Air Travel in the Modern Age
I remember the 1st time my mother took us with her to the grocery store where they were using the barcodes and laser scanners. It was quite a change. Instead of the near-deafening cacaphony of cashiers whacking away at mechanical keypads and banging the prices in by hand, there was the sudden pass of the products over the scanner window and the now-familiar beep of the computer successfully reading the code. A quick lookup in a database and the correct item description and price got put onto the paper tape. Techno-magic at both it's finest and most basic. Within a few years, literally everyone was using the system - or something similarly technologically dependent - and it was an accepted part of normal life. Of course, no computer system is without problems and even the best will crash eventually. For those first few years, such an event would generate exasperated sighs from the clerks, a call to the manager, and (after all other recourse was exhausted) a quick rollback to a manual system to make sure the customers were taken care of. After all, the newfangled computer system was the store's problem, not the customers'.
There came a day, however, when the stores stopped training their personnel in how to do things manually. This was a combination of more reliable systems and more desire on the part of the stores to reduce to as near zero as possible the training time required to get an employee out there generating revenue. Whatever the reason, the day came when, as my father & I were trying to buy something at Sears, the clerk gave us an apologetic look and told us he couldn't sell us whatever thingamabob we had come there to buy.
"Why not?" my father asked, honestly not getting the point.
"Well, sir, the computer's down", the clerk replied.
"The computer is down", he repeated. "You mean you can't make a sale at all unless your computer is working?"
"That's right, sir. I'm very sorry."
You'd have thought the man had claimed my father's head had 2 evergreen trees sprouting from it from the look on Dad's face. As we turned to leave Dad remarked to the clerk that Sears was going to have real trouble staying in business if they'd only make sales while the computer was up. As we left, he said to me (between colorful anglo-saxonisms) that he wondered if the clerk was only getting paid while the computer was up. I think I said I doubted it but Dad wasn't really listening. He was so upset at being told he couldn't buy something from the store because their systems were inadequate for the task.
Fast forward to about ((*cough*)) years later and here I am walking into Dulles International Airport preparing to fly out for a business trip. My business? I'm a network engineer. Specifically, I design and implement high-capacity and high-availability networks. Now, what that means in non-marketing speak is that I put together information systems for needs bigger than your average family of 5 and for where those systems can not be not available. Our clients pay us to put systems together that will never force a clerk to turn away a customer who wants to give our clients money. Having worked in the airline industry before, I made sure to get to the airport the full 2 hours prior to departure. You know how they say "you never know what can go wrong"? Well, I do know. So I come early and patronize the airport coffee shop if things surprise me and go well. Coming up to Continental Airlines' ticket counter at Dulles, I am presented with the sight of 4 airline counter clerks all on the telephone with impatient-looking customers standing in front of them. The line's got at least 6 more of those impatient-looking folks. Yes, that's right - the airline's computer system is down.
In today's flying environment, I can hardly think of systems more mission-critical than that of the airlines. It is that system which houses the reservations lists, the actual boarding list, the seat assignments, the international document checklists, the flight status of the incoming aircraft, etc, etc, etc. Not having them built to survive failures of individual components just smacks of negligence to meand I was about to let one of their managers know my feelings on the matter. They got lucky, though - turns out the problem wasn't with Continental, but with Dulles airport. Seems all the airlines' computer systems were having the same issue. I guess the systems all get their feeds back to headquarters though a cental room at Dulles and that room's having the trouble. So we're all working with handwritten boarding passes and hoping the computer guys here at the airport know their stuff.
Hmmm, maybe I should give out a business card.