August 9, 2010

Informatics and Airports

I just read the fascinating novel by Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist. This dystopic story of elevator inspectors set the tone for my recent foray into a whirlwind of airports, urban hotels, metro and taxis. The central character in Whitehead’s novel, Lila Mae, intuitively senses the mechanical state of the machines she inspects. As I ran around and through several cities in the last few days, I wished for a similar intuition because it was very hard to get up-to-date information.

My toolkit: a book on mangle-ish practice; a new MacBook Pro laptop and power cord in my backpack; a next-to-the-latest version of the iPhone and power cord in my purse; paper; pen; cash and credit card. Here’s a bulleted list of what I needed immediately (and had trouble getting), and the long, probably boring tale of my flying drama. All of which is to say that the information systems for passengers, airlines, metro riders, and cab users have a lot of room for improvement! I hope people are working on these informatics problems; alternatively, we should all quit flying to help decrease global warming.

· Toll-free numbers to reach all airlines on which I am scheduled to fly, or airlines to which I might be transferred in the event of mechanical failure

· Cab numbers in cities to call for a cab when the metro breaks down on the way to the airport

· Traffic status websites in major metro areas to identify bottlenecks in realtime

· Much more iPhone battery power so that I can stay on hold indefinitely

· Accessible electrical outlets

· A second cell phone to make other calls while I am on hold, so that I don’t miss the precious airline representative when they come on the line

· Internet access via 3G in all airports and/or wireless hotspots, ideally free

My ticket was set up by a travel agent who does that for government agencies. What that meant was that I was scheduled to fly to DC on Delta through Detroit, fly back on United to Chicago, then fly from Chicago to Champaign on American. Three airlines=at least two too many. First leg to DC: mechanical problems on the Delta flight meant that they transferred me to an American flight through O’Hare. Then it thunderstormed while we sat on the tarmac. Once we got to Chicago late, the planes were all backed up because of the storm, and because (apparently) President Obama had flown to Chicago for his birthday and the airport use was limited until he and his plane cleared out. So instead of arriving in DC at 9:30 and taking the metro, I got in at midnight and took a cab. No big deal.

Serving on the NEH panel was challenging and fun; there was another thunderous downpour while we deliberated. We finished about 4:30 and I headed to the metro, only getting a little lost. But my plane wasn’t scheduled to depart til 6:45 and I was told it was just a half hour by metro to the airport, so no worries, right? By 5:15, the blue line train I was on was stalled indefinitely at Arlington Cemetery. When it crept into Pentagon City, I jumped off and ran upstairs to find a cab in the rain. The bellhops at the nearby hotel didn’t have cab phone numbers and this other metro refugee and I ran around several street corners, missing out to other people, or generally failing to find a cab for about twenty minutes. In a cab by 5:45, I start checking in to the United flight on my iPhone. The e-boarding pass never arrived to my gmail account. Then by 6pm it was clear the traffic was bumper-to-bumper and my fellow cabmate and I would miss our flights. So, I called United to find out about the next flight out and the possibilities to change my ticket (for $150.) By 6:40, the nice cabbie miraculously pulled up to United, but my cabmate wanted to charge his portion of the fare—no time, buddy! So I paid the fare with cash (YAY, cash machines!), and ran into the airport. Signage is not good for panicked people to see where they need to go. Since my boarding pass hadn’t arrived in my gmail inbox, I had to run upstairs to the United counter and check in again. At that point, the counter person told me my flight was delayed, so I should take my time.

Through security, into a packed corner of National where people milled about while the monitor still said “on time departure” until well after the departure time had passed. When we started to board the delayed flight (using my iPhone I found the estimated departure time), there was a security breach and they shut all the doors. After another twenty-minute delay (we were not told what the breach was about), we got on board. Easy flight to O’Hare, but there was jet bridge trouble there, and we were again delayed getting off. By now it was 20 minutes past my connection’s departure time, but I ran for the plane anyway. I had forgotten that the United Terminal is a L O N G way from the American terminal, so I sprinted as best I could with a backpack and full bladder.

My strategy in the last few years is to call the airlines on my cell phone rather than waiting in lines at the airport. Usually a good technique, it kept me on hold first with American, then with Delta, while I also stood in lines and ran back and forth between American in one terminal and trying to find Delta in another terminal. Since my flight had departed, where was I going to be able to go? In order to call Delta (I found out they “owned” the ticket, since that was my first flight on the itinerary, and supposedly only they could change it), I had to call my sister to have her look it up in the phone book, since there were no phone books in the airport and no posted signs with contact information. In order to use the Internet at O’Hare, Boingo wanted $8 from me, which I didn’t even have time to investigate. It kept getting later and later, closer to the time when the only available option would take off into the skies. That option—to fly to Minneapolis—was seemingly the best, since there were no more flights that night to anywhere else viable. So, by the time Delta told me they couldn’t help me, my cell phone was dead and I just whipped out my credit card to buy a one-way ticket to Minneapolis. A free night in my sister’s house beat an uncomfortable night in a hotel near O’Hare, where I definitely did not want to be. But of course with a dead cell phone and a tired sister, I had to take another cab upon arrival in Minneapolis. Another midnight ride through another city.

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