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Email and Text Alerts from Airlines: Usually Misleading, Often Wrong

Many business travelers have signed up for email alerts or text alerts on their smartphones from airlines and online travel agencies. If a flight is late, or a gate has changed, or worse, if a flight has canceled, that news is rocketed onto Blackberry and iPhone screens. But what happens if the info being instantly spread is wrong?

This isn't a story about a conspiracy to dump on business travelers or bad intentions. It's a glaring example of what happens when technology takes precedence over common sense or a conversation.

Take the case of a recent flight from Dallas to Pensacola. I arrived at Dallas-Fort Worth from Madrid around 5 pm and was to connect to a short flight to Florida at 8:15 pm. The departure board showed the flight was on time. Of course, following my own advice, I never believe a single item displayed on departure boards. Instead I went to the gate and asked the agent. She told me the flight was on time, but she was also relying on the same departure board information.

I then asked her the magic words: where is the aircraft assigned to my flight?
She called and found out it was in Houston. While the plane was scheduled to leave from Houston, it hadn't even arrived in Houston yet. Not a good sign, especially since my flight to Pensacola was the last flight of the day.

There was an 8 p.m. flight to nearby Fort Walton Beach. A quick check -- and conversation -- with an airline counter agent revealed that the flight would be delayed until 9 p.m. because the plane itself hadn't yet arrived in Dallas. Again, the departure board showed it as on time.

Then, the first signs of real trouble. At 7:40 p.m., about the time I was scheduled to board the 8:15 p.m. flight, I received an electronic notification it was leaving at 8:30 p.m. A 15-minute delay would have been tolerable.

But something told me that this information was, at best, incomplete. Another conversation revealed that while my plane had actually landed in Houston, it had not yet even pushed back from the gate there for the flight to Dallas. Translation: The earliest the plane could even land in Dallas was 9 p.m., so the electronic notification was wrong by at least 45 minutes.

Of course, the departure board still insisted the flight on time.

Then i received three additional electronic updates -- each telling me the departure gate had changed three separate times, but still showing the departure time of 8:30 p.m. By this time it was already 8 p.m. and the aircraft had still not left Houston.

A 8:45 p.m. I received the fifth electronic update that the plane would leave Dallas at 10:10 p.m. Really? Another check revealed the aircraft had STILL not left Houston.

At this point my options were quickly evaporating. I tried to get a seat on the Fort Walton Beach flight. but it was sold out, and according to the departure board, it had already left Dallas -- a physical impossibility since the aircraft had not even landed in Dallas yet.

Assessing Crew Availability
What's the point of sending electronic updates that are inaccurate and misleading to begin with? Why not just tell the truth?

Ultimately, my plane did land in Dallas. But the next piece of information was disconcerting as well. Because of the lateness of the flight, and because the crew taking me to Pensacola was the same crew that flew the plane in from Houston, it became an issue of flight-crew duty time.

Would the crew become illegal between the time the plane landed in Dallas and the time we took off for Pensacola?

That also required a conversation with a gate agent, who had to call someone else for an answer. Luckily we had about an hour of cushion time, and if they could turn the plane quickly we could leave.

Thankfully, that's what the ground crew did in Dallas that night. We left the terminal more than two hours late and arrived in Pensacola just before midnight. And the funniest part? At 10:30 p.m., as we pushed back from the gate I received yet another electronic notification from the airline that my flight would be leaving at 10:10 p.m.

Lessons Learned
At least the airline was batting a thousand. Every single electronic notification was wrong, and in some cases, misleading. Each flight departure time was wrong, and in some cases, late. The departure gate information and all the gate switches? In the end, the gate remained the original gate, so that information was wrong as well.

Business travelers can either embrace technology and be victimized by fast, but incorrect information, or the smart business travelers can insist on having a conversation and getting real-time, accurate information.

I remember the Ronald Reagan quote about detente with the Soviets -- trust, but verify. In this case, I'd actually go further -- don't trust, and verify twice with a human being. The news might not be pleasant, but at least you know where you stand, and you have a much better chance of switching to plan B or C. Because, as any business traveler knows, plan A usually doesn't work.

What's your preferred method of getting real-time information when you travel?

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Photo credit: Flickr user markhillary