WHEN TRAVEL-TECH FAILS US
By Joe Brancatelli
February 6, 2013 --When the lights went out on Sunday's Super Bowl, Americans shrugged, grabbed another beer and cruised the buffet table again. But when technology fails business travelers, our lives on the road come crashing down.
Bad tech has plagued business travelers a lot in the last year. We've lost untold hours of productivity, missed flights and had our schedules mangled. And since we increasingly rely on high-tech devices and processes for everything from our phone books to our flights, chances are that we'll be suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous outages for the foreseeable future.
"My iPhone died at the airport the other day and I realized I'm a prisoner," claims Vivian Marciano, a 50,000-mile-a-year sales manager who suddenly found herself without her contacts, her schedule of appointments or enough quarters to call her assistant on an airport payphone. "I had to rely on the kindness of another business traveler. He loaned me his phone, so I could call and have her email me everything I needed."
Of course, minor tech glitches like dead smartphones and wonky WiFi are comparatively easy to overcome once we stop panicking and realize mankind had traveled on business for centuries before the digital era.
But what happens when a plane is grounded, a built-from-scratch airport is so flawed that it can't open or an airline can't switch computer systems without losing thousands of flight reservations and frequent flier accounts? And what happens to our tax dollars—and our dignity—when the TSA abandons yet another collection of scanning devices that don't work as intended?
Puts that 34-minute blackout timeout at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans in the third quarter of the Super Bowl into perspective, huh? At least no sports fans were harmed in that foul-up.
The month-long (so far) grounding of the 15-month-old Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the highest-profile example of the recent tech meltdowns complicating our business-travel lives. Safety investigators seem to understand that the plane's lithium-ion batteries are the immediate culprit, but neither they nor the Boeing engineers know what's wrong with them. Fixing the batteries to the satisfaction of the Federal Aviation Administration could take months. Replacing them with stable and historically more reliable nickel-cadmium batteries would also take months of systems reengineering and recertification.
Want to fly nonstop from San Jose to Tokyo now? No dice. All Nippon Airways, the Dreamliner's first customer, planned to use the Boeing 787 on the new route, but has no other planes to fill the gap. So Silicon Valley and flight-starved Mineta San Jose International Airport are in limbo. ANA has also been forced to slash the frequency of its Seattle-Tokyo service while the Dreamliner is down. Japan Airlines has cancelled many flights between Boston and Tokyo because that route also relied on the Dreamliner. Travelers on LOT Polish Airlines get an equally raw deal. Financially stressed LOT was banking on the Dreamliner to burnish the image of its crucial U.S.-Poland routes, but had to ground the 787 even as it was holding a high-profile launch event at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.
If anything, the woes at Berlin's new airport, officially called Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt, are more perplexing.
Under development since the late 1990s, Brandenburg was first due to open in 2011. Then it was last June. But just weeks before the doors opened, and long after Lufthansa and Air Berlin announced huge Berlin expansions, the airport was delayed again. It didn't open last year. It won't open this year. It may not even open next year. Airport officials--at least the ones not fired because of the screw-ups--are privately suggesting that the $5 billion facility won't be ready until 2015.
What's wrong? The fire-safety system doesn't work. The baggage system doesn't work. Some crucial escalators are ineptly designed. There are dozens of other problems, large and small, technical and mechanical. And the longer the airport remains closed, the more problems the embarrassed Germans seem to find.
Meanwhile, business travelers must make do with tired, overcrowded, tatty Tegel Airport. Built in the early 1960s, Tegel was outdated when Berlin first started planning the new airport and it was due to close the moment that Brandenberg opened.
By comparison, the TSA decision to abandon its backscatter full-body scanners has hardly registered in the public consciousness. The so-called nude-o-scopes were detested because of the amount of radiation they used and the TSA's unwillingness to submit them to third-party testing. They also were a flashpoint because they created detailed, overly graphic body images.
The TSA last year quietly removed 76 of the machines, manufactured by the Rapiscan division of OSI System (NASDAQ: OSIS), from major airports. Now it will abandon the other 174 units because OSI can't meet a congressional deadline to produce less invasive passenger images. The TSA wasted about $45 million on backscatter units. That's after squandering tens of millions of dollars on "puffer machines," another long-abandoned security-checkpoint device.
Of course, the poster child for bad business-travel tech was last March's botched deployment of new passenger-information systems at United Airlines. (NYSE: UAL) Although the airline recovered from the initial deployment fiasco, there have been subsequent crashes. As a result, United now lags its competitors in all major passenger-service categories and financial measures. It's all exacerbated by United's claim, blithely issued by top executives during every quarterly earnings call, that the problems are behind them.
"I composed a nasty tweet about how lousy United is," Steve Metzelbaum, one of United's mid-level elite fliers, told me in an email last week. "But when I went to post it, Twitter was down."
I think Melzelbaum was being facetious because I've personally remained resolutely old-school and refused to open either a Twitter or Facebook account. But, you know, I can't tell anymore. In fact, this column is late getting to my editor because the Internet was down in my hotel room. Honest, boss...
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.