AirTran's missed technology opportunities

Let me start by saying that I love AirTran as an airline.  On a recent trip from Atlanta to New Orleans, my flight arrived early in BOTH directions.  Not an easy feat, and certainly a reason they are currently atop the annual Airline Quality Ratings published by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Like most airlines, AirTran sends timely email notifications of special fares, and offers the ability to check-in online or at a kiosk.  When I went to check-in at a New Orleans airport kiosk, I encountered a problem that prevented me from printing my boarding pass.  After two tries, the kiosk finished by spitting out this piece of paper:

I have received a “Counter Assistance Ticket” from the kiosk.  What do you see that’s broken here?  Here’s what I see:

1)  The first sentence tells me what to do with the ticket; take it to a counter agent to help finish my check-in.  OK, I can accept that some people might need explicit instructions, so we can let this part go.

2) I take my ticket to the counter, and hand it to the customer service agent.  I proudly state that I have a “hostfail” with a reference number of NGDMJE, and hand it to her.  She takes the ticket from me, opens up a three-ring binder on her counter, and cross-references the error.

Except that didn’t happen.

She is a customer service representative, not an engineer, and has no idea what “hostfail” means.  She cannot use the ticket to help me.  Instead, she starts fresh by asking for my last name and destination.

Its clear that this error was recorded on some internal AirTran system with a reference number that could be used to directly reference (and presumably fix) it. So the ticket doesn’t help her and it doesn’t help me.  Why print it at all?  Why complicate a process and incur the expense of printing paper?  In an industry with such tight margins, I can only imagine how much money AirTran is throwing away each day with these printings.

2)  getBooking(Pricing) failed.   The security-minded part of me sees that AirTran has now revealed a method from its code, in addition to the likely hostname of the kiosk itself:  MSY-IKSKTKT04.  This is an unnecessary leakage of infrastructure information.

3)  System.OutOfMemoryException also tells me, by its syntax, that this kiosk is probably running on .NET technology. It also tells me that there is a disconnect somewhere in AirTran’s QA function which has enabled a memory leak to surface.

All this bothered me, and I decided to use Twitter to tell AirTran about it.  Many companies use Twitter for customer service functions today, and I expected nothing different.  Here’s what I saw on AirTran’s twitter page:

One tweet.  One.  From almost a full year ago.  And they have accrued 2, 612 followers during that time.  What company would not love to have almost three thousand customers waiting to interact with them?  By contrast, Delta has 744 followers, and has tweeted 58 times.

AirTran has almost four times the amount of followers that Delta has, but doesn’t use them.  Its only tweet was a version of “Hello, world” followed by a year of silence.  This is clearly a missed opportunity for AirTran to connect with its customers.

In the two touches I made to their technology stack, I saw problems AirTran could easily fix to make themselves friendlier and more useful to travelers.  Will they?

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