Lack of Information is not Information

Jerry Weinberg said this a couple days ago (and probably many times before that, but that’s when I heard it). Today, I have a story to illustrate this. I also have a puzzle to solve about how I may best avoid this same trap.

Last night, I flew from Albuquerque to Baltimore via Dallas. There were many storms moving through the Dallas area; hence there were many delays. I’ll spare you the details of the problems encountered, as I’m sure most of you have had bad airline experiences, too.

I will say that the American Airlines flight crew on the leg from Albuquerque to Dallas were fantastic. They were incredibly upbeat and cheerful, though they had also had a long day and were just as anxious to complete their journey. If only all of the airline personnel had similar attitudes and demeanor! This flight crew took much of the sting out of the situation by treating the passengers as people — understanding their viewpoint and expressing themselves with that viewpoint in mind. The captain also kept us informed of new information he received, and when he tried but couldn’t get new information. I’m sorry that I didn’t record the names of these heroes. I would like to tell them how much I appreciate their pleasantness. I would also like to recommend to American Airlines that they try to learn from these people. The rest of this story will demonstrate that the systems that American Airlines has set up do not have the same consideration for people.

Switching planes in Dallas (two-and-a-half hours late) had no slack, so I was not surprised when my luggage did not appear on the carousel in Baltimore. Of course, there was no information to indicate that my bag was not there. All I could do was wait until it appeared that no more new bags were being added to the collection circulating but not being collected by passengers. This is two separate cases of lack of information — the missing bags, and no indication that unloading was complete. The carousel in BWI airport has a hidden segment, so you cannot tell newly unloaded bags from those which have already made a circuit.

A lack of information leaves you wondering what’s happened. It causes delays as you try to decide if you should wait a bit longer for some information, or take alternative action. At 4:00 AM, it’s easy to be annoyed at such delays. Delays generally incur costs. This delay of uncertainty, and the delay of waiting in line to report the missing luggage, meant that we went beyond the grace period of the parking lot, and had to pay a higher parking fee. That’s a pretty cheap cost for such a delay, but there may be others.

I was given a receipt for my lost baggage report and told that my bag would likely come in on the next flight from Dallas at 10:30 AM. The receipt gave a URL for checking on the status, so around noon I did so. The only information I could find was the information I had given them. There was no information as to whether my bags had not been on the 10:30 flight or the information had not yet been updated since then.

All it says is “At this time we do not have status information for your baggage. Please check back later for an update. When is “at this time?” Is the system doing a real-time search for my luggage (unlikely), or has the status been updated some time earlier from now (possible), or has the status never been updated (likely)? If the status has never been updated, is it because they checked for my bag on the 10:30 flight and didn’t find it (unlikely), or because it wasn’t on the 10:30 flight and therefore didn’t trigger any status update (likely), or because people are busy and don’t feel that updating status on lost bags is very important (also likely)? There’s a very important lesson here for those of us who design Information Systems — we need to communicate not only what information the system has, but what it does not have.

Again, there is a cost incurred. I paid a cost in having to call the phone number I was given and wading through a voice-response system telling me several times to check the web-site (very annoying since I’d already done so), reciting a long policy statement, and finally making me wait for a person when I managed to get an option to request one. The airline paid the cost in having to field a telephone call with a live person in spite of spending money on automated systems to avoid this expense. Unfortunately, the live person had the same lack of information that I did. They tried to express it as information that my bags had not been found, but it was not convincing. After a couple of questions, it was apparent to me that this was an assumption based on a lack of information.

I tried to provide some feedback to the telephone support person about how frustrating I felt with the lack of information. She, however, had no way to deliver such feedback to people with the power to make any changes. This is another example of lack of information. Those people are likely thinking that things are OK based on the lack of information indicating otherwise. The fact that the systems set up by American Airlines does not support communicating such information probably never enters their mind.

I considered (an am still considering) “voting with my feet” and relegating American Airlines to the end of the list when choosing flights. This, also, would be a lack of information and unlikely to send any message to the people who approve, specify and build the systems (computer and corporate) that have frustrated me with American Airlines. I considered sending an email to American Airlines Customer Relations, but I feared that a system, similar to the one that prevents the Delayed Baggage Representative from reporting feedback, would prevent Customer Relations from doing the same.

Hence this post. By broadcasting this message, perhaps an open communications channel will be found and the “right person” at American Airlines will receive this information. I will still contact Customer Relations, and I invite them to respond publicly here if they wish. I also invite them to consider that they often do not receive information from frustrated customers. It has taken me considerable effort to get this information to them (if I do succeed in doing so), and not many would take that effort. For every bit of feedback they receive, there’s probably 10 to 100 that they don’t receive.

I will also contact American Airlines Human Resources. I want to convey my appreciation to the crew of American Airlines flight 1226 from Albuquerque to Dallas on June 29, 2007. I am truly sorry I didn’t get your names, and I didn’t get an opportunity to speak to you as I got off the airplane. This is what I wanted to tell you: To the flight attendant who frequently came back to the coach class, I appreciate your cheerfulness, your humor, and your identification with the frustration of the passengers. Thank you. To the captain, I appreciate your information updates, even when the update was only to report how you had tried to get more information, but no new information was received. Thank you.

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Comments (2) to “Lack of Information is not Information”

  1. At least we only had to sit on the tarmac for one hour, unlike this Delta flight:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R06dAgpmmbg

  2. It’s about a week shy of two months since I sent my feedback to American Airlines Customer Relations. Today, I got a response. The response invited me to send the details using the same web form I originally used to let them know about the situation.

    They call that Customer Relations?

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