Tag Archives: airline

My War On ATM Spam and Other Annoyances

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(This is a copy of my weekly syndicated column)

You really don’t need to thank me, but I think you should know that for the past 10 years I’ve been fighting a lonely battle on your behalf. I’ve been taking on mighty corporations to rid the world of spam.

Not the spam you’re familiar with. Email spam is still around, it’s just not in your inbox, for the most part. Filters do a great job of keeping it out.

I’m talking about more serious things, like eye spam, cabin spam, hand spam,  counter spam and now, my most recent campaign, ATM spam.

Now there’s a possibility you might not have heard of these terms. Mainly because I made most of them up. But you’ll surely have experienced their nefarious effects.

Eye spam is when something is put in front of your face and you can’t escape from it. Like ads for other movies on DVDs or in cinemas that you can’t skip. Cabin spam is when flight attendants wake you from your post-prandial or takeoff slumber to remind you that you’re flying their airline, they hope you have a pleasant flight and there’s lots of duty free rubbish you wouldn’t otherwise consider buying wending its way down the aisle right now.

Then there’s hand-spam: handouts on sidewalks that you have to swerve into oncoming pedestrian traffic to avoid. Counter spam is when you buy something and the assistant tries to sell you something else as well. “Would you like a limited edition pickled Easter Bunny with radioactive ears with that?”

My rearguard action against this is to say “if it’s free. If it’s not, then you have given me pause for thought. Is my purchase really necessary, if you feel it necessary to offer me more? Is it a good deal for me? No, I think I’ll cancel the whole transaction, so you and your bosses may consider the time you’re costing me by trying to offload stuff on me I didn’t expressly ask for.” And then I walk out of the shop, shoeless, shirtless, or hungry, depending on what I was trying to buy, but with that warm feeling that comes from feeling that I stuck it to the man. Or one of his minions, anyway.

And now, ATM spam. In recent months I’ve noticed my bank will fire a message at me when I’m conducting my automated cash machine business offering some sort of credit card, or car, or complex derivative, I’m not sure what. I’ve noticed that this happens after I’ve ordered my cash, but that the cash won’t start churning inside the machine until I’ve responded to this spam message.

Only when I hit the “no” button does the machine start doing its thing. This drives me nuts because once I’ve entered the details of my ATM transaction I am usually reaching for my wallet ready to catch the notes before they fly around the vestibule or that suspicious looking granny at the next machine makes a grab for them. So to look back at the machine and see this dumb spam message sitting there and no cash irks me no end.

My short-term solution to this is to look deep into the CCTV lens and utter obscenities, but I have of late realized this may not improve my creditworthiness. Neither has it stopped the spam messages.

So I took it to the next person up the chain, a bank staff member standing nearby called Keith. “Not only is this deeply irritating,” I told him, “but it’s a security risk.” He nodded sagely. I suspect my reputation may have preceded me. I won a small victory against this particular bank a few years back when I confided in them that the message that appeared on the screen after customers log out of their Internet banking service—“You’ve logged out but you haven’t logged off”, accompanied by a picture of some palm trees and an ad for some holiday service—may confuse and alarm users rather than help them. Eventually the bank agreed to pull the ad.

So I was hoping a discreet word with Keith would do the trick. Is there no way, I said, for users to opt out of these messages? And I told him about my security fears, pointing discreetly to the elderly lady who was now wielding her Zimmer frame menacingly at the door. Keith, whose title, it turns out, is First Impression Officer, said he’d look into it.

So I’m hopeful I will have won another small battle on behalf of us consumers. Yes I know I may sound somewhat eccentric, but that’s what they want us to think. My rule of thumb is this: If you want to take up my time trying to sell me something because you know I can’t escape, then you should pay for it—the product or my time, take your pick.

Now, while I’ve got your attention, can I interest you in some of those Easter bunny things? They’re actually very good.

We’re All Kevin Smiths Now

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)

A few weeks ago a gentleman of, by his own account, more than average girth was thrown off a Southwest Air flight between Oakland and Burbank.

Unfortunately for the airline this was no ordinary gentleman but Kevin Smith, director of such classics as Clerks and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and, perhaps more importantly, a man conversant with social media.

As he was unceremoniously removed from the flight because he was a “customer of size” and therefore a safety risk, he turned to twitter to vent his spleen.

The resulting fracas was what we in the nerdy world call a twitter storm. That is, one person is able to leverage the power of social networks to make a much bigger noise than would otherwise be the case.

Some commentators have suggested this is a new kind of customer: “a new kind of uglry customer who isn’t always right but insists on his right to share his feelings with us and his right to be heard”, as one Singaporean travel industry insider put it.

Of course, this isn’t the case. There have always been Kevin Smiths, it’s just they have not been able to convey their disquiet so effectively. Now they have, at their fingertips, the ability to express and disseminate their feelings.

I’m a Kevin Smith. We’re all Kevin Smiths. We’re all capable of knowing when we’ve been discriminated against—not, in this case, because of his girth but because he was not told before he got on the plane, or when he bought his ticket, that he wouldn’t be able to fly.

We’re all Kevin Smiths, and we’ve all got the tools of Kevin Smith. Perhaps not the colorful turns of phrase, but the means.

Now I’m not blaming Southwest here, at least at the corporate level. Actually they did all the standard things to try to put out this blaze. They tried to reach him by email, by phone, and then publicly by twitter, to apologize.

They blogged about it, about their policy and the lessons learned.

But their failure was to understand that information travels much faster now. So in the crucial hours—no, minutes—after Kevin Smith was dumped off the flight there was a chance to turn all this around.

It didn’t happen. Either those overseeing the Twitter feed didn’t see it coming, or they were at dinner, or they had to escalate the matter. Whatever happened, there was a chance to stop the storm before it had left the building.

In this new world, minutes count.

People in the leisure industry would do well to draw different conclusions than perhaps they are.

The temptation is to label Kevin Smith a noisesome celebrity and thereby both give him star treatment and to treat him as an unusual case.

He’s not. He’s a star, true, and he’s got a strong following, both online and offline. But his diatribe is just as likely to be echoed by others—indeed, the anger his supporters felt is as much to do with a sense of injustice as of having their hero treated shoddily.

In the old days we could write a letter to the CEO, or complain to the cabin crew, or write a letter to the local paper. Most of us wouldn’t bother.

But now we can. We can tweet about it, Facebook it, blog about it. It may not always snowball but it’s there, out there for millions of other people to find, indefinitely.

In other words: Not only do we have the means to vent our spleen, but we have access to everyone else’s vented spleen. No longer are we the lone eccentric to be tolerated or ignored, bought off with a $100 voucher or a free pass to the poolside barbeque.

We are validated.

So no, Kevin Smith is not the new kind of ugly customer. He’s everyman: He’s a customer who not only knows what he wants but knows that he’s not alone in wanting it. And that he can find a way of getting satisfaction in the most public way possible if he feels his rights are violated.

Not exactly good news for those companies that would rather we kept quiet or were bought off. But good news for those of us who have bitten our tongue and kept mum one too many times.

Flying Cheapskates

A few weeks back I wrote in WSJ.com about Bezurk.com, a great travel website that’s on a par, if not better, than Kayak, Sidestep, Zuji and Yahoo! FareChase.

Here’s what I wrote:

What I like about Bezurk’s site is that it follows what I think are the best unwritten rules of Web 2.0, the new, more social and interactive generation of Internet services: It’s simple, intuitive and does its best not to bother you. It doesn’t require lots of hitting the refresh or back buttons. It doesn’t include deals that aren’t available or seats that are already sold.

Bezurk also doesn’t require you to click on page after page of “refining” questions — “Do you require a vegetarian menu? Would you consider flying from an airport that is actually on the other side of the country?” — before coming back with the predictable punchline, “No results found.” I also like the fact that the price including tax is also given, where possible, below the quoted price: In many cases this adds 50% to the fare.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work particularly well with flights in North Asia, and with those out of the U.S. and Europe. For now. They promise improvements on this, and I think they’re going to be quite soon. They also miss out on one or two budget airlines, for which I’d suggest AirNinja.com which won’t give you all the flight details, but will at least tell you which budget airlines fly the route you’re looking to take, and link you to the website.

Says Seattle-based John Hostetler, who runs the site:

AirNinja shows flights that aren’t found on the major travel sites and fills in the gaps left by major carriers. I’ve traveled extensively throughout Europe and booked flights for slightly more than the cost of taxes and found direct flights that I couldn’t find elsewhere. This is present in Asia as well.

Worth trying out.

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Cabin Fever

Flight International reports (sorry, can’t find a link, but here are some similar stories from Thisislondon and New Electronics) that “BAE Systems and its research partners have completed initial tests with an in-cabin computer vision system intended to identify suspect behaviour by potential terrorists.” Seems the system involves cameras in the cabin with software that analyses the image “for movement or other actions that indicate an unruly or potentially dangerous individual, whether seated or standing.” Some of this, says BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre human factors specialist Katherine Neary, involves face recognition. Given most people behave badly on airlines, I think they’re going to have to tweak their algorithms if they don’t want to subdue everyone on the flight.

I think I’d prefer an airline like Thailand’s Nok Air, which takes a friendlier attitude to passengers. According to Flight, the low-cost carrier “is expanding its fleet Boeing 737-400s and its fleet of scantily-dressed “PDA girls”” who help check-in passengers that only have carry-on bags. Chief executive Patee Sarasin tries not to sound surprised when he says “It’s been fantastically well received”. Of course he then spoils it by adding: “It is very efficient and costs you less than $4.00 a day to have these girls walking around in Thailand.”

Nok
Khun Patee’s walking check-in counters

 

ThinkPad Joins the Exploding Laptop Parade?

Looks like the days of the laptop (and perhaps other gizmos) on airlines are numbered. First, Virgin becomes the third airline [CNET news] to place restrictions on Apple and Dell laptops, allowing them on planes only if the battery [Virgin site] has been removed, wrapped and stored in carry-on luggage. (Qantas and Korean Air have already placed restrictions [CNET news].) You can use the laptops from a power source in some instances on these airlines.

But this story doesn’t seem to be going away. A person posted a story on the Awful Forums (the account is also posted on Gizmodo.) alleging that an “IBM laptop” (presumably a ThinkPad, now owned by Lenovo) caught fire on a United plane boarding at Los Angeles airport. The passenger reportedly ran up the gangway from the plane dropping his laptop on the floor of the departure lounge where “the thing immediately flares up like a giant firework for about 15 seconds, then catches fire”. The owner, apparently, had checked his battery against a list of those of these being recalled, and it wasn’t on it.

Notebook Review has this to say: “An incident like this makes you wonder how long it is before in flight laptop use when running on batteries is just banned altogether.  Which would be a black eye to both the airline and notebook industry.” I’d tend to agree.

A Dream Of Intelligent Luggage Tags

Something I’ve long dreamt of: An intelligent luggage tag.

Here’s a concept for a Bluetooth luggage tag that lights up when it’s in range of your Bluetooth gadget, helping you to identify it on the carousel. The Bluebird tag would contain additional information, so should it go astray the luggage could be returned to you. You could have separate tags for each item. (Found on blueserker.)

Now I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, not least because the Bluebird design looks so good. But others may have been here first: Samonsite unveiled a Bluetooth suitcase two years back which supposedly contains information for tracking and identifying luggae. Admittedly since then not much has happened: It’s not even clear whether the cases were ever sold. Three years ago Red-M said it was teaming up with Denmark’s BlueTags to use Bluetooth to help manage and track luggage and to help find it when necessary. I can’t find any subsequent mention of this, although BlueTags are now being used to track children at a Danish zoo, which is pretty much the same thing.

I like the Bluebird idea, but I’m not sure it would work. As soon as more than one person at the carousel has these devices, they become less useful, unless there’s some way of uniquely identifying each piece of luggage. Otherwise all you’ve got are lots of bits of flashing luggage going around the carousel. (One way around this would be for your PDA to tell you how far away your luggage is on the conveyor. But somehow that seems to have crossed some sort of nerd acceptability line.)

The other thing is that every Bluetooth device transmits a signal (unlike RFID, for example, which has a passive and an active element. The RFID tag doesn’t transmit, it only receives; it’s the scanner that transmits). So would lots of bits of Bluetooth luggage in the airplane hold be beaming confusing signals that interfere with the navigation system?

To me the biggest headache that could use a technology like this is reassuring the passenger. Using RFID or some similar technology on luggage would allow both the airline to check it has all its luggage aboard, but also the cabin crew to confirm for the passenger that their luggage is safely stowed. Airlines could even allow passengers to check for themselves, perhaps via the inflight display (key in their luggage number via a touchscreen, activating an RFID scanner in the hold to look for the item.)

Indeed, Delta Airlines this month said they were doing something like that. On July 1 it said it would use RFID to track luggage through its U.S. network. And Hong Kong’s airport last month said it was going to use RFID to track luggage going through the airport. But I can’t see airlines allowing passengers to do the monitoring, for the simple reason that if the scanner doesn’t find the luggage — either because it’s not aboard or the technology doesn’t work properly — you’re going to have a lot of very unhappy passengers insisting the plane turn around and go back to the gate. Things could get ugly.