansa

London’s Heathrow (LHR) has become known as one of the most troublesome and overloaded airports in recent times. On a recent flight to there, connecting in Frankfurt, Lufthansa for unknown reasons failed to load our bags on the initial flight from Sofia. Worse, because flights were full, the airline requested passengers check carry-on bags to lessen the load on the overhead bins, so it was not just checked luggage that didn’t make it. Luggage missing planes is never good, but it happens. What matters is how well the system handles it after the fact. You can also read a sidebar with all the details of the clusterfuzzle that is lost luggage and airport operations today.

While the bags failed to load in Sofia, the real curse was the destination: LHR. LHR is one of the airports with a secured luggage hall — you can’t get into it from outside. In addition, for unknown reasons, Lufthansa’s online and phone systems to report lost baggage are disabled for LHR — the only option is to speak to the luggage contractor in person. During current chaotic times, that involved hour-long waits in long queues. In my case, when I finally got to the agent, it indicated the bags were coming on a later flight, and because delayed luggage delivery was taking many days (it ended up being 12 days so far) the only workable option was to not file a lost luggage report, and instead just wait in the spartan luggage hall 6 (actually 7) hours for the flight to arrive. Alternately, we were told that we could leave the luggage hall and then later go to a phone outside which allows passengers with luggage to request being escorted back in. This phone would not be operating when the luggage arrived, but we could return in the morning and use it to re-enter.

You can see the Catch-22 coming. We canceled our plans for the day and booked the closest hotel (a 45 minute drive) for the night. In the morning, we found a long queue at the luggage pickup phone. Those there said nobody had answered in over 90 minutes. Some had been there for hours. Upstairs, the departure area was in total chaos. An attempt to ask for help from Lufthansa agents there was rebuked by the agent stating, “we have been instructed not to assist with luggage problems.” They were so overwhelmed it appeared a triage decision had been made on the urgency of problems — though for one person in the line, whose disabled parent had, he alleged, been made to check their carry-on, he wanted the bag which contained his parents’s insulin.

Once again, better digitization should have solved many of these problems. We eventually learned we had been misinformed, and the bags which arrived the prior night were now in “the warehouse” whose location could not be given. Both the web site and phone agents would not allow the creation of a lost luggage report, and access to the agents who could make one was barred. Wait times on the phone were at least 45 minutes — the next morning I called the instant they opened, was told a predicted 2 minute wait time and gave up after 90 minutes of very annoying hold music. It was even worse calling the United States service number, which simply declared that overload was so high that Lufthansa could not answer calls at all, and one should try later — this lasted for multiple days.

Lufthansa’s digital baggage tracking is in serious need of improvement. Some other airlines have now moved to giving updates on all movement of luggage on and off planes, through the airport and to the baggage claim. Lufthansa’s only reported baggage being accepted for a flight, then eventually giving an obscure error to indicate the bag did not make it.

Eventually I discovered I could file a lost bag claim in a cumbersome way by pretending to file it for Frankfurt, the Lufthansa hub through which the bags passed. While they were not lost there, the web form worked if you didn’t talk about LHR. But even after the records were created, information was very sparse, and other that the supposedly reassuring claim that the “bags were found” a week later only 2 bags were marked as allocated to flights back to the USA, with no sign they had actually taken those flights, and 2 bags with no new information at all. On July 12 one bag arrived on a van supposed to contain 2. The 2nd arrived July 15 but 2 are still MIA. That’s not the worst — one woman in the LHR baggage queue reported she had been waiting 3 weeks to get her Air Canada luggage lost there.

Recommendations

  • Use AI with human aid to spot patterns in customer needs and requests. Build automated tools to handle them online. Stress test for overloads in advance.
  • Have agents identify new problems that are arising that can’t be handled by the automated systems. Build a special language that allows programmers to quickly create tools to handle these problems within hours and deploy them, both to agents and if possible, to web and phone systems. The programmers would in effect program scripts to do a common activity that many passengers are needing that day.
  • Proactively identify likely options customers might want and give them an array to choose form, including ones which need an agent.
  • Design customer contact systems to expect most customers to come to them not by dialing a general number, but instead by going through online/mobile tools, entering data and other information. If the problem needs an agent, only then give them special number that, combined with their caller-ID or a code number, takes them directly to an agent with no IVR menus, giving that agent all the information. Alternately, use call-back in these situations.
  • In general, always use call-back rather than wait on hold. If possible, do it on your web site or app so customers can see the status. Always be able to call a customer back if the call is interrupted — as is common for travelers on mobile phones.
  • Text message support can handle more load, but don’t stint on the quality of agents or make them work only from scripts. Presume the customer has already tried your online systems and needs more. Also, make it possible to use the text support in the air — United Airlines’ text support uses SMS which is not available in the air.
  • Work quickly to fix any problems that can’t be solved online and make them be solved online, or if they can’t, at least identify which customers have them and direct them to agents specializing in them.
  • When agents identify “Catch-22” problems being caused by the overload, give them extra temporary authority to resolve them, and quickly authorize new approaches. Don’t send every one to a supervisor, have the supervisors identify new patterns and quickly disseminate new authority and policy.
  • During times of crisis, don’t be afraid to put as much information in customer hands as possible, so they can better explain their situations or look for solutions.
  • For customers without smartphones, increase the number of remote help terminals in airports to large numbers. For 99% of customer requests, a remote video terminal that can print vouchers and passes is sufficient. People should never have to queue for a few on-site staff.
  • For many travelers, no luggage means they most put their travel on hold, or will delay it until they become convinced they can’t get their bags. Help them know which will happen as soon as possible — even before they land. Take digital photos of bags as they move through the system and make them available to passengers to assure them about the progress of their bags.
  • Work to do better at getting bags to customers during overload when human resources are low. This can include temporarily relaxing protocols on access to bags (most airports have no real security on baggage claim even in normal times) or, controversially, allow people to pay bonded third parties to get their bags. (This would be controversial because of the affront of having to pay extra for the airport/airline’s staff shortage, but it’s better than not getting bags.) Alternately have a means to bring in on-call temporary workers. The cost of this is still lower than having to recompense passengers for travel disruption.
  • Simulate all sorts of overloads in advance, find out where the systems break down and put plans in place to handle them.
  • Implement messaging systems to keep staff aware of changes in procedure or policy during a crisis so they don’t give the wrong message to customers.

Airport security and bag check have also played a large role in delays. Many airports now allow (or demand) self bag-check, including bag-check at home, where they provide a label holder which can contain a home-printed baggage label. Bags should come with integrated holders, and possibly allow the insertion of a permanent bar code for airports that can work with one, plus a per-journey code for airports that can’t.

At airport security, the primary bottleneck is the X-ray machine. X-ray screening staff should be moved to remote locations and examine bags via video links (with redundant communications links including things like Starlink which will work with total failure of other infrastructure.) Staff can then be quickly allocated to the busiest security lines and multiple staff can alternate bags on the same conveyor, making it run non-stop — this will switch the bottleneck to the personal scanner or the secondary bag inspection, but that’s OK. Idle security workers can be scanning bags at other checkpoints, even on the other side of the world. Extra workers can do it from home at peak times. (Loads at security are highly predictable, as it is known well in advance what the passenger volume will be at each terminal.) Inspection workers for nudatrons (THZ or backscatter scanners for the person) can also be remote, though pat-down inspectors must be local.

Another useful step would be the TSA’s plan to eliminate airport security on small “puddle jumper” aircraft. People are already starting to consider driving instead of flying these routes. These small planes don’t have enough fuel to destroy something like the World Trade Center, and while an armed terrorist with a weapon or bomb could cause destruction, they could also do similar things on a bus or train. New Zealand has no security on turboprop flights, for example. (They ask you to tell them if you are bringing a firearm in your luggage.)

Bottlenecks today include luggage check, security, and border checks. In some parts of the world, more and more of these things are being done with automatic kiosks instead of staff, even the entry to security (but not the pat-down.) If airlines continue to be short staffed, they need to do more of this.

No line air travel

Put all these things together and you should be able to get air travel with no lines most of the time. Consider these steps, most of which exist in one form or another at different airports:

  1. Check in for your flight on your phone, and print baggage tags at home or an airport kiosk. In the days of delivery robots, just put your bag in one once you have packed and tagged it.
  2. At the airport, go directly to security and use an automatic gate to enter the security area
  3. You’re showing up at the time of your security appointment printed on your boarding pass. You’re told when to show at security where there is an assured slot for you, not just when your plane leaves.
  4. Put your bags on a non-stop X-ray belt, with remote crew splitting up the work on the bags so the belt never has to stop.
  5. Walk quickly through the magnetometer (you have a fast-track security pass and an appointment) or nudatron.
  6. Whoops, if your bag or you need secondary screening, now you have to wait, as we can’t predict in advance how many people and bags will need that. If you were good, this doesn’t happen to you except at random, and random checks are given priority so you don’t wait. They can be predicted in advance.
  7. Bypass the evil “gauntlet of perfume” and shops that the entrance of so many terminals has become. At least there isn’t a line.
  8. Passport control? It’s an automatic gate (very common in the E.U. now.)
  9. Scan your boarding pass for the lounge if for some reason you have time. You should not because your appointment at security was timed to make your stay in the airport brief.
  10. Arrive at your gate at your expected boarding time. Just go through the automatic gate In your dreams the airline boards people in a specific order and so there isn’t a big line in the jetway. But for now, this is the one line you can’t escape, except if you get to pre-board, or board last. Today boarding last means no room for your bag if not in 1st class, but in the future, perhaps there is reserved space in the bins for you and you can board any time. How to board aircraft is a dark art about which there is much debate and many opinions.
  11. OK, now you have to wait for the pilot to fly the plane. And to taxi and get clearance. Even these can be reduced but it’s beyond the scope of this list.
  12. Same on landing — automatic gate at passport control, grab your bags (if you were foolish enough to check them) and go. In the days of delivery robots, though, your bag is just put in one that shows up at your hotel around the same time you do.\

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