Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Ripple Effect

As I sat at the airport in San Francisco yesterday, waiting for a flight to take me to New Orleans by way of Houston, I noticed that the plane that we were supposed to be taking was just letting people off at the time that we were supposed to start boarding. I can live with an hour delay when I have a straight flight, but it always makes me nervous whenever I have another flight to catch. Sure enough, that delay stretched into an hour delay for our plane's departure, and that hour delay made it impossible to catch my connecting flight.

What follows is the wonderful comedy of errors that tries to get us onto other flights, the marvelous and completely aggravating "standby" system, especially when the plane that's supposed to be used for the flight has to be changed and downgraded to a smaller plane, making it nearly impossible for anyone to fly standby. The net result was that the only guaranteed flight I could book was the next morning. I'm now in the boarding area waiting for that flight to board, after having spent the night lying on the floor at the Houston Intercontinental Airport. By all accounts, it looks to be on time.

You might stop to think that I'm complaining about all of this. In a way, sure, I'm bummed that an issue with a control system put a plane in a holding pattern that triggered a chain reaction of events that has now caused me to be almost 12 hours delayed from arriving where I needed to be when I needed to be there. At the same time, I step back and think how amazing it is that these systems that we take for granted every day are really quite fragile, and they are really designed so that there is almost no slack in the system. When things go right, it's smooth and painless, relatively speaking, and we think little about all that goes on. It only takes a slight hiccup, though, to completely throw out of whack our plans and our approaches.

The most frustrating aspects of these delays is that, so often, we get no information about these delays, and we only find out our situation when it's to late to do anything about it. What could I have done? Once I was on the tarmac, I couldn't have gotten off the plane, but I could have at least had a shot at trying to see if I could book a later flight. That becomes much less likely when you are running across the terminal, desperately trying to catch a flight you just missed by 8 minutes, and then trying to get onto another flight, where the chance of any slack in the system has been totally used up or worse, caused to be delayed because of the ripple effect of another delay. That's the real lesson in a lot of this. I can deal with having to sleep in an airport terminal, that doesn't bother me. I can deal with having to take a later flight. It's a bummer that the business I need to conduct will be delayed by a few hours, but overall, I can communicate that. It's when the communication from those impeding our progress or ability to make a decision don't talk to us or share what's going on that it gets frustrating.

Bad news never gets better as time progresses. The blow won't be softened with time. If a delay is imminent, please let us know as soon as you know. If it's bad news, we can take it. If it's a delay, we can adjust, but we can't do much if we don't know what's going on.

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