Podcast #140 — Travel Tech Gets Physical; Pay Attention to the Safety Briefing

The Look of Augmented Reality?

Broke out the mobile unit to record this episode in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta; much warmer than getting caught in a spring snow storm in Milwaukee. When much of the travel tech news is about the latest phone apps, we talk about physical travel technology that we can touch and carry. And when flying during the past two weeks, flight attendants’ safety demonstrations have become a bit more strident. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #140:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the Hyatt Place-Buckhead in Atlanta, GA missing what I hope is the long-delayed start of Spring finally showing up the Midwest. I have done damn little travel since the last episode — a couple of drives to a client up north of Milwaukee, a quick trip to Minneapolis last week, and flight this morning down to Atlanta. I managed to avoid the foot of late April snow in Minnesota but got caught by 3-4 inches in Milwaukee. Luckily, I’d looked at the forecast before I left and, walking out to the garage, grabbed my LL Bean boots and threw them into the trunk of the car Which saved my dress shoes later that evening and the next morning on unshoveled walks and is is the good thing about driving; I didn’t have to worry about space constraints. I couldn’t have done the same thing flying to Minneapolis.
  • I ended up flying Southwest to Minneapolis because: a) they were the cheapest flight out on Monday morning at short notice; and b) it let me meet an A-List challenge that Southwest had sent me at the beginning of the year — fly 3 roundtrips by the end of April and get A-List for the rest of the year. Now, I don’t fly Southwest a whole lot, so I can’t completely justify what I pushed to do this challenge — except just because it was a challenge, I guess. That, and it’ll make it easier for those times I end up on Southwest this year. I won’t have to pay the $12 for auto check-in or set an alarm to check in 24 hours before flight time — both of which typically only get me in the second or “B” boarding group. Not an earth shattering perk, but anything that reduces travel hassles is a good thing.
  • When I went Chicago Midway airport on last Monday to catch that flight, I ran into a new TSA trick — funnel everyone through a single-file U-turn line to be sniffed a TSA agent and a dog, after people headed into either regular security or TSA PreCheck. Which, at 7am on a Monday morning, quickly pushed the security line back into the hallway toward the parking garage. So, after spending what looks like the $190 million a year the past couple of years on screening technology like those snazzy full-body scanners that people empty their pockets and line up for, the TSA is now having us line up for yet another a new screening technology — but at least this technology is cute. And when was the last time you heard a traveler wanting to pet the body scanner.
  • Bridge Music — Hear Me by DJ Blue

Following Up

  • A couple of things for those not following my Twitter or the TravelCommons Facebook page…
    • First, for those Amazon fans, Alexa will now play the latest episode of TravelCommons for you if you ask nicely. I got an Echo Spot in a schwag bag for a conference in January. I put it on the standing desk in my home office and started playing around with it. After listening to the WJS Minute Briefing as part of my Flash Briefing, I started thinking about how to get TravelCommons onto it. At first, I thought I was going to have to figure out how to build an Alexa skill, but digging a little deeper, I found out that the TuneIn app is sorta the default podcast player for Alexa. So after I got TravelCommons approved for TuneIn — felt like they had an actual human check out my app — it appeared on my Echo Spot. So if you say, “Alexa, play TravelCommons podcast”, she should play the latest episode for you. Check out the Facebook page or my Twitter feed for a quick video showing the magic happen
    • Second, I took advantage of being in town and the crap April weather to do the filming for the Midway taproom tour layover video. As I mentioned in the last episode, the idea has been to feature an itinerary out of Chicago’s “other” airport — what was Chicago’s original airport that morphed into the budget airline airport that morphed into Southwest Airlines’ biggest operation. We used Uber and Lyft to hit 4 taprooms in what can only be described as the “post-industrial” landscape of Chicago’s near south side. We started by driving past the Cook County prison en route to Lagunitas’ plant and taproom that’s built in an old steel mill. While New Belgium and Sierra Nevada landed their national expansions in the much more bucolic environs of the North Carolina Smoky Mountains, Lagunitas’ owner Tony Magee dropped his expansion in a dodgy part of Chicago. We then hit smaller scale, more local places that have repurposed old manufacturing plants in less-visited Chicago neighborhoods — Lo Rez in Pilsen, Marz in what can charitably described as “lower” Bridgeport, and then ending up at Whiner Beer in the Back of the Yards neighborhood — where the Chicago Stockyards used to be decades ago. I started working on production, but then looked at the calendar and knew that I only had time for either this episode or the video. And since I’ve worked hard on keeping a monthly cadence of podcast episodes, I kicked the video into next month. So watch Facebook, Twitter, and the web site for the post. Since it’s a bit more narrow scope, I don’t think I’ll put the video in the podcast feed; not sure the non-beer-drinking listeners will want some 100 meg video clogging up their internet.
  • While sitting in the backseat of one of those Lyft rides, I noticed something new on the pink Lyft light that many drivers have in the middle of their dash. You always see the front of it — the pink Lyft logo — from the outside, through the front windshield. Glancing at the back of it from inside of the car, I something flash by. Looking more closely, I saw a little message scroll by – “15 min eta”. I saw it again in the Lyft car I took to MSP on last Tuesday. I asked the driver about it. He told me that Lyft sent it to him after he did 300 rides — “bit of a status thing” he said. I told him about the Uber dash light that I saw in New York, that let me adjust the color of the light from the app — I talked about this in a prior episode. He thought that was pretty cool too, but he liked Lyft, the company, better than Uber, and he appreciated his messaging light.
  • All sorts of press releases drop into the TravelCommons mailbox, but the one announcing April 24, last Tuesday, as the first National Business Traveler Day caught my eye. I guess because it’s new, it hasn’t made it onto the National Day Calendar, a list of these sorts of designations. It’s a good choice of date, though, because there is only one national day listed on the 24th — National Pigs-In-A-Blanket Day — which, I can imagine, some First or Business Class flight attendants might reasonably associate with some sleeping business travelers. National Business Traveler Day was announced (created?) by “Upside Business Travel, the first online travel service built just for the do-it-yourself (DIY) business traveler” in recognition of “the important contributions made by business travelers to America’s economy.” I dunno, this could go in so many snarky directions — with the pigs-in-a-blanket thing as just a starter. I have to say, though, I felt very unrecognized when I walked into MSP Terminal 2 the afternoon of National Business Travelers Day — an obvious frequent business traveler: wearing a black blazer, head-down on the iPhone, speedwalking to the furthest security checkpoint because it’s the only one with PreCheck. Nobody was gave me a thank-you, a flower, a hug, but then again, the first person I had contact with was an old, overweight but jolly TSA screener. Nice guy, but not sure I would’ve wanted a hug from him.
  • And it could’ve been that MSP’s Terminal 2 which I’ll add to my list of ghetto terminals, the land of misbegotten travelers, which also includes ORD’s T2, Detroit’s North Terminal, Madrid’s 4S satellite terminal, Munich’s T2 satellite terminal… I’ve talked about this before. In fortress hubs, like ORD, DTW, and MSP, the terminals the hub airlines use is clean, bright, has lots of restaurant and shopping choices. Delta’s terminal in Detroit has an airy 2 or 3-story ceiling with a monorail train running the length of the terminal up at the top. The North terminal that every other airline is dumped into is the old terminal that Delta — or actually Northwest left behind, with a bit of a clean up and 3 restaurants. Delta’s terminal in Minneapolis is the same story — lots of shops and restaurants, a big craft beer bar, all with a bit of that North Woods feel. Terminal 2 – generic airport sterility, a Subway sandwich joint, a bar where all the handles were removed from the beer taps. And there’s no inside-security connections between these terminals in MSP and DTW if you want to check out the better side — it’s a 10-minute bus ride and another pass through security. At least in ORD, you can walk from T2 to the American or United terminals and hit Rick Bayless’ Torta Frontera for great Mexican food or Goose Island for a good beer. On Tuesday, I was stuck in the Humphrey Terminal with my Subway sandwich and a choice of Bud Light or Blue Moon — which maybe was fitting on National Business Traveler Day.
  • And if you have any travel questions, a story, a comment, a travel tip – the voice of the traveler, send it along. The e-mail address is comments@travelcommons.com — you can use your smartphone to record and send in an audio comment; send a Twitter message to @mpeacock, or you can post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page — or you can always go old-school and post your thoughts on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music — Madrugada by Savoyard

Travel Tech Gets Physical

  • In addition to press releases about National Business Travelers Day, I also get press releases announcing new funding rounds for travel startups. These things come in waves. Like the wave of companies building tour aggregation platforms. That investment thesis went — because millennials are more into experiential travel, they’re more likely to spend money on something like a food tour or hang gliding; the market for travel experiences is fragmented making discovery and purchasing difficult; our platform will solve this problem by aggregating experience providers and providing world-class search and user experience. The latest wave seems to be about building platforms that “reduce the pain” of corporate business travel. In April, in addition to Upside’s National Business Traveler Day announcement, Rocketrip sent out a release about their $15 million funding round and TravelPerk, who sponsored our January episode, touted their $21 million round — which sounds like, some 20+ years after Travelocity and Expedia hit the market, companies continue to spend millions of dollars trying to figure out how to replace travel agents.
  • At times, it feels like much of the work on improving travel is virtual, about software — new apps, new search platforms, better ways to spit out a single travel itinerary. But in spite of the venture capital mantra that “software is eating the world,” travel is inherently physical — we want to move our bodies, our stuff from Point A to Point B, and most often back again. It seems like the ‘60’s were the golden age of this, when Boeing and Airbus’ predecessors and the Russians were designing and building supersonic planes. I really felt ancient the other day telling some Millennial staffers about, how way back when, Concorde would fly from JFK to LHR in less than 3 hrs. Now it seems that Boeing and Airbus are completely focused on cramming more people into subsonic flying buses. Logical, but not very aspirational. Now if all the work on hyperloops — the test circuits, the design contests — actually turns into something, and isn’t just high-tech hobbies for Elon Musk and Richard Branson — we’ll be onto something.
  • But in the meantime, in the space between now — thinner, more uncomfortable plane seats and hotel keys that keep demagnetizing — and the inspirational future — us whizzing along in pods at 750 mph, doing LA to SF in 35 minutes without having to buy CO2 offsets to feel better about ourselves — what are some of the physical things about to hit?
  • One thing that seems to be finally hitting critical mass is real-time luggage tracking through RFID luggage tags. Logistics is another thing that’s hard, but it feels that airports and some airlines, Delta especially, have slogged through deploying enough RFID readers along the miles of luggage conveyor belts in the bowels of most of the airports they use, and then wiring it back in near real-time to their smartphone apps so that it’s useful. I’m hoping the combination of competitive pressure, falling equipment pricing, and government fines will push the rest of the airlines to follow suit. For me, real-time location tracking was the main use case for smart bags like BlueSmart. If I can get this through RFID tags, I’ll feel a lot less salty about the smart bag ban.
  • Wearables also get a lot of buzz. Carnival Cruise Lines has been the latest, announcing their “Ocean Medallion” last year as a way to “personalize” your cruise experience — and, of course, to make it easier to buy drinks on board. Nothing really new here. Disney’s been doing this forever; 20 years ago, I remember using a wristband at Northstar ski resort in Tahoe to track how many vertical feet we’d skied in a day, and to easily buy beers in the lodge. I’m wondering what happens here if the current noise about the use (and misuse) of personal data by Facebook and others resets people’s privacy vs. ease-of-use balance point rather than just blowing over. For me, it’s less about how the companies use the data (though I’m not completely unconcerned about this) and more about their inability to secure it. Seems like every couple of weeks, another travel company admits to some hack of, say, their point-of-sale system and the associated loss of millions of names and credit card numbers. Doesn’t incent me to let them track my movements and spending habits.
  • AR/VR — Augmented and virtual reality continues to buzz. I’ve talked about Google Translate’s AR feature — point your camera at, say, a menu or washing machine, and it’ll display the translation over the original text in real-time. It’s not perfect — the translations can rapidly change, sorta flicker between different interpretations, but it’s often “good enough”, and a whole lot quicker than banging in each menu entree. Google has tried to extend this real-time translation from visual to speech with their Pixel Bud headphones with much more Version 1.0 mixed results. I’m probably being way overly optimistic here, but if the Buds follow the same improvement trajectory, they could be pretty cool in 3 years’ time.
  • It really gets buzzy when we move from AR to VR. A guy at a VR start-up talked to me about using VR in hotel rooms for what he called “social viewing”. Rather than watching, say Black Mirror on Netflix on your laptop or one of those Enseo TVs I’m seeing more and more of, you strap on a VR headset, as does your spouse or kids, and you’re all watching together in a virtual living room or virtual theater. And then there’s always the pitch — why fly over to, say, Madrid to see Picasso’s Guernica in the Reina Sofia when you strap on a VR headset and “be” in the room instantly? Hey, remember how virtual reality turned out in The Matrix movies? Yeah, I think I’ll keep my travel physical.
  • Bridge Music — Crazy Love by DJ Lang

You Will Pay Attention to the Safety Briefing

  • The selfie of passengers on Southwest flight 1380 not wearing the oxygen masks correctly went viral in the days after the engine explosion, along with the stories — the guy telling the woman next to him that she didn’t need to squeeze the airbag, and the guy who logged into WiFi and Facebook Live before putting on his mask. The flight attendant interviews that seemingly every news outlet did dripped with schadenfreude — no one ever pays attention to the safety videos or demonstrations, and look what happened!
  • Improving airline safety records have let people grow numb as to how unnatural air travel is — flying over 600 mph at 35,000 ft. Flight 1380 was the first accident-related fatality on a US airliner since 2009, and the Southwest’s first ever — since it was founded in 1971.
  • I’ll admit that I don’t pay attention to every demo, especially when I do multiple flights in a single week. I do typically look around me for the nearest exits — in front and behind me — because those can change pretty often with different seat configurations. I will pay attention, as a refresher, if I haven’t flown for a couple of weeks — like last week’s flight to MSP. Or if it’s a plane I haven’t flown in a while, I’ll look at the seat back card — like I did today when noticing I was in a Boeing 717, a pretty rare event for me.
  • I have noticed that the flight attendants’ requests/demands for attention have become a bit more strident since 1380. On my Southwest flight back home from MSP last week, the flight attendant chanted “Nose and mouth; nose and mouth!”, eliciting some nervous laughter.
  • The attendant on my Delta flight this morning was a bit more direct, perhaps fatalistic this morning. “Please pay attention! We’re doing this for you. But if you don’t want to watch us, well, I guess it’s your life…”


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #140
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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