No names, no pack-drill

[Company policy, and contractual obligations, mean that I have to conceal a few details. Never mind – the message will be clear.]

I’ve always thought that, next to banking, the most mature kind of applications software was in airline ticketing. Like many of you, I’ve visited airline websites and seen the fare for a particular flight change from minute to minute , often quite dramatically. I’ve read about the principles of “yield management”, and the anecdotes of how one passenger winds up paying a thousand dollars more than another in the same class on the same flight. And I’ve seen the commercials for the various companies that promise to find you the cheapest flights, hotels, cars, and so forth. Clearly there’s some powerful software at work here: indeed were it not for the fact that “Artificial Intelligence” has come to mean “that which we don’t know how to do yet”, this would seem to qualify.

And yet…

Hard on the heels of my recent trip to Colorado, I now have to visit California for a week. I prepared a budgetary estimate, filled out a travel request, received an authorization number, and sat down to book the travel. (Those of you still living in the 1980’s might imagine that my admin or secretary would do this. You can go back to sleep now.) Like most large companies, Sun has contracted with a Large Travel Service Company That Cannot Be Named so that employees can book their own travel through an exquisitely-customized on-line portal.

I logged in, and selected the page for travel planning. (Jakob Nielsen would love this page; it violates almost all of his design guidelines.) I entered the dates of my outbound and return travel, as well as the origin and destination airports. The system offers two ways of planning air travel: choosing each flight individually, or configuring complete round-trip itineraries. I knew that whatever I did the system would follow up by attempting to find a cheaper alternative, so I asked for complete itineraries, sorted by price.

After thinking about it for nearly a minute, the system offered me several choices. Oddly, the cheapest of these wasn’t a particularly good fit with my chosen travel times, and it was several hundred dollars more than what I’ve paid for my last few trips from BOS to SFO. (This also meant that it was well above the budgetary estimate that I’d provided. Oops.) I backtracked to the flight search page, and tried searching for individual flights. I found a pair of flights that looked like the cheapest (though you can’t tell for sure until you’ve chosen), and was $50 less than I’d budgeted. Bingo! But wait! “Your choice violates policy: a cheaper alternative was not chosen.” But the [expletive deleted] system refused to tell me what the cheaper alternative might be!!. After trying several times to guess what might make it happy (without once finding a cheaper combination), I chose an override option and completed my itinerary. I’m not going to go into the “Fatal resource error” during my hotel search; let’s just say that the whole procedure took me nearly an hour, including substantial duplicate data entry.

So to my divisional controller: if I spent a couple of dollars more than I should on the flight, I’m sorry. I’d love to know how I could have done better, though if you factor in the cost of my time…. And to the Large Travel Service Company That Cannot Be Named: evolve or die. Outsourcing complexity to patients and providers may be an odious but winning strategy for managed care companies, but a travel agent can be replaced in a mouse-click. As for whether this violates any blogging policy, I can’t imagine that it does. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this kind of thing affects every large company. As Jonathan has discussed in his blog, the best measure of quality is the customer recommendation index. It’s worth remembering that this applies to our suppliers as well.

And as for the trip itself, I’m going to be travelling on an airline that I’ve never used before! But that’s the subject of another blog entry. Now, has anyone got any cheap A.I. software that they want to unload?