I was traveling for 12 hours yesterday and this is what I took away.

This past weekend I dragged myself and 8 of my teammates on an adventure to Charlottesville, Virginia to play in a squash tournament against UVA and a number of other new and exciting schools who we had not played before. First thing’s first – for those of you who inevitably don’t know what squash is, squash is a sport similar to racketball that requires a ball to be hit against a front wall in a small room in a way that makes it difficult for your opponent to return that ball to the front wall. If you’re familiar with racketball – the biggest difference is that a squash ball doesn’t really bounce at all. If you’re curious or just confused, here’s a link to see some really good people who can demonstrate better than I can explain. In general though, it’s fun and basically all I do with my time.

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I’m not this good but I do end up on the ground semi-regularly.

While I could easily talk about squash for an entire blog post and may in the future, this is about is about my travel and the archaic systems that I witnessed being used in the wake of things getting screwed up. On both ends of our trip, we had delays, cancellations, and re-bookings; while I was sorting out these issues I was able to see the systems that were being used by the employees in Boston, La Guardia, and Charlottesville, and I became nervous about the nature of their technological capabilities. The screens I saw looked like the desktops that I learned to type on in middle school – outdated, inefficient, and confusing. While the employees seemed very comfortable using the systems, the search process for other travel options seemed less comprehensive than Expedia or any other travel booking website and extremely susceptible to mistakes given the terminal-esque nature of the command platform. I feel reasonably comfortable using my computer’s terminal but I know I’ve messed up a few files over time by entering the wrong thing. I consider myself a very trusting person, and even though I understand that an update of a system for a company as large as American Airlines would be a huge undertaking, I was very nervous for the sake of my travel plans, my personal information, and my exhausted team.

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How I use the terminal

Everything obviously worked out and we arrived at our destinations safely, but this got me thinking about the airline industry and how it uses technology. I did a quick search online about aviation technology, new technology investments for airlines, and upcoming trends in this same space, and I found some interesting things. While it seems that American Airlines and others are investing in improved screening and security as well as other innovative capabilities along those lines, it doesn’t seem that a systems update is on their list of priorities. That said, the information that particularly stood out to me were some trends projected to change the airport industry that we could expect to see coming into play in the future (6 Technologies That Will Revolutionize The Aviation and Airport Industry in 2017). This article wrote about many things, among them, the potential use of blockchain technology to improve and streamline airline’s technology and data. I suggest checking out the article, and while I find it super interesting, I can’t say it made me feel any more confident in the security or management of my personal information or travel plans, especially given the notoriously risky and insecure nature of blockchain.

 

There is a distinct possibility that I got an inaccurate perception of the systems in place from my cursory and uninformed viewing of it. There’s a possibility that I was tired and pessimistic from my travel complications. Yet there’s also the possibility that the system is outdated and putting customers at risk. In any case, I don’t think it bodes well for airlines that my moderate faith in them significantly wavered after a quick glance at their screens. I can’t justify my thoughts and questions without more information, which I don’t know how to go about acquiring and wouldn’t know what to do with if I found it. I just worry that people are so excited about new technologies and glamorous, exciting developments that they’re getting complacent with maintenance of older ones. The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality works for some things, but I really don’t think it applies to technology when you’re in charge of sensitive information, especially at the scale of an international airline.

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7 comments

  1. Hey Paige, I really enjoyed the topic of your post! I find it extremely relevant to a wider audience than just our classroom. I travel often, but I’m not at all familiar with the systems used by major airlines. I find it surprising that the technology has not been updated in so long, however, technology is updating constantly so to stay on top of these advancements must cost more than airlines are willing or able to spend at the moment. I am curious to see what airline will take the first major step towards new technology and how these advancements will change travelers’ experiences. Until then, let’s hope some fast wifi holds them over!

  2. katherinekorol · ·

    Hi Paige, your post was very interesting as it is something that I have never noticed when traveling. As someone who already strongly dislikes air travel, it worries me that airlines seem to have little concern for updating their technology. I feel like airlines exclusively compete based on prices and customer service, so why wouldn’t they want to gain a competitive advantage by implementing new systems. Not only would improved technology improve the air travel experience for us, the customers, but I think it would also make the employees’ jobs run more smoothly as well. Everbody wins, right? Anyways, look forward to reading more of your posts!

  3. kseniapekhtere1 · ·

    Hi Paige, I really enjoyed reading your blog and I found it very interesting (and as the two other girls mentioned something none of us have noticed before). And that’s I think is a big reason why airlines do not invest in upgrading their system. The airline industry in the US is extremely competitive, so they probably choose to invest in things that customers experience directly like plane and airport amenities. The systems are also so complicated given the amount of flights happening everyday, it is probably extremely difficult and expensive to update them without disrupting airline operations. You are definitely right that fast and functionable system should be a concern of airlines. I am just worried that until some big failure happens (like United overbooking scandal airlines) will keep having “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.

  4. It may be a bit of a stretch to say the IT puts passengers at risk. The last fatal plane crash in the US was in 2009 – which is pretty remarkable to someone who grew up in an era with many more crashes. It does question the efficiency of the workers, though, and it’s not uncommon for many companies to prioritize the customer-facing systems while neglecting the employee-facing system (UIS is a great analogy here).

    1. mariaknoerr · ·

      Yes UIS! Seriously how is BC still operating on this archaic system? As a student, I was always annoyed that class registration takes us back in time at least 20 years. Then as I transitioned into a BC employee, I became aware that UIS actually is the backbone of the university’s entire employee and student information systems. It is so interconnected with so many aspects of BC’s operations it seems a Herculean task to upgrade it to current technology. Maybe this is just a case of spending more money where the “customers” can see it. But wouldn’t students be considered the “customers” here? Although students do not need to access UIS outside of the class registration period, it crushes the illusion that BC is up to date with their technology. Once we find out that the systems have not been recently upgraded, as Paige did at the airport, we lose a degree of faith in the overall operation. On the other hand, there is the possibility that we are all over-reacting and that aesthetically pleasing user interfaces are not the most important aspect of our technology.

  5. tylercook95 · ·

    Hi loved the blog post. It is interesting how with such a competitive industry as air travel, the industry hasn’t caught up in a technical sense. I agree with professor Kane’s comment on how there is so much a focus on the customer-facing technology. Is it possible that too many expenditures are being used to make passengers happy and comfy once they are on the flight because the airlines hope that if the flight goes well you will forget the chaos that happened before with delays and changes? I think a lot of times employee facing technology can get outdated because we as consumers generally don’t care. Also with airlines at the mercy of the weather and human error maybe they have found that they shouldn’t invest in technology, as they assume there will be delays and errors no matter what? Maybe self-flying planes will help fix this problem. They could help the airlines fly in tougher weather and stay on track.

  6. thebobbystroup · ·

    If you think airlines have outdated technology, think about government systems. This article (https://www.cnbc.com/2016/05/25/us-military-uses-8-inch-floppy-disks-to-coordinate-nuclear-force-operations.html) mentions how as recent as 2016, we were using floppy disks to coordinate nuclear missiles. Furthermore, even Google, a company we would consider very high-tech uses old computers as their hardware because it’s cheap. As it is often said, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If the airlines’ computers aren’t all Apple iMac Pros, but they all still work, there is no reason for them to spend money just to make them look cool.

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