Electronic updates ease fliers' lives

Travelers can opt for receiving notice by voice or text

Strategies

September 05, 2004|By Larry Bleiberg | Larry Bleiberg,Dallas Morning News

It's just after 7 a.m., and we're pulling into traffic on the way to the airport. Then the cell phone rings.

It's an electronic voice, and the news isn't good. Our flight to Philadelphia has been canceled, it says. We'll have to rebook.

It's not really a surprise. It has been storming all night, and schedules have been thrown out of whack.

But this morning, at least something's working: the technology airlines have been touting for years as the solution to airport hassles.

Like many travelers, I've started to register on airline Web sites to get electronic updates on my flights. It's a handy way to find out if a gate has been changed or if there has been a delay. But this is the first time I've had a trip canceled by a robot voice.

American Airlines, which offers the free service through www.aa.com, says electronic notification has been very popular. "We're seeing a real return on our investments doing technology like this," said Billy Sanez of American.

Southwest, Delta, United, Continental and Northwest offer similar services.

Although it won't give exact numbers, American says the number of passengers signing up for the service has climbed by 40 percent in the last year. About half choose to get a voice notification like I did. The rest choose a text message.

This morning, along with cancellation news, the electronic voice gives me a customer service number to call.

So while my wife navigates through downtown, I phone the airline. I get a few busy signals, then an answer. I slowly recite my flight details to the computer on the phone, which always makes me feel kind of dorky. Then another artificial voice tells me to expect a wait of eight minutes.

Nothing really lost. I'm just sitting in traffic anyway.

Eventually, I reach a real person. Again, the news isn't good: I'll have to rebook and transfer in Charlotte. Total delay: six hours. I groan.

Then the woman on the other end of the line tells me to hold on.

"Let me check something," she says.

By now, we're well clear of downtown and heading to the airport.

The agent says she can get us on a nonstop US Airways flight. We've got the last two seats, and we'll be arriving just an hour later than our original plans.

I can live with that.

But not everything goes so smoothly. Instead of going to long-term parking, we head straight to the terminal. We have to wait in line at an American counter so we can get a voucher. Then we walk down the hall and stand in another line to exchange it for a ticket on US Air. It's a hassle, but soon we're reticketed. We check our luggage and then take the car back to a budget parking lot.

It's not the morning I had anticipated, but I never broke a sweat or felt my blood pressure soar.

And I think about how the morning could have gone -- would have gone -- just a few years ago.

We would have hauled our luggage to the terminal and only then discovered the fate of our flight. After standing in a long line, a harried desk agent would have put us on that flight to Charlotte. Even if she had bothered to check with US Airways, those last two seats probably would have been long gone. And even if we had somehow gotten them, there'd be a mad scramble with our luggage across the airport to another terminal.

We all complain about airlines. I've heard horror stories that might make you swear off air travel forever.

But slowly, surely, air carriers are making our trips a little easier, and I'm grateful. Even if it means talking to a computer.

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