I just got back from a week long trip to the west coast. The main purpose of the trip was to present our paper at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC), which is one of the top conferences in semiconductor where Intel, AMD and IBM present their state-of-the-art processors. I had been to this conference before without a paper, but this was the first time to present my work. It was a totally different feeling and I was very excited during the entire conference. I was also fortunate to be invited to give talks at SoC companies including Qualcomm, Apple, Nvidia and Marvell during my trip. I received invaluable feedback from great audiences, and had so many interesting conversations with brilliant people. I enjoyed the trip so much and came back energized enough to work hard on another chip =)

I might have another post on things I learned from the trip, but this post is going to be about the dreadful flight experiences I went through during the trip. I flied three times — Boston -> SFO (United), SFO -> San Diego (Virgin), San Diego -> Boston (Jetblue) — and all three flights were delayed by over an hour. The BOS -> SFO flight departed on time, but took 1.5 hours longer to get to SF than scheduled due to strong headwinds. The SFO -> San Diego flight was a short 1.5 hour flight, but was delayed by 1.5 hours! Lastly, the flight back to Boston from San Diego first got delayed, but when I showed up at the gate on time, no one was there. It turned out that there was no plane leaving from San Diego, so everyone had to hop on a shuttle and go to Long Beach Airport. I was so tired after my week-long trip that I was more than ready to fall asleep on the red-eye flight, but instead I had to endure a 2-hour bumpy shuttle ride to Long Beach, go through security again, and walk through a rainstorm before finally getting on-board to sleep.

I was just so amazed how every single flight could be so messed up like this. Maybe it was just bad luck to blame. Maybe I was carrying bad weather all the way from Boston to cause the delays. Maybe three is too small of a sample size to make any definite judgement. Still, I just couldn’t understand how these airlines could stay in business with these poor services. Maybe every single airline in the US have terrible service. Maybe that’s why they can all stay in business even when they torture their customers, providing them with experiences they never want to go through again. I don’t know much about how the airline industry works, but I just feel there should be a fairly simple solution using high-tech to solve these problems.

This is a slightly different story that my wife and I went through when we were coming back from vacation in Chile. We were at Santiago International Airport to catch an American Airline flight back to the US. We arrived 3 hours in advance, but there was already a very long ticketing line. It turned out that there were 2 other AA flights with hundreds of passengers leaving at pretty much the same time. Hundreds of people stayed in line waiting for hours. Although we got there 3 hours before departure, we barely made it to our flight. Okay, I can stay in line if there’s a lot of people. What was really annoying? There were a bunch of self-ticketing machines lying around with no one using them. For some reason, the machines required a “ticket number” that was not written in our priceline itineraries. You couldn’t get your ticket from the machine with your passport or itinerary. I wonder how many people actually have their “ticket number” that’s not even printed on your priceline itinerary. It seemed not many people had that number in hand given that almost no one was using the machines.

I really couldn’t understand why they placed the machine there in the first place if no one could use them. I couldn’t understand why they required these weird numbers for the machines, while they required only passports to be shown when they handed out tickets in person. If the long lines were inevitable even with the machines, they could have used a simple machine spitting out numbers for customers. If your number shows up on a LED screen, you could show up to receive your ticket. This kind of simple solution could prevent everyone from standing in line for hours dragging around their luggage, and instead allow them to relax at a cafe waiting for their number to show up on the big screen. It just seemed like airlines had no motivation to come up with solutions to comfort their customers.

I had a similar experience at Hertz renting a car during my trip to SF (OK this is the last example of a bad experience). There were a bunch of people on the line, maybe because it was Friday of a long weekend. People were waiting over an hour in average to get their cars, but Hertz employees kept on leaving for lunch, making the waiting time even longer and longer. The more annoying part was, again, there were a bunch of self-sevice machines that didn’t work. Hertz was running short on mid-size cars and had to upgrade those who reserved mid-size to higher-end vehicles. The machines weren’t smart enough to do that and kept on refusing to give cars to any customer who reserved a mid-sized car. Again, a very simple high-tech (maybe not even high-tech) solution could have made the machine smarter, and could have slashed the waiting time for customers by a tremendous amount.

How can we force these companies to change? Is there a way to make them care more about their own customers? I think nothing will change unless a brand new company shows up with much better customer service, better enough to generate an exodus of customers from existing companies with crappy services. I thought Virgin, Jetblue and Southwest could be those type of companies, but it seems that’s not the case or they aren’t successful enough yet. Maybe Zipcar is that company in the car rental industry.

New companies come up with fresh ideas to compete with existing giants. This competition is key to innovation in the industry as a whole, and this is what benefits customers. Hope there’s enough competition, enough to motivate traditional industries like airlines and rental-cars to change their quality of service. Glad that I don’t need to travel too often.