Computers Win Out Over Human Judgment

September 23, 2010

in Airport Stories

I had a flight booked on Continental from Burlington, Vt to Las Vegas on July 27 for a conference starting July 28. My flight was scheduled to leave at 1:15 on July 27. At 11am I tried to print out a boarding pass online and could not. I checked the flight status and found the plane was leaving late (est 1:48) because of waiting for aircraft. The late departure was going to possibly impact my connection in Newark to Las Vegas. I tried to print my boarding pass again and noticed it said no e-ticket was available so I’d have to call reservations. I had changed my seat the night before, so my reservation had been there. Another message said that my itinerary had changed.

I called reservations and waited 5-10 minutes listening to wonderful announcements about Continental and its services. A very nice person then talked to me and told me that my departure plane would be late and I might not make it to Newark in time to make the connecting flight. They were holding a spot for me on the second flight, and since I had spots on two flights, the boarding passes could not be accessed electronically. They said I would get them when I checked in at the airport.

Since the flight was leaving late, I delayed my departure for the airport. I checked the flight status just before I left and the flight was still estimated to be leaving at 1:48. I arrived at the Continental ticker counter at 1:05. The counter person alerted me that the flight was restricted since it was now too close to departure time. I asked what “restricted” meant. He answered “You’re late.” I said the flight was not leaving until 1:48. He said that might be so, but check-in time was based on the 1:15 departure time. “But it isn’t leaving until 1:48” I said. I found out that I was still considered late because time was based on the scheduled departure time.

“What good is the check flight status information then?” He told me it did not mean you could come to the airport late. “What if the information said my flight was delayed by 2 hours? Would I still need to be here on time?”

“That is a different situation. In this situation, you are late.”

I found out the plane would not arrive until 1:25, board about 1:35 and take off at 1:45. It was still about 1:10.

“So the was plane is still on its way, there is a seat available for me, but I cannot be checked in?” I asked.

“The computer has restricted check-in, there is nothing we can do about it.”

Then I asked if I could have gotten on the plane still if I had a boarding pass. I was told “yes,” but that I couldn’t print a boarding pass because the flight was going to be late and it created a conflict with my connecting flight.

I do believe the attendant was operating within the bounds of his job, and he was a pleasant as he could be. I might not be recreating the conversations verbatim, but the spirit of it was that I was wrong for being late and nothing could be done about it. The absurdity that the plane wasn’t there yet and I could, in fact, easily join the group of passengers waiting did not seem to be apparent to the counter person. I do believe there was nothing he could do about it. He very nicely placed me on a flight for very early the next day. I had to find a way home and miss half a day of the conference the next day, and my wife had to be up to drive me to the airport at 4am.

The real disturbing part is is that it sounds like there is no opportunity for human judgment. Just a few years ago, as long as there was time to get to the plane prior to boarding, you could check-in. Or they would call the gate to find out the status. I understand about the need to have people at the airport prior to boarding. But the plane wasn’t there yet!! The plane did not leave until 1:52.

In checking the rules on Continental’s web site, I did find that most guidelines use the phrase “prior to the scheduled departure.” On other airlines, it usually reads prior to departure or the airline may refuse boarding if you are not checked in and ticketed X minutes before the scheduled departure time. This hard and fast policy may be a distinctive feature of Continental airlines. I really thought the schedule had changed since the message said my itinerary changed.

The status page should have additional information indicating that you still need to check-in prior to a certain time, even if your plane is late. And certainly, the people at the counter and gate should be able to exercise their judgment in letting people on a flight. And they need to be given their brains back so they can make those judgments.

I teach computer systems and information security courses. The only benefit of this situation is that it provides a great case study for classes.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

MJ September 24, 2010 at 3:08 am

How is this a flight from hell, it was your fault for checking in late.


JC September 24, 2010 at 3:13 am

OP is an idiot. Arriving at 1:05 even for a scheduled 1:48 departure is plain stupid.


Geesh April 16, 2011 at 9:37 am

Wow, what an intelligent post. (End of Sarcasm)


Ron September 24, 2010 at 3:50 am

Agreed–you're late and don't expect the agent to make accommodations for you. When notices are sent out for a late flight, it specifically tells you (for Continental) that you are nevertheless required to be there at the check in time required for the originally scheduled flight departure. There are times when they are able to move up the departure time. Checking in 35 minutes ahead of time is just plain asinine.


Les September 25, 2010 at 8:09 am

I will take exception to the first three commenters and say that any paid customer who has arrived in time to make a flight should be allowed to board. As far as computers are concerned, computers only the implement the policies that the powers-that-be tell them to implement, assuming responsible design/testing/debugging.


Ron September 25, 2010 at 12:45 pm

If he was in time for the flight I would agree. But he wasn't. You can't expect the flight to discontinue the pre-flight checks, security checks, and all the other rigamarole they need to do prior to the flight just to accommodate a single passenger. They have to shut the door to do these things and to ensure they are able to leave the gate at the appointed time. He didn't arrive before the door was closed–had he been there at the required time, he wouldn't have had an issue. Please don't forget he expected to get on a flight when arriving at the airport no more than 35 minutes ahead of time. No dice, but thanks for playing.


Geesh April 16, 2011 at 9:36 am

So, even though the plane had not arrived at the airport yet, the airline workers had managed to do all of the pre-flight work? I forgot that this is imagination land. At the airport I use most often, I can park, check in, go through security, and be at the gate in 10 minutes. No dice, but thanks for playing.


Clare September 25, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Most airlines recommend you arrive at the airport a minimum of 90 minutes before your flight. Notice, I said minimum. Most people allow more time than that to get through security, long lines, etc.

You can't fault the airline employee because you arrived too late.


Dina September 26, 2010 at 1:31 pm

And this is why you always read your terms of carriage.


An African Nomad September 28, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Ok lads, to be fair, anyone who arrives at a normal airport 90 minutes before a domestic flight obviously doesn't travel much. There is no point arriving before 60 minutes if you have luggage and 45 if you don't. If you don't know if the airport has premium bypass lanes for security you might add 15 but seriously, 90 minutes? Multiply that by 60 flights a year and you are writing off a week's worth of productivity sitting in uncomfortable plastic chairs.

An African Nomad temporarily in South Florida


Adam September 28, 2010 at 5:19 pm

You must not fly often? Because for years it's been common knowledge to check-in at least an hour before departure. In recent years, it's even been recommended 1.5 hours minimum. They usually close the gate ten minutes before departure, and you still would have had to go through security, as well as your bags. Then they'd have to be sorted and brought out to the plane, and calculated into the plane's weight and balance paperwork that has to be sent to the pilot. A half hour is too little time. Sorry, but this was your own fault. Should have gotten there at least an hour before. Now you'll know for next time.


Business Traveller April 24, 2011 at 9:52 pm

I agree in part with African Nomad, at least on the timing I rarely arrive more than 60 minutes before a domestic departure. However, this guy KNEW he was having boarding pass issues and should have allowed plenty of time for that. There is also the point that it is possible that the delay, especially a short one as this was, would be adjusted and leave earlier than the announced delay. Finally, showing up 35 minutes ahead is just plan dumb regardless of any other consideration. All you need is to have a bad security line or check in line and you are toast.


lnelson1218 July 18, 2011 at 8:19 am

Granted most of the time that 90 minutes before the flight is not needed. However, at the larger US airports at their "rush hours" you really do not have as much time as you think. Long security lines. I have been at counter when some of the staff decide that regardless how long the line is, it is time for their break/time to go home and leave without a replacement coming in which adds waiting times. Machines decide not to work. Changes of gate, etc.


CHL July 19, 2012 at 8:47 am

I understand what he's saying. Today, it's all "Computer says no." and when who ask them "but what do YOU think, with your brain?", their answer will be "Computer says nooooo…."


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