The Peter Principle is the notion that people are promoted into jobs with responsibilities they cannot fulfill. I think there must be a corollary for mobile travel technology — and if there isn't, I'd like to propose one — because I discovered through close personal experience just how thoroughly an iPhone app can attain its highest level of incompetence.
A flaw in this particular application, the popular Flight Tracker, led me to miss an international flight. This flight software error not only resulted in a delay waiting for the next flight, but in my having to pay all over again for a rebooked flight, as the airline in question would not honor the value paid for that missed reservation. What was missed was lost. Only my cancelling that flight would have made the value transferable.
Call this my Ah-hah! moment. I realized then and there that relying on the hype that mobile tech is here and now — ready for prime time! — was not a wise move. What happened very simply is that on the taxi ride to the airport I discovered that the time for my flight as listed in my iPhone travel application differed by one hour from the flight time as listed in my BlackBerry application. My jaw hit the cab floor when I saw that the iPhone said I had a 9 AM takeoff but the BlackBerry said it was 8 AM — and of course I had dialed up only my iPhone in choosing my time to arrive at the airport. Realizing when I was practically at the airport that the iPhone app had it wrong meant there was nothing I could do.
The insidious thing about this one Flight Tracker error was that the software had correctly synchronized all of my other itinerary times, so the flight error wasn't immediately obvious. What was obvious about the error, however, is that there are a lot of glitches in mobile travel software that will only become apparent upon doing cross-checking.
Paying the extra $800 for my flight put an exclamation point to my lesson about trusting mobile tech for important travel data. My faith in the technology had been misplaced. I awoke to the fact that I had been relying upon a medium that is not mature and which no business traveler ought to take for granted. Sure, mobile tech has come a long way, baby. But this episode demonstrated in the full glaring light of day that it doesn't always work as advertised. The pieces may seem to fit when you gaze upon your softly glowing iPhone touch screen; but, in reality, things on the 'back end' are still continuing to evolve.
The flight alerts you see on your smartphone are a good example of what I mean. These alerts can be truly annoying, not because the information is inaccurate, but because the information is always 20 or 30 minutes behind the loudspeakers at the airport. The reason for the lag time is simple: the alerts are not coming directly from the source. They are being filtered through intermediary software. And the more filters information has to pass through, the slower the data flow becomes and the more opportunities there are for errors to creep in.
What I learned is to take a step back from our travel technology future, back to the past of a paper itinerary generated by my American Express corporate travel department. Amex derives its information right from the source, the GDSs, or global distribution systems, which originate the data. The GDSs govern when a plane gets away from the gate, so you cannot find a data feed that is any more reliable than that.
My recommendation to every business traveler is to take a paper copy of your travel plan with you when you travel. Smartphones are sexy and fun and handy, but paper doesn't need batteries to operate and dropping a piece of paper won't cause it to become useless and inert.
Road warriors need to have a Plan A and a Plan B. Your Plan A ought to be to secure your travel itinerary from sources like your corporate travel department, travel agency, or reliable providers like CheckMyTrip, which takes a direct feed from the GDSs. Plan B is to cross-check your information periodically, while there is still time to react and make changes. Recognize that the dependability of mobile tech is a moving target and is still subject to integration issues that make timely and accurate data delivery tricky. Mobile travel technology's promise is sky-high. But that particular flight hasn't landed just yet.
Road Warrior • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com