by Karen Lopez
Last week I flew from Washington, DC to Toronto via Philadelphia. This was at the end of about 3 weeks of many flights, having done a DAMA speaking tour, a class and two SQLSaturdays. I've been known to Tweet my travel experiences along the way, but usually these are first world problems like not getting an upgrade, weird non-TSA baggage inspections or complaining about the terribly rude service I seem to experience on a regular basis. But this time my experience in Philly was different. My flight from Philly was delayed. It seems all my flights from Philly are delayed, as if there is a big time suck in that general area. I knew about this delay because I use TripIt to track my itineraries and TriptPro notified me that my flight had been delayed by about 40 minutes. But as usual for many airlines, the boards in the airport and the official websites showed the original time -- no delay. I have been told that airlines do this so that you will get to the gate anyway and therefore give the airline a few more seconds to slice off their abysmal on-time performance stats...by having you wait in a crowded, no-place-to-sit-not-even-on-the-floor gate area.
Alternative Data Sources
Because USAir had chosen not to delay the flight on the boards, I made my way to the gate area near the original boarding time of 12:45. There was no plane at the gate. This is your number one sign that the flight is delayed. A missing plane can't be deboarded, it can't be cleaned and it can't be boarded. So I found a spot to sit on the floor underneath a pay phone next to the door to the jet way. As soon as I sat down, a harried gate agent called off about 20 names to come to the podium. Normally this might mean upgrades, but in this case I was sure it was the sometimes required, sometimes not "document check". Since this flight was headed to Canada, airlines sometimes want to see your proof of citizenship again before you get on the plane. This document check is done because airlines are required to return you at their cost if you aren't able to enter another country. So I showed my passport as the gate agent scolded me for waiting until boarding time to show up to the gate. She was frazzled and irritated because so many other passengers still hadn't had their documents checked. I went back to my seat on the floor.
Sitting next to the door were three women who had just been scolded by the gate agent for asking if the flight was delayed. It seemed that 80% of the passengers who approached the desk were asking the same question. Before we had mobile data devices we passengers were in the dark about flights, but now we have access to third-party data sets that can tell us when flight are delayed or cancelled. The airlines haven't quite changed their data sharing processes to acknowledge that. They still assume that we have no other sources of data for flight information. Gate agents everywhere are distracted by passengers asking why the board data and their data services data is in conflict. We should fix that.
But I digress. Data issues do that to me.
Distraction and Flying the Plane
As the three women and I were discussing the fact that it was 1:04 and our plane had not yet arrived for our 1:18 take off, a woman who had no badge or uniform walked passed us and into the propped open door of the jet way. Our friendly gate agent was busy reviewing documents, then using the PA to call for missing passengers to show their documents. She was consumed by two tasks: checking documents and convincing passengers that the flight was on time. Finally one of the three women (I'll just call her Woman One) approached the desk and pointed out to the gate agent that someone who appeared to have no credentials or uniform had boarded the jetway without clearing with the gate agent. The agent paused, then said that she knew what she was doing and no one had entered the jetway. We stared in disbelief. Woman One said again that she had seen someone board without clearance.
Remember that the Department of Homeland Security has a See Something, Say Something campaign. Airports are covered with signage repeating this message. So this group of women had seen something and said something. Now they had reported it to an airline employee. What was the gate agent's response? She repeatedly told Woman One to sit down an shut up. Woman One kept up with her reports, but the gate agent was focused on two things: getting those dang documents checked and ensuring that we all stayed at the gate area so that the flight could be boarded as fast as possible.
Do you see what's happened here? The gate agent was so focused on these two tasks that she missed the whole point of her job: to be the agent that ensured only the right people got on that jetway. Sure, the document check is part of that, but she was presented with a much bigger threat than expired documents and she discarded that report in favor of her heads-down task of matching names on a document to names on a list. The airline industry has a name for this: forgetting to fly the plane. My friend Mike Walsh (@mike_walsh ) has blogged and presented about this several times. In See Something, Say Something he writes about a flight crew on United 173 being so distracted by a light bulb they flew an airplane into the ground. Other air disasters involve the same type of mistake: pilots forgetting that their job is to first fly the plane. It seems so obvious is hindsight, but it's easy to get distracted by project goals, urgent tasks and personal goals that we forget to do the number one priority in our jobs.
I have to admit that I've gotten bogged down in trying to make a macro do some whiz-bang nifty thing while forgetting that my job is to get data requirements documented and turned into a database design. Some other things I've seen:
- A data architect that is so focused on getting a data model laid out with no crossing lines and following a no-dead-crows approach that she has forgotten more than 20 important data requirements
- A DBA so focused on applying surrogate keys to every table that he forgot to ensure that the alternate keys were applied, therefore leaving the data in an potentially harmful situation
- A developer so focused on squeezing performance out of a query he failed to return all the data that should have been returned in the query
- A project manager so dedicated to getting perfect Gantt chart she forgot to actually manage the tasks and people who needed a project manager.
- A team so focused on a two week sprint they forgot to verify a bunch of assumptions that turned out to be wrong, causing a great deal of rework and loss of confidence in the team.
- A DBA so focused on applying a "best practice" that he applied it in a situation that it harmed performance instead of enhancing it.
So what happened in Philadelphia? We don't know. We never saw the mysterious woman deboard the plane. And when we boarded, she wasn't there on the plane. Obviously either all four of us missed her coming back off the plane or she exited the jet way on to the tarmac. We'll never know who she was or what she was doing on the plane or the tarmac. There has been no news of anything bad happening as a result of a failure to "fly the plane" that day. The opportunity certainly was there.
I'd love to hear about your examples of people who have forgotten to fly the dang plane.
It's so easy to get bogged down in a short term task that we forget that our job is to do something more than that task. Make sure that you don't lose sight of your job, no matter what it is. Every task has a purpose. Make sure you understand what the goal of a task so that you understand when you are distracted from flying the dang plane.