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Mobile phone to rescue when an airplane trip goes awry

TITLEThe importance of powerUnited has begun to add power outlets to its planes; you'll see a sticker on the seatback on a plane that has it. On my San Francisco-Chicago leg, the plane had in-seat power ports -- that didn't work. Oops. (A request to all airlines with in-seat power: Please show on the information cards where the ports are and how they are oriented; it's impossible to see them when seated, so I always have to fumble around to get the charger's plugs inserted.)
The lack of power is usually not an issue given the long battery life of an iPhone or iPad, but it can be a concern for some Android devices whose batteries tend to drain faster. However, lack of in-seat power can matter even on an iPhone or iPad if you end up traveling for more than eight to 10 hours. My flights and stopover time that day were supposed to be less than that, so I wasn't concerned -- but Mother Nature had other plans for me. This was one of the few times a replaceable battery would have been welcome!
Lesson: Stay charged. Be sure your mobile devices are fully charged when you leave for the airport. If the airport has charging stations or in-seat power ports, use them while waiting to board. Terminal 2 in San Francisco has in-seat power, as do some seats at Boston's Logan and at New Orleans. Many Delta boarding areas in Atlanta have power-charging stands, as do many terminals at Washington's Dulles airport. But Chicago's O'Hare and New York's JFK have almost no power plugs for you. Keep a list of the airports you use and their terminals that do, and use in-seat power on planes that have them. You never know how long you'll be between power charges when you land.
The joy of automatic rebooking in staff-less airportsWhen we approached O'Hare around 3 p.m., the pilot said severe weather was forcing delays in landing, so we circled for more than an hour, before finally touching down about 90 minutes late. My connecting flight had long departed, so I headed to a customer service desk to rebook. As I was walking over, my iPhone lit up with an email from United saying it had automatically rebooked me on a later flight. I went to the United app to get the updated electronic boarding pass and transferred it to the iPhone's Passbook app, which stores all such tickets in one convenient location. (It's not so good at updating live tickets, though; I typically had to refresh the ticket on the United app first.)
Thanks to my use of the mobile app and a smartphone, I got to miss that line of hundreds of displaced travelers who were sure to be stuck for hours before one of the three overworked agents ever got to them.
Staffing levels are so low at airports now that if you need help, you're almost guaranteed not to get it; being able to work the system on your mobile device is critical. I remember one flight last year from Atlanta to Newark where United's ticketing system went down, taking my electronic boarding pass with it. Fortunately, I was already past security, but I could find no one to get me a paper ticket, and of course I had no confirmation number for the kiosk. Because my company's travel agent had booked the trip, the kiosk couldn't find the flight based on a credit card. It goes to show that it makes sense to bring a paper copy of your ticket, especially if you go through airports that have regular weather problems, like Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco, or that have regular FAA holds due to congestion, like New York, Newark, and Washington.
Back to my Chicago experience: When I arrived at the new waiting area for the rebooked flight, the sign changed from the estimated departure time to the words we all dread: "Flight canceled." The rep at the gate had no information and couldn't do anything even if she wanted; gate agents seem to have been stripped of rights to change reservations, at least at United. All she could suggest was a walk to the customer service counter.
Again, within a few minutes, I got a rebooking email on my iPhone -- long line avoided again.
Lesson: Use the airline apps. And be sure you've set up flight notifications.
Lesson: Don't rely on just the apps and notifications. The mobile apps and notifications are a real convenience, but you need to pay attention to other information sources as well. For example, on a trip from Atlanta to New Orleans, I was using my iPad in the waiting area for my flight, and as we got to the boarding time I heard no announcements. I looked at the screen above the gate terminal -- to see it was for a different flight, to Pittsburgh! (I assume the change announcement happened when I ducked away from the gate.) The Delta app had the gate I was at, but the info wasn't right. (I had no choice but to fly Delta on this trip.) I asked the gate agent where my flight was, and he looked it up. I got to the gate as the flight was boarding; 10 minutes more and I would have missed it. Delta's email notification arrived as I was inside the plane getting to my seat -- too late to be useful.
Sometimes, you need peopleBut the new connecting flight was 15 hours later, on the next day, so now I had to figure out where to spend the night. The severe weather in the region was causing all flights to be canceled, so I knew hotels would fill up fast. No way was I going to stand in line for a couple hours in hopes United might put me up -- airlines don't do that any more.
I didn't know the area and didn't want to stay at some place that would require a long taxi or shuttle ride. Rather than use the travel app provided by my company's travel agency, I simply called the travel agency for help from a live person (the contact number was in my email confirmation of the trip). We tend to forget that smartphones let you connect with people, not just apps and websites. I went on to the hotel, had a decent salad and beer, plugged my iPhone and iPad in to my dual-device charger, and went to sleep.
The next morning, I arrived back early at O'Hare for my 9:30 a.m. flight. I iPadded away while in the waiting area. As we got to the boarding time, nothing was happening. The gate agent finally said the flight had left late from Milwaukee and would be an hour late. (The airlines never tell you of delays until it's too late to do anything about them.)
But when the plane landed, she said a part had failed and would need to be replaced. After 30 minutes, she announced the part wasn't at the airport and needed to be ordered. Oh no! I thought this plane would never fly. The gate agent suggested we try to get on standby for another flight leaving in 10 minutes or go to customer service and try to rebook -- she of course couldn't do that for us. A dozen people quickly went to try the standby route, so that seemed pointless.
I called my company's travel agency. But because the flight hadn't been canceled, they couldn't rebook me without a cancellation penalty and paying for the new flight at the exorbitant last-minute rates. Sigh. Off to customer service I went, keeping an eye on my flight's status via my iPhone in case the repair actually happened while standing in line with nearly 20 people ahead of me and just two United agents trying to handle them all. I wondered if I'd be in Chicago for a second day.
Then a third customer service agent came by, handing out a special phone number to call for rebooking help -- not the usual reservations number. I knew what that meant, so I called and got someone quickly. I explained I didn't trust they would fix the broken plane in any reasonable time and had already been delayed in Chicago for a day; thus, I wanted a different flight "on a plane that works." The phone agent struggled through her computer system to rebook me -- the fact that my flight hadn't been canceled meant entering all sorts of overrides on her end -- but she made it happen.
Lesson: Use the smartphone to call people, not just access systems.
Travel with both a cellular tablet and smartphoneBecause the rebooking was so tricky, the phone agent wanted to make sure I actually got the new ticket, which she sent to me via email. She had to ask me for it; even though I'm in United's notification system, it doesn't connect to the rebooking system.
Uh oh. I use Verizon Wireless for my iPhone, and Verizon hasn't implemented the updated CDMA technology that allows simultaneous use of data and voice (nor has Sprint). I couldn't check my email while talking to her, but if I hung up to check and the email didn't come through, I might not get her back.

I asked her to hang on while I got my Pad out from my backpack. My iPad is a cellular version, which every frequent traveler should get -- free Wi-Fi is still a rarity at most airports. As for Android users, Samsung is now beginning to offer cellular versions of its tablets, so that platform is becoming an option for frequent travelers. I checked my email on the iPad; the confirmation came through, so I thanked the phone agent and headed for my new gate. It was now close to noon, and my new flight was scheduled to leave at 3 p.m., so I stopped for lunch and spent the next several hours iPadding.
Out of curiosity, I tracked my original flight; it took off about 40 minutes before my new one, so I could have kept it. But after all the cancelations and delays, I needed to assert some control over my travel.
Lesson: Have a cellular tablet and a smartphone, or use a dual-radio 3G/4G device like many Android smartphones. That way, you can talk and connect to data services simultaneously. The other option is to use AT&T as your carrier, as its GSM-based network supports simultaneous voice and data usage. But AT&T's poor service in my home area makes that no real option for me. Even if I had a dual-radio device, I'd want both a cellular tablet and a smartphone on hand -- you can do so much more on a tablet when sitting for hours on a plane or in a waiting area. Plus, I like using the iPhone for messaging and music playback while I use the iPad for watching videos, reading books, writing, or editing. Believe me, you'll appreciate having the capabilities of both devices at hand.
Tip: Speaking of radio issues in the iPad, I've also found that Verizon's LTE 4G service gets overloaded in crowded locations, and your connection slows to a crawl, no matter what the signal meter shows. It happens regularly when I'm in midtown Manhattan or JFK Airport; I also experienced it at the New Orleans airport last week. The iPad doesn't switch to the 3G network automatically in such cases. But if you disable the LTE radio in the Settings app, the iPad switches to the Verizon 3G network, which seems to have less contention and so operates faster than LTE in these situations. I don't know if Sprint and AT&T services or iPads have a similar issue; add a note below if you know.
The power of being connectedMy day-long adventure at O'Hare -- I finally left O'Hare 23 hours after my original connection was scheduled to depart -- was exceptional. As I've noted in this story, I've experienced travel surprises on other trips. Thanks to their connectedness, your smartphone and tablet can minimize the pain of such airline adventures -- and even help you overcome them.
Make sure you have the right apps loaded and signed up for the right services, keep your devices as charged as possible, and don't forget to reach out to people for help. That way, you too can come out of an unexpectedly convoluted journey in good shape.
This article, "Mobile to the rescue when an airplane trip goes awry," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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