Wednesday, June 21, 2006

whom to trust? (or: what's our ETD?)

Ending my stay at the Identity Mashup conference in Cambridge, I found it more than a little ironic that I was confronted head-on by the trust issue as I sat contemplating when to leave for the airport for my flight back to SFO.

My flight was scheduled to depart at 6:11pm from Logan airport. The forecast called for a wicked band of thunderstorms to come screaming through the area in the late afternoon. As the storms moved west to east, the entire Eastern Seaboard could domino through a series of longer delays as equipment got stranded on the tarmacs of IAD, DCA, EWR, LGA, etc. A witches' brew for spending hours trapped at the terminal.

Cue thunder and a darkening sky outside the classroom, and it was time to consult the flight status web sites to see what they'd say. That's right, sites. I like to triangulate in on the correct data, as I've been burned by relying on the airline to tell me everything's peachy when in reality it's going to hell in a handbasket. I don't think I'm the only one they've done this to, so maybe you know what I'm talking about.

So, at 3:45pm, sitting in Austin Hall at Harvard, I consulted three different web sites to try to learn when United flight 179 would really depart:
  • flight status widget- Scheduled departure time: 6:11pm. Estimated departure time: 6:11pm. It would appear the thunderstorms would be having no effect on the United schedule out of Boston.
  • FAA's Flight Delay Information System - There's weather-related delays of 15 minutes for arriving planes and 30 minutes for departing planes out of BOS. No other East Coast airports are affected, so it looks as if the dominoes aren't in place to cause a really long delay, but why isn't the United site showing any sign of this? The FAA simply links to the United site to look up flight-specific info, so that's no help.
  • The Weather Channel's Business Traveler Flight Tracker - The weather radar shows a wall of red descending upon the Boston metro area, and a the flight tracker shows the expected scheduled departure time of 6:11pm yet an estimated departure time of 9:27pm. A three hour delay? Yikes.
Whom to trust?

It seems it's in United's best interest to not show a delay so folks won't scamper to other flights. (Even though I've signed up for their "EasyUpdate" service that sends a text message to my phone should my flight status change, they seem to wait to send notices of delayed departures to me until after I'm standing in the security line at the airport. The worst of these times was when I was flying from Vegas to SFO and instead of finding out about the four hour departure delay while I was still on the Strip and near the poker tables, I got the text message as I was taking my shoes off at the scanner. Grrrr.)

For better or worse, I think the FAA doesn't have any reason to report anything but the facts (ma'am). And the Weather Channel has always been so very good at forecasting events in the future with great accuracy (not!), but still that three hour delay is one heck of an outlier here.

I check to see who's feeding the Weather Channel their flights status info and it turns out the data's coming in from FlyteComm (what a clever name!). Looking up the status of flight 179 on the FlyteComm site directly shows no difference from what's on, so there's no disconnect there.

The thought of spending three hours at Logan doesn't sit well with me. I'd rather spend the time observing the Code and Law panel and then going to the cocktails and demos event.

But what if it turns out United isn't lying? I check to see what the cost of relying on FlyteComm's data instead of United's by looking for the next departing flight to SFO from BOS. It's at 6:50am Wednesday morning. Ouch, it's an overnight penalty if I show up late for a flight that left on time.

After much gnashing of teeth, I decide spending three hours at Logan is a much better proposition than staying the night at Logan.

So I arrive at the airport in plenty of time to take off as scheduled: at 6:11pm.

The big lesson I've learned is to treat the flight tracker info on the site (powered by FlyteComm!) like I do any weather forecast: with great suspicion bordering on amusement as long as I don't get soaked.

While FlyteComm is launching an app for mobile flight status checking, I won't be using it. The data is only convenient if it's accurate, at least to me.

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