A funny thing happened on the way to the Conference (updated)

By Daragh O Brien
June 20, 2012
22min read

Actually, a few things happened and, while they were mildly amusing, they weren’t entirely mirthsome. However they do serve to highlight how poor quality management of information can lead to unexpected and undesirable outcomes for customers when processes don’t work the way they should.

Checking in on-line for my flight.

I love the convenience of on-line check-in. More accurately I loathe the interminability of queues in airports and like to get through security and to the vicinity of my gate as quickly as possible. On this trip it turned out that a friend of mine was heading to the same destination on a different carrier, so I’d hoped to be able to meet them for a second breakfast. Checking in online was the time-saving service that would enable that to happen.
I went to the website of the carrier I booked the flight with (British Airways) and put in the booking ID number I’d received from This immediately whisked me off to American Airlines (the actual provider of the plane, pilots, crew, and inflight movies). Who promptly couldn’t recognise my booking and required me to enter some additional data to find my flight. That took about two minutes to do.
I was then presented with my on-line checkin options. I scrolled down to see that there were red flags against some missing information – information which I had provided when booking my flight nearly 6 weeks ago. Details like my passport ID, the name on my passport, emergency contact numbers etc. The booking record was incomplete. Not a worry though as I had all the information to hand and obviously I have nothing better to do than refill forms (scrap and rework, which if it was an American Airlines employee doing it would represent a cost item going to the bottom line, but when the customer is doing it it is “empowerment” and “self-service”, but I digress).
I filled in the details and hit submit… only to be greeted with the news that the name of the passenger didn’t match the passport name provided. This baffled me as I only have one name. Even in two languages, my name is spelled and sounds the same (albeit there are around 13 possible spellings I’ve found in multiple languages for my name). Being an Information Quality Nut ™ I scrolled down to see what could be causing the problem. Whitespaces at the beginning or end of the string was my suspicion. But my suspicions proved unfounded.
It was something else entirely….
For some bizarre reason, somewhere between, British Airways, and American Airlines, a process (and by which I mean a set of processing steps and procedures designed by a human) had seen fit to concatenate my title (“MR”) to my Given Name. I was no longer “Daragh O Brien”. Heck, I was no longer even “Mr Daragh O Brien”. I was “DARAGHMR”.
And much as I love sounding like a lesser known extra character from Lord of the Rings (you remember Daraghmr don’t you? The fourth cousin once removed of Isildur who was seeking “One Business Rule to bring them all and in the Data bind them”?), I was heartily peeved to find myself at the airport an hour earlier than planned to check in with a HumanBeing(tm). This took the best part of an hour, which meant that my morning coffee appointment was waving to me as they queued to board their flight by the time I had cleared security and immigration.
But at least I managed to make my flight.

Making a meal of things.

Some of you may be aware that I have a slight intolerance to gluten and potato starch. Which, being Irish, is a total pain. Every meal is like a perpetual reminder of the Great Famine. No potatoes, but all the corn meal and maize I can eat. The upshot of this is that I try to eat gluten free and potato free meals as much as possible, inevitably forgoing beer and chips in favour of the finest wines and cold cuts.
So, six weeks ago when I booked my flights for this trip I ticked the little box to indicate that I’d prefer a Gluten Free meal. Partly out of necessity, and partly out of curiosity to see how airline catering could further eradicate the soul and vibrance from gluten free foods (I eat them, I don’t always like them). And when the dinner service came rolling around, I cheerfuly called for my specially ordered meal, which my boarding pass proudly displayed my entitlement to for all to see.
To be met with an “oh… we don’t have one”. In fairness to the purveyor of beverages and nibbles, he went and checked the manifest and, clear as dot-matrix 12 point printing, there was no record of my having a special dietary requirement. Two others yes, but none for me.
I explored the other options. The vegetarian option was pasta. Lovely durum wheat pasta, with cheese. The carnivore platter was…more fecking pasta, with a bit of chicken. After a few moments discussion, during which great concern was expressed for the risk that I might have a reaction to the meals on offer (AA’s lawyers will be pleased), I went for the chicken and ate a pigeon-breast sized piece of chicken and a salad that was so small it may actually be a candidate for the elusive Higgs-Boson particle.
(I apologise for my snarkiness and sarcasm. When I’m REALLY hungry I get snarky and sarcastic.)
Things were no better at the later snack time, where my seat-buddy tucked into a lovely smelling pizza, while I munched on two portions of grapes. All grapes and no munchies makes DaraghMR a very grumpy Hobbitses.
The image on the right is my “lunch”. I could eat the chicken, the cheese, and the salad. The image on the right is my “snack”. Yum. Grapes.
So. Incomplete information, which was captured at the point of order (when I booked my flight) but which was not passed through to the point of order fulfilment (on the plane) resulted in me not being able to regale people with tales of the joys of gluten free airline food.

The takeaway

The process of booking an airline ticket through an aggregator and via co-chaired carriers is actually a very nice microcosm of much of modern business life. There are multiple actors and players involved. Data is being transferred via multiple systems for multiple purposes. There are different perspectives on who the “customer” is at different points in the process.
The common element that is shared is the information and data that makes up the bundle of things that need to be in place for the “self-loading freight” (a public transport term for customers I once heard) to be able to check-in on-line and get the correct meal on their flight. Where there are breakdowns in the passing of data either at all or on time (perhaps my delay in checking in meant that my meal requirement was missed) this can affect the overall “QoE” (quality of experience) that the self-loader expects. Likewise if data processing steps at hand-offs between the different players create corruption or inconsistency in information and data they can result in the “happy path” of the self-service process dream being missed and the “crappy path” of queues, delays, and additional costs being followed instead.


American Airlines have been in touch with me via Twitter. Apparently there is a special meal for me on the return flight from Chicago to Dublin. This raises a further Information Quality issue – Consistency of data. If I have ordered a special meal at all, surely it follows that I would need it on both outbound and return legs of a journey (and the various intermediate legs as well).

[Update 2] Apparently there are no special meals available on the Chicago/San Diego leg. This was not flagged to me prior to today. This is another example of incompleteness in information having an affect on QoE for customers.

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