The past month has been — to borrow a phrase — a flightmare. Summer is generally the busiest travel season of the year, and the Northeast, where I live, has been hit with consecutive weekends of severe thunderstorms, leading to thousands of flight cancellations. Dealing with the fallout of the cancellations is an additional fiasco on top of the already chaotic summer airport scene.
At the risk of sounding like a hack comic — What is the deal with airlines? — I’m going to tell you about my own recent experience and try to explain why it went down in a way that was extra baffling because of technological hiccups: I visited my best friend in Savannah, Ga., for a weekend girls’ trip. Two Sundays ago, I was scheduled to fly back to New York in the afternoon, but my flight was canceled because of “extraordinary” flash flooding.
My airline automatically rebooked me on a Tuesday morning flight to a random airport outside of New York City that’s a 90-minute drive from where I live, and that would have required a long layover in Atlanta. I tried to change that flight on my phone using the airline’s app, so I could get home sooner, but it and the airline’s website kept crashing. I tried calling a customer service number and the wait time was two hours. I went to the airport, but the gate agents told me they couldn’t reach the airline’s booking system, either on their computers or on the phone. I wasn’t a happy camper, but I also felt terrible for those agents as I watched them trying to assist a horde of frustrated travelers, doing their best to stay pleasant and helpful when they didn’t have access to any useful tools.
I accepted that I wasn’t getting back to New York any time soon, but there was another twist: I got myself to a hotel near the airport that appeared to have rooms available. There was a friendly concierge at the front desk who looked at her computer and told me the good news was that she could see there were available rooms; the bad news was that she didn’t have access in the system to book them. I probably gave her a blank stare because she said something like, “I know it’s strange, but you have to do it yourself on your phone.” So I did.
But: I’ve had the internet since I was a middle schooler, and a smartphone for over a decade. As a result, I’m very comfortable doing most internet-y things on my phone. Yet the whole airport-hotel two-step was like being a time traveler who had somehow beamed in from Barack Obama’s first term, because this all felt confusing and unfamiliar. Why were there perfectly nice, perfectly capable humans in front of me who couldn’t actually help me? Why was the technology that’s supposed to make tasks frictionless actually making everything more complicated and annoying, both for employees and for customers?
I called Mehmet Erdem, a professor of hotel operations and technology at the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to ask him to explain what happened to me, and how common it is. Without getting too bogged down in technical details or my specific situation, he said that third-party booking arrangements and glitchy software were likely culprits. For example, many hotels sell some of their rooms to online travel agencies (O.T.A.s) like Expedia and Hotels.com, and so for late bookings, employees at individual hotels may not be able to access presold rooms — and consumers may have to buy the rooms directly from O.T.A.s.
Additionally, Erdem said my experience is part of an overall trend in hospitality toward automation that accelerated during the pandemic. Hotels introduced more self-service options because of social-distancing needs and then kept them in place, in part because of staffing shortages. According to CNN, staffing issues at airlines are also at the root of some of the problems travelers are experiencing this summer.
Earlier this month in The Times, the travel writer Amy Tara Koch described her frustration with the ramped-up use of smart tech in the hotel experience:
Voice-activated lights. Chatbot concierges. QR codes on television sets. Mobile browser or app check-ins. Texting the valet for my car. Don’t even get me started with motorized drapes — attempting to view the ocean in Miami was as difficult as tackling Faulkner. It’s all infuriating. And overwhelming.
Koch finds the whole thing frustrating and impersonal, and wishes she could go back to dealing with people instead of downloading a new app. She’s not the only one. In the past few years, quite a few writers have ranted about QR codes replacing menus and paper tickets to events like baseball games or zoo visits.
This isn’t just frustrating for people who would prefer to talk to an actual person. If smartphones are required for simple consumer transactions, it can cause accessibility and equity issues. As The Washington Post’s Helaine Olen writes in a column making the case against QR codes: “according to the American Civil Liberties Union, 40 percent of people over the age of 65 still lack a smartphone. So do fully one-quarter of those earning less than $30,000 annually. A QR code menu is tantamount to telling the elderly and poor their business isn’t wanted.”
Still, Erdem explained that it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition between higher-tech consumer experiences and human interaction. Ideally, he said, “technology should be used to elevate” the travel experience, not make it worse.
There may be a segment of the market that wants a fully automated experience, like business travelers who are flying quickly in and out of a location and just using their hotel rooms for sleep. But many people want more for their money, or need more in-person support when they travel. There’s a danger that if certain service sectors keep embracing technology without fine-tuning their processes with different kinds of customers in mind, you’ll end up with a hotel experience that feels like going to the airport, Erdem said. “I mean, who is looking forward to flying?” He asked me. “No one, ever,” I replied.
Speaking of, the coda to my story is that I did finally make it home nearly 48 hours after I was originally scheduled to arrive. I wound up having to cancel my original booking and create a new one to get a direct flight, and I had to pay for those two hotel nights because the airline doesn’t reimburse lodging costs for weather-related cancellations. Even so, I feel extremely lucky that I was able to afford this; so many stranded travelers have had to sleep at the airport when faced with these kinds of cancellations and spend days trying to get rebooked. Others have been stuck for hours on overheated planes and have had a horrible time finding their checked baggage. And I’m sure some desperate traveler somewhere has walked up to a hotel check-in desk just as the last available room is getting booked online by someone else.
The moral of this story: My next girls’ trip will be to someplace within driving distance.
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