Yesterday, this lowly consumerization blogger walked squarely into an annoying travel boondoggle when attempting to catch a United flight from San Francisco back to Boston. By now, you've probably heard the news that United's entire computer system crashed leaving the carnage of 200 delayed flights and thousands of disgruntled passengers strewn about.
"The outage was caused when a piece of communication equipment in one of our data centers failed and disabled communications with our airports and web site," the company said in an email to CNBC. "We have fully redundant systems and we are working with the manufacturers to determine why the backup equipment did not work as it was supposed to."
This was just the latest problem for United ever since it merged computing systems with Continental back in March. At SFO, self-service kiosk's were displayed a red 404 error message and the check-in terminals were also down. No one without a paper boarding pass pre-printed or a mobile app could check in for their flight.
Short of an airplane failing mechanically in midair and violently crashing into suburban housing development, this was about the worst case customer service "glitch" an airline could have. Lines of dejected passengers snaked hundreds deep in the SFO terminal. You know it's bad when you walk in and the local news reporters are already there.
Luckily for me -- note the underlying sarcasm -- I decided to not print my boarding pass after checking in for my flight. I arrived at the airport around 2:45 and roughly 45 minutes later I had my boarding pass in hand and was seated at the bar with a tall beer. I'll never make that mistake again.
Anyway, at this point, you're probably wondering where the heck consumerization fits in, which it does in two ways. The first is that those with United's mobile boarding pass application were able to glide right on through to security. It revealed just how important snartphones and mobility have become in our lives and how effective they can be. Businesses need to be thinking of a mobile strategy to empower employees and drive better customer relations. Secondly, and more importantly, was that I was able to glide through the boondoggle relatively easily thanks to a few ingenious service agents engaging consumerization.
For passengers not checking bags and who had already checked in online to their flight (me! me! me!), a helpful service agent informed me that she had taken the liberty of setting up a dummy email account and that if I had the ability to forward a PDF of my boarding pass she would be able to sneak back into an office and print it out. Brilliant. With a bit of free SFO wifi, I went to United's website, pulled up my reservation and forwarded my boarding pass first to my personal email and then to this shadow email account.
A minute or two later, the service agent returned with my boarding pass. We could argue whether she did anything wrong with subverting United's official disaster policies by setting up an unofficial email account, but we can't argue that this woman used a nifty end-around to do her job more effectively. United wasn't providing her the tools or the ability to do her job, so she figured out a way on her own. Sometimes that can burn a company, but sometimes it results in serendipity.
It was wonderful to experience and made a crappy situation slightly better. "Just doing ours jobs," they said quizzically when I asked them if they ever heard of consumerization.