“Our Computers Don’t Talk to Each Other.” No Kidding!


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In May, my client told me they have a project for me in Tel Aviv. The bad news is I had to fly to get there.

About thirty days before my trip, Expedia sends my itinerary by email. The travel document shows a Delta flight number, and the carrier as “Delta, operated by: Air France.” (The airlines refer to this arrangement as “code sharing,” but a more accurate term is “code unsharing.” I will explain why in a moment.) It contains an Expedia Itinerary Number, an Airline ticket number, a Delta confirmation code, and an Air France confirmation code—all conveniently grouped in the upper left hand corner of the email.

Which company is responsible for delivering an excellent customer experience? I’m not sure, but the memorable scene in The Wizard of Oz in which the Scarecrow at once points to the left and to the right as the best way to reach Oz seems as good a way as any to describe the confusion.

“Code Unshared” Experience #1: My Expedia reservation doesn’t have seat assignments, meal requests, or my Delta SkyMiles number. Easy enough to fix, I think. I go online to make the needed changes. First to Delta’s website, where I enter my SkyMiles number. I use SeatGuru (www.seatguru.com) to help me find the best seats, but Delta’s website stubbornly won’t accept my seat request for the Paris to Tel Aviv leg. Security reasons maybe? The website offers no information.

So I try Air France’s website using their conformation code, and still no luck. Thinking the transaction might be best done by voice, I click around to find the Air France reservation phone number and reach a human after several minutes. “We can’t reserve a seat for you. You’ll have to do that when you check in at Washington Dulles in June,” I’m informed. When I realize that this seemingly-simple transaction has consumed over ninety minutes, involving the resources of (count them) four companies, I settle for a partial win.

“Code Unshared” Experience #2: June 12. My taxi drops me off at the Delta door at Washington Dulles Airport. I stride up to Delta’s self-service check in kiosk and slide my credit card into the reader. The system finds my reservation, but the display indicates that for a boarding pass, I must check in at Air France (recall that I have a Delta flight number). I look down the uncharacteristically empty terminal at Dulles and see about 100 people queued in front of one counter. That’s Air France.

“Code unshared” Experience #3: The check in procedure at Air France goes smoothly, and I make the long walk to Terminal B. As I’m heading up a long escalator, I glance at my seat assignment: 33E. Forging ahead toward the gate, I count on my fingers to “E.” Five! To my horror, I figure out this is not the aisle seat I painstakingly acquired online. It’s in the middle of the middle! I rush to the counter at the gate to get another seat, and to ask what happened. The agent can’t explain, but she kindly accommodates my request and immediately reissues my boarding pass with a better seat.

“Code Unshared” Experience #4: About an hour into the flight, the attendants push the meal carts through the aisles in coach and distribute trays of food to the passengers. As one is about to be dropped onto my tray table, I ask if it’s the vegetarian meal I requested. As if by rote, the flight attendant responds “Sir, you must request those at least twenty-four hours . . .” Cutting him off, I say “I requested the meal last month.” “What is your last name?” he asks. “Rudin,” I say, spelling it, just to make sure. He looks at his computer-generated list and shakes his head. “I’m sorry. We don’t have any record of your request,” he says with finality. With my patience waning, I say “This looks really stupid. Not you—but this whole situation. You can’t get anything right.” I show him the printout of my Expedia email with the four confirmation numbers. “Sometimes our computers don’t talk to each other,” he offers. It’s an unnecessary attempt to explain what is already painfully obvious to a frustrated passenger.

I often hear road warriors share bad airline stories over drinks at the bar the same way cowboys used to tell yarns about the cattle drives around the campfire. But this story isn’t really about airlines. It’s about what happens when businesses “team” for marketing and sales purposes, but don’t put the right operations in place to execute on their promises—both stated and implicit. In the process, high customer expectations slam into voids created by disconnected services and systems. In information technology, website facades and user screens that have no infrastructure behind them are derisively termed “Hollywood Sets,” a metaphor which needs no explanation in terms of the customer experience.

In contrast, a great customer experience can be found in a transaction nobody wants—auto collision repair. A single call to an insurance company or agent creates a claim record that seamlessly flows between the insurance company, body shop, and rental car company. A single version of the information is available to all, and billing and funds transfers occur quickly and easily. Even more remarkable, compared to Delta and Air France, you couldn’t find three business operations more different than insurance, auto repair, and car rental—yet the process integration between the three, along with convenience for the customer, is astounding.

Whether you believe the excellent customer experience is intended—or simply a byproduct of a larger need for insurance companies to control payouts is the subject of another blog. But using that logic, in the name of Tight Security is it unreasonable to expect that even basic passenger information be shared between two carriers? Unfortunately, just the opposite is true.

Part of my work in Tel Aviv on Monday involves analysis of a telecomm business case as a way to help salespeople identify strategic business opportunities and operational gaps. One fact the participants will uncover is that the telecomm firm can’t meet its objectives because it lacks integrated IT systems. I think I’ll invite Expedia, Delta, and Air France to sit in.


  1. Andy, It seems you are telling my story. Unfortunately I booked my wife and kids tickets to India thru expedia/ Air France.
    I was told that I can do online check in before 30 hours. I tried atlest 5 times, when I tried first time my pre-assinged seat was gone that was done during my expedia booking. I took the customer service number (800 237 2747) from Air France website and called them. I get a voice prompt that says “if you are on hold for more than 30 minutes your call will be disconnected” but my call got disconnected after 18 minutes. I tried again, this time after 20 minutes. Next day I tried exactly at 8:00 am when they start, my luck didn’t favor me this time too, I was on hold for 20 minutes and the call got disconnected. Then on frustration I wrote email through website feedback section, this time received a quick response saying “We apologize for any difficulty you may have experienced while attempting to check-in online on the Air France USA website at http://www.airfrance.com/us. Please call Air France Web Support at 1-800-992-3932, and one of our representatives will be happy to assist you.”
    I was the delighted to see the quick response. This time when I called the web support number the voice prompt asked me to call the same old number (800 237 2747) because I did not book from Air France website.

    To cut the story short I could never get hold of anyone on the phone. I have to go the Dulles Airport to check in.
    I don’t know it me or the entire service industry’s Customer Service is being compromised? Last month I had a similar issue In Las Vegas at Circus Circus Hotel.

  2. Thanks, GS. Based on these scenarios, I wonder if airline companies struggle the same way with revenue recognition and funds transfers as travellers do in navigating the convoluted customer service pathways that “partners” create.

    A cynical view says they don’t. The airline CFO knows instantly when funds aren’t posted on time. As for customer service, the reporting links are much more fragmented, and there are no sirens sounded in the executive suite when things break down.

    When passengers don’t receive a decent product, it’s far more detached from management’s concept of profitability than basic revenue accounting.


  3. This is a bit tangential, but I would agree with your assessment of the airline CFO, Andy. When our United flight home from Chicago/O’Hare was canceled last year, the airline gave us vouchers for cab fare to the seedy motel they put us up in. We stood at the head of the cab queue for a half an hour (which was on top of the six hours we stood in line for the vouchers) until we finally found a cab driver who would accept the vouchers.

    He explained that the reason the other cabbies wouldn’t take the vouchers was because the vouchers a) didn’t cover their entire fare and b) had to be redeemed within 24 hours at United’s headquarters. For the drivers to go out of their way to drive to headquarters meant a loss of valuable meter time. And headquarters was completely out of the way of many of their routes.

    So you bet that United was accounting for each voucher (and probably hoping they wouldn’t have to reimburse many of the drivers). But its strict accounting stance was creating a horrible experience for passengers.

    Gwynne Young, Managing Editor, CustomerThink


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