Saturday, June 18, 2011

First Hand Experience of an Airline Shutdown

It's funny, over the years, I've seen numerous times where situations take place where travelers are stranded, but I always looked at them with the idea of "oh well, I feel bad for those people, but there's little I can do about it (shrug!)" and go on my merry way. Well, karma caught up to me and my family yesterday, when we were supposed to be heading to Southern California and a trip to Disneyland for our family as a celebration of my older daughter's graduating from 6th grade (and just an excuse to get away for a weekend).

When we got to the airport, I noticed that there was a huge line of people at the ticket counters, and that all of the ticket counters screens were showing the United logo... just the United logo. Nothing else. Ominous. Oh well, no worries for us, we already had our boarding passes, so we just skipped through security and went to our gate... and then we saw the true situation. The United computer system was down. Worldwide!

From here, I resorted to my numerous coping mechanisms. Gather the kids together, pull out the games and the books, pull out my laptop and start editing audio (believe me, when I'm faced with a wait, I always know I can fall back on that). After about four hours of no updates, though, I realized the truth... we weren't going to Santa Ana tonight. No one was flying anywhere on United. What's more, very few people were even able to make alternative plans or book on other airlines. The capacity for flights is maximized; there's little slack in the system. What's more, our electronic methods of surveillance and security do not know how to cope with this. The few flights that left during the evening were those where planes had already landed before the "glitch" and even they had some loud verbal discussion among flight crews as they "paper charted" their courses. Wow, was that an interesting conversation. The flight attendants were genuinely freaked out about a "paper" calculation of a night time flight over the Rocky Mountains. Honestly, I can't say I entirely blame them, but it punctuated the idea that our way of life is indeed in a way held hostage by our reliance on computer systems.

My youngest daughter kept asking me "Dad, can't you help them fix this?!" My daughter of course knows I'm a tester, but I think she has a little too overarching vision of just how powerful her Daddy is (LOL!). I had to explain to her that the problem wasn't here, it was in Chicago. What's more the problem wasn't just affecting us, it was effecting every airport United services, and the ripple effects of this might take a long time to sort out. She kept asking me questions about what could have happened and what could be done to fix it. It felt frustrating to say "I'm sorry, honey, but I really don't know what's going on." For me, that was the biggest aggravation. I can deal with computer shutdowns. I can deal with delayed flights. Heck, I was even prepared to spend the night in the airport armed with my two laptops and a USB stick loaded with books. All of that I can handle. The most aggravating aspect, though was the state of limbo. No one knew what was happening, and other than an intercom message that said "United is experiencing technical difficulties with their computer system. We are working to resolve the issue. We apologize for the inconvenience!", there would be no information.

As a tester, it's the information that I provide that adds value and allows us to make decisions. My problem was I was stuck in a fog. I couldn't make a decision. What was going to happen? Was my flight cancelled? Would it resume later? Do we need to pull the plug and go home (an option we had because we were still on the home leg of the trip. I can only imagine how fun this must have been for people trying to get back home)? It's not the problem, it's the lack of information following the problem that's the real kicker.

I often tell my kids that having a flexible attitude can help in a lot of negative situations. Being rigid in approach and thinking can cause a lot of stress and frustration. It's common to see people lose it when they are delayed. They don't really have a coping mechanism. They just fume, and I saw some people doing that. I liked Steven Covey's idea from "7 Habits" where he said to "always have a Plan B", or "carry the weather with you". The idea here is that I had no control over the flight to Santa Ana. It simply wasn't going to happen. We found that out at 1:00 AM and then proceeded to go home. We have another chance to try again tonight, and with that, we will see if we can work our game plan again. [Update: we managed to all get on the same flight and are now safely in Anaheim at our hotel, across the street from Disneyland. The airport was able to get back to normal within 18 hours of the system getting back online].

We lost half a day, but in that half a day, my older daughter made three new sketches in her art book, my wife made significant progress in a book she was enjoying, my son explored about every inch of SFO, and I completed a full pass of next week's TWiST for first round edits (the beauty of a captive 7 hour wait ;) ). In short, flexibility is needed, and for testers to make the best of the situations they face, they need to know when to zig, when to zag, and when to chuck everything and focus on something else. In truth, I will have to restructure some of my plans. I will now be taking a day off from work that I hadn't planned for, but I'm working today to help cover for that. I lost a day and delayed a vacation for a day. On the flip side, I can only imagine how many millions of dollars United lost through this ordeal, and how much lingering bad will might be sitting inside of various passengers minds. Will they book United again in the near future? Who knows?! Still, it's interesting to see the reactions of people and how they cope with these situations, and realizing that, even when things really don't go your way, it need not be the end of the world. A little flexibility can go a long way.
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