Dark Ages

Open the airplane door, HAL.

There’s a fascinating story about American Airlines and its innovative use of technology in Dallas' Only Daily this weekend. It’s nothing short of a “revolution,” says writer Terry Maxon. Mechanics are using laptops and “a wireless network that can call up repair manuals, parts lists, airplane records and other information instantly” to make mechanical repairs turnarounds faster.

Maxon quotes Gary Carlson, maintenance supervisor: “Planes are waiting at the gate, people are on it, and you've got to do stuff. We can turn a 45-minute wait into 10 or 15 minutes." “American is changing out the flight operations system and is early in the process of upgrading the passenger services system. It is working on changes to the frequent-flier system,” Maxon writes. “To handle the higher level of computerization, American replaced its network, including all the front-end computers, and put in higher bandwidth to carry data, pictures and graphics.” Interesting, but I got a great glimpse of the problems of dependence on technology while flying back to Dallas from the airport in Birmingham, Alabama, on Saturday, the day before.

For once, I was two hours early for my flight. I was punching my information into a self-service check-in kiosk when the terminal’s lights flashed bright, then cut off, oh so briefly. The kiosk went dark then came back with the Windows blue screen that says all systems are down. Thirty minutes later, systems were still down.

An hour later, systems were still down and dozens of puzzled flyers headed to Dallas and Chicago were standing behind me with no idea of what was going on. The folks at the ticket counter hadn’t told them. I only knew because I had been standing there when the power surged.

The poor American employees manning the counter had no idea what to do. A young man kept fiddling with the kiosks to no avail. There was no backup plan. We were inching closer and closer to the departure time and still no computers.

Someone explained that we couldn’t board without computerized boarding passes and if the flight was canceled, well, we’d be in Birmingham overnight. On our own dime, because see, American only pays for your hotel room if there’s a mechanical problem with the AIRPLANE.

Finally, it occurred to someone that they could write boarding passes by hand. Like the old days. The employees got a quick tutorial in filling them out. I was lucky. I had my e-ticket in hand and I was at the front of the line. I zipped through security with the TSA personnel looking at my hand-written boarding pass like it was a relic of the 1950s.

My flight arrived in Dallas only two hours late. But when I saw the story in Sunday’s paper about American’s innovative use of technology, well, I had to laugh. While I whiled away the time on my laptop using the Birmingham airport’s wi-fi system, American Airlines’ counter agents were back in the dark ages, with pens and paper. --Glenna Whitley

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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