by Connie Moore.

I’ve had it — enough is enough. Over the past five business days, four of my flights, three on United and one on JetBlue, or almost 100% of them over this time frame, were delayed long enough that I missed two critical meetings that were the original reason for booking the flights in the first place. Making it worse, only one of the delays (the five hour one) was for weather problems. The other flights were delayed because crews from other planes were not at Washington Dulles or Boston Logan in time for my flights to take off as originally scheduled. So there I was, cooling my heels, wasting time at Dulles airport while I was supposed to be rehearsing an important speech with a speech coach in Boston. And the next day . . . there I was, on an airplane somewhere between Boston and Washington DC, when I was supposed to be on an important phone call with a major client. I salvaged that conference call by booking a meeting room at United’s Red Carpet Club — at $80 an hour — and by racing to the meeting room after we landed so I could make my two hour long, confidential phone call from there, a mere 30 minutes past start time. Thank heaven for truly gracious and understanding clients.

Let’s face it. The American air transportation system is completely broken. At least, all of the business travelers that I commiserate with regularly think so. For the past year, I haven’t been able to count on any airline — particularly United’s commuter flights from Dulles, which is near my home — to get me to important meetings on time. As a result, I often find myself heading out of town for an overnight trip just so I can be assured of making an important afternoon meeting the next day. I’ve learned from bitter experience that waiting to leave that morning — even at the crack of dawn — puts my business meetings at extreme risk. This failsafe approach to business travel sends me on the road a lot more than I want to be, a lot more than my husband and son like, and drives up Forrester’s travel costs because now I’m charging an extra hotel room, extra airport parking, Internet access time, dinner and a hotel breakfast the next morning. I figure each time I leave home a day early, it costs an extra $300-400 per night, depending on what city I’m visiting. And I’ve probably done these precautionary overnight stays about 5-6 times a quarter for the past 2-3 years. (Heck, I recently sent an analyst out to a client meeting two days before the meeting because the risk was so high and the meeting was so important). I can’t bear to add up the hundreds of wasted hours and lost energy I’ve spent sitting in airports waiting for delayed flights and canceled flights over the past twelve months — but it’s a tangible cost in lost productivity and utterly wasted dollars directly caused by the unreliable US airline transportation system. If I multiply that number by all the wasted time my colleagues spend at airports, it’s an appalling number with an enormous price tag.

Which gets me to my point. I believe it’s time for collaboration practitioners and collaboration and communication vendors to tackle this problem head-on. In fact, that’s what my colleagues — Claire Schooley and Henry Dewing — think is beginning to happen. They say the interest in high definition and telepresence video conferencing is gaining significant traction. Evidently, the high latency, low quality video conferencing tools that disappointed so many users in the past have been eclipsed by new videoconferencing systems that make the participants truly feel like they are all in the same room together. Plus, Claire says the economic impact of video conferencing is impressive. For example, one international manufacturer dropped the cost of quarterly team meetings from $35,000 to around $1,000 by using videoconferencing to replace travel — and the quality of the meetings and the relationship between team members did not deteriorate.

But let’s admit it, difficult communications are sometimes best done face-to-face — like negotiations, executive discussions, difficult human resources conversations and meetings with customers. Yes, we’ve all got Web conferencing, and maybe video conferencing in conference rooms or at the desktop, and teleconferencing, instant messaging, email, and lots of other tools that narrow time and distance between dispersed employees and even customers, but sometimes it just doesn’t seem politically correct to dial in to meetings. Or the quality of the collaboration tool isn’t sufficient or isn’t an adequate replacement for a face-to-face discussion. So the overhead and sheer waste from canceled or delayed flights keeps getting higher and higher — exacting a toll on employee morale in the process. I believe it’s time to change our mind set. And possibly our tooling. And definitely change the support system and culture so that you can count on high quality interaction tools (like HD video conferencing with telepresence) and collaboration tools to replace a significant number of face to face meetings, particularly meetings that you aren’t going to make anyway because — unknown to you when you head out — the plane isn’t going to get you there on time.

I will leave it to my colleague, Henry Harteveldt, to explain the ups and downs — mainly downs in my opinion — of the airline industry in the US. But here’s my own personal opinion — the airlines are a house of cards about to tumble the minute one more really bad thing happens in the travel industry. For example, can you imagine what will happen to business travel if avian flu turns out to be the global pandemic many think it may be one day become? Or if security gets to the point where you can’t carry a laptop onto a plane? Could you really conduct business trips without a PC? Or if, like me, overly weary and totally turned off airline passengers decide to start using the train on a regular basis, and Web conferencing and desktop sharing is seen by everyone as a smart alternative.

I’m not the only person thinking along these lines. Check out this article, "Farther, faster? Not anymore", published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on April 23rd. The journalist, Paul Nussabaum, writes, "In air travel, more passengers, more corporate jets, and antiquated traffic control make trips ever longer, and airlines adjust their schedules accordingly. In 2005, the cost of delays to U.S. airline passengers was $9.4 billion, according to estimates by the Department of Transportation that placed a monetary value on people’s time. By 2014, delays are forecast to increase by 62 percent over 2004 levels." Yikes! According to this article, the US has routinely underinvested in the air traffic control system, continuing to rely on ground-based radar, navigational aids and controllers. In contrast, other countries have moved more quickly to satellite-based digital air traffic control systems. This chronic underinvestment means delayed flights and canceled flights are not going to miraculously disappear overnight, even with prodding from the US Congress and angry passengers. In fact, Henry says it will get worse, with summer weather upon us (thunderstorms on the East Coast), vacationers and airlines that are scheduling unrealistic flights staffed by skeleton crews. But I guess we can take some small hope from the US government’s decision to investigate the high number of delayed and canceled flights. To learn more about that effort, take a look at this April 21st article from the NY Times, "Federal Agency Investigating Airline Arrival-Time Promises." While my situations are anecdotal, Jeff Bailey writes that the US Transportation Department "listed 143 flights in February that were 15 minutes or more late 80 percent or more of the time." To illustrate this point, he explains, "In February, for instance, US Airways Flight No. 154 from Philadelphia to San Francisco arrived 15 minutes or more late 100 percent of the time, and the delay averaged 61 minutes, the Transportation Department reported." Enough said — I rest my case.

If I were in charge of corporate travel or administration, or a collaboration practitioner in a large company, here’s what I’d do:

  1. Analyze the number of delayed and canceled flights all employees have experience over X time period, and calculate the lost hours of work.
  2. Document critically important meetings that were missed because of transportation issues, and the business consequences of missing those meetings.
  3. Calculate the cost of extra hotel rooms and other costs because business travelers are taking preventive measures to make sure they get to meetings on time.
  4. Estimate the number of missed days of work from employees who finally arrived back home in the wee hours of the morning because their return flights were so horribly delayed.
  5. Count the number of employees who’ve left the company for greener pastures that don’t require so much time on the road.
  6. Get aggressive about putting in high quality video conferencing that employees — even remote employees — can reliably use on a regular basis.
  7. Develop clear guidelines for when it is okay and even desirable to look for IT-based alternatives to air travel.
  8. Cultivate a culture in which employees feel safe to opt out of attending a meeting in person, and employees in the meeting are inclusive and respectful of attendees who are dialed in electronically.

And finally, I would add up the total cost, and send a pointed letter to the executives of my company’s preferred airlines. Hopefully, if enough people do this, they will get the message that air travelers and companies who employ and underwrite their travel expenses, are tired of the abysmal state of affairs and think there’s got to be a better way.

P.S. This is almost so ironic that I can hardly type the words without laughing. My blog post would have gone up yesterday, but . . . my United flight to Washington Dulles was delayed 1 hour and 30 minutes because the plane didn’t leave Charlotte in time and then had to wait for a crew member in DC before it flew to Boston for our flight. Fortunately, the gate agent was an absolutely wonderful human being and without even being asked, put me on another flight to DC, so I only had to wait an hour and 15 minutes past my original departure time. After a long day trip, the delayed flight, and the broken air conditioning at the airport lounge, I just didn’t have the energy to post my blog entry last night.