BorisevelsonBy Boris Evelson

Remember my blog dated January 16, 2008 where I said that everything that happens in the software market is somehow related to Business Intelligence? I am now expanding that conjecture to include all other market segments. Specifically, the airline industry.  And not just Business Intelligence. Just plain old intelligence.

As many of my readers know, I've been an IT practitioner, manager, executive, and management consultant for over 25 years, and have done my share of domestic and international travel. I've taken daily shuttle flights from Boston to NYC as if they were taxi rides to a destination across town, and I flew as far as the southern tip of South America once on an Uruguayan airline, with a live chicken staring at me, trying to poke at mChicken_airplanee with its beak the whole trip from inside the backpack of the passenger in front of me. I think the owner even mistook my outstretched arms (I was trying to protect myself) for genuine interest in the chicken, and even offered to sell it to me. I pretended I did not understand him. Anyone who can remember the last painless, relaxed, and stress-free air travel experience, drop me a note, and I'll buy the two of us a lottery ticket – as you must be the luckiest person on Earth.

All my long history of air travel delays, cancellations, lost luggage, and other airline mistreatments – which most of us now take for granted, and patiently accept as helpless followers of the Airline Big Brother – pale in comparison to what happened to me and my wife on our recent trip to Portugal. I will gladly repeat another colonoscopy and root canal procedures simultaneously, while writing a $50,000 check to the IRS, and negotiating with a new kitchen contractor at the same time, than go through another similarly blissful experience on Continental. (I single out Continental because that was the airline we flew on, but they all have their share of major problems.)

Out of the 7-day trip, which was supposed to be half business conference half vacation, we spent over 3 days (around 70 hours) in airport waiting areas, airplanes, hotels, and rental cars. We should've spent those 3 days in Lisbon, but who wants to climb up and down all of those medieval cobblestone streets, and visit those boring castles and museums? I say, you've seen one museum, you've seen them all! Thanks to Continental, we were spared the monotony of walking around an old European city (who cares about its 800 year history anyway, it's all in the past, right?), and instead spent that time relaxing in the soothing atmosphere of international and domestic air terminals, comfortably and cozily dozing off in wide, plushy and cushy airline seats with lots of leg and elbow room.

It was supposed to be a very simple trip. I did not use my preferred airline, United, where I have a 1K status, since United or its partners did not have a convenient connection to Lisbon from Boston, and instead made a decision (very brave one, in retrospect) to go with Continental, hoping for a quick hop from Boston to Newark, and then a relatively painless direct flight from Newark to Lisbon.

My travel agent, bless her heart, asked me whether I preferred a 1.5 or a 3 hour layover in Newark. I smiled at her a bit condescendingly – she must be so naive – and chose the safe and sure option: 3 hours.  I was punished for my snobbishness soon enough – as the ground delay in Boston grew closer and closer to 4 hours, that 3 hour layover looked less and less promising. Well, beggars mustn't be choosy; after all, we did get up in the air. I was a bit surprised, though, that air travel from Boston to Newark was taking almost 3 hours (we usually make it there by car in 4), but landing back in Hartford, CT, explained it. After all, Hartford is extremely far from Boston, I heard from several experienced travelers that it is located as far away as 70 miles, so I felt, unlike my wife, that a 3 hour flight from Boston to Hartford was completely justified.

I also felt fully confident that our airplane pilot and the Hartford airport ground crew knew exactly what they were doing. They must've been a real battle-hardened bunch, since not only did they not let anyone off the plane (remaining oblivious to the pleas from elderly couples, pregnant women, and generally famished passengers), they also didn't let anyone get near the airplane and refuel it, until a local fire truck came over to supervise the operation. Very smart, you don't take flammable liquids in close proximity very lightly and always want to err on the side of caution. Even though it took 2 hours for us to refuel, and we were now into a 9 hour trip and a whopping 70 miles from Boston. We were getting real hungry. Had I been given another chance then, I would've definitely bought that Uruguayan chicken.

Finally arriving in Newark 11 hours later, my confidence in the level of service grew even higher. Years of experience has taught airline management that when a lot of flights get delayed and hundreds of people need to be rebooked, they need to assign as many as 1.5 agents at a gate several miles away from the one where we exited (with no signs or directions), with passengers forming lines a few miles long, waiting for hours for the news of rebooking. My wife did not share my admiration and enthusiasm about the high quality of service, and we spent the night at one of NYC Marriotts. Perhaps her lack of enthusiasm could somewhat be justified, since all of her toiletries and other typical women's trinkets were safely on the way to Lisbon. She needs to be more confident, I say, she’s a natural beauty and does not need all that makeup anyway.

We got up bright and early the next morning, shared the luxurious toiletries that we managed to scarf from under the nose of a Continental lost luggage agent, who innocently looked away for a second, assuming that he was dealing with amateurs, aired our somewhat smelly clothes in the fresh and clean air of NYC, and headed back to Newark International Airport, full of optimism and hope. The sun was shining, and big fat clouds were having a happy pillow fight in the big blue sky (did they know something we didn't?). By the time we were told that the next direct flight to Lisbon was oversold, and our rebooked flight through London Heathrow was 2 hours late, our morning (well, evening by now) enthusiasm started to dwindle just a bit.

Our spirits took another blow, as an airline representative on the flight temporarily lifted our trust in humanity when he said that he was there to address any of the passengers' concerns, only to let us down with the brute force of Niagara Falls when he refused to let us out of the airplane with the business class passengers so that we could have a glimpse of a hope to make our connection (or handle any other request made by us, for that matter). The enthusiasm was all but gone in Heathrow when we missed the connection to Lisbon, boarded the next one in 4 hours, and then found out that our luggage was not on that flight. Nor was it in or headed for Lisbon for now. It was somewhere in the dungeons of Heathrow, waiting for the determination of our fate. Smart, I told myself, why would they send our luggage to Lisbon if they weren't 100% sure that we'd get there in this lifetime? After we pass on and move to greener pastures, it'd be easier for our heirs to retrieve it from UK (our children and most of British citizens speak English), than from Portugal. Better keep it in London for now.

Listen, I do not complain. I am thankful that the luggage did arrive at our final destination only 18 hours after us, and attendees at our EMEA IT Leadership Forum could finally enjoy my presentations, without being distracted by visual and olfactory peculiarities of a person who traveled over 3,000 miles in two days on three airlines without a change of clothes. I didn't even question the probability that our return flight a few days later was also late, and we had no hope of making the Newark connection to Boston the same day (my Guardian Angel must've told me to book a rental car in Newark). The probability of such a coincidence on both outbound and inbound legs of the trip must be infinitesimally small – I am so lucky, indeed, I think I will buy that lottery ticket after all.

Unfortunately, I am not alone. Another Forrester analyst recently flying on US Airways had a mechanical failure in route from Philadelphia to Las Vegas, made an emergency landing and had to spend the night in a hotel.  The next day when another plane she was on experienced an aborted takeoff, she demanded to be let off the plane. In fact, she never made it to our conference because she was so shaken by the events, and took a train back to her home in New England instead.

I believe in karma and divine providence. I know there's a reason for this.  Here's my advice to airlines struggling with the basics of moving passengers and baggage from place to place (hopefully, the destination they intended):

  • Perhaps after building a comprehensive Business Intelligence environment, the airlines would realize that customers must be very profitable. A few hundred of us travel at least several times a month, sometimes on a moment's notice, and often paying full fare for our tickets. A single 360 degree view of such customers, with detailed purchase history collected from our credit card and other POS and ATM transactions, could be very useful in understanding our travel profiles.
  • Then maybe, just maybe (gosh, I am such an optimist) the airlines would put two and two together, and its predictive modeling algorithm displaying the results on an intuitive visual dashboard would foretell that perhaps passengers would be turned off from any future travel on that airline. And perhaps some wise sales and marketing executive would think of a brilliant scheme of how to turn the lose-lose situation into a win-win. A free upgrade to business class for the next 12 months, perhaps?
  • The airlines could also put such a full-loop marketing and sales customer analytics program in place. Whether it's finding and sourcing the right transactional data, or cleansing it, or putting rigorous data governance and MDM processes around it, or modeling the data correctly so that the right business questions can be answered at the right time by the right people, the visual dashboard can be answered, or architecting the end to end solution to be scalable, robust, agile and high performing.

My fellow analysts covering the airline industry tell me that Continental actually has built a database that they use for operations, customer service, and marketing purposes. Apperently, they even do use predictive modeling to manage the operations, though they clearly did not use it effectively in our case.

Or, alternatively, passengers can just stop flying so much.  Who needs it when you can do Web conferencing and high resolution video conferencing?  Maybe Cisco and HP are really onto something with their Telepresence and Halo products that give video conference participants a highly realistic sense of being there in person. If I were the airlines, I would watch out. It's easy to foresee the mass exodus of former air passengers heading into the telepresence room instead (see blog posts by Connie Moore and Claire Schooley for more on this subject).