Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Lost Bags

I am sure I don't want to compete with Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady in the travel disruption stakes ...

... but the airlines have managed to lose my bag on three consecutive flights home from the USA. Once from Las Vegas via Los Angeles, and twice from St Louis via Chicago.

Is this a record? And what's it got to do with the service-oriented business?

On two of the three occasions, the problem was a tight connection. Well it wasn't a tight connection when I checked in, but when I got to the gate for the first leg I discovered that the flight was seriously delayed. Helpful ground staff managed to get me onto a different flight on both occasions, in one case as the doors were closing, but of course the bag was already checked in for the delayed flight. So hardly a surprise that the bag got left behind.

Trying to outwit the airlines and their propensity for delay, I booked an extremely long connection at Chicago so that there was no chance of missing my connection. But what about my bag joining me on the same flight? Perhaps having too much time for a process seems to leave room for a different class of error.

Apart from the slight uncertainty about whether and when, it's quite nice not to have to carry a heavy bag home from the airport, and have someone deliver it to you door instead. I'm getting quite used to the procedure.

But I got some interesting glimpses of what happens when a complicated process across multiple organizations goes wrong.

1. Collaboration failures (and consequent mistrust) between airlines. When there is an alliance between two airlines, it's always the other airline's fault when something goes wrong. An employee of airline A couldn't change the status of my ticket on airline B's system; an employee of airline B rolled his eyes when I said that I had flown with airline A for the first part of my journey.

2. Supply chain visibility and trust. When I got onto one plane, I asked whether my bag was on the same flight. The ground staff looked up the tag on the computer and assured me it was. At the other end, a customer service rep said this information might have been unreliable. (Perhaps the ground staff had lied to me in order to get me onto the plane without a fuss - the lost bag would then be someone else's problem.)

3. The baggage recovery system works after a fashion, but it's highly inefficient. It surely can't be economic to have a delivery van to take bags to passengers.

4. Airline schedules are generally designed around hubs. So there are lots of connecting flights. But connections get delayed, and bags get lost. This must surely affect the overall economics of the hub-and-spoke model of air travel.

I might add some more notes later ...

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