Podcast #179 — High-Tech Airport Lines; Business Travel Still Missing

Standing in Line! © Lance Smith/Flickr

Not much travel, but a lot of travel planning for our first post-lockdown international trip to Italy. Trying to thread our way through changing COVID rules and Alitalia’s bankruptcy throes. I’m getting inundated with discount offers for Clear’s fast-pass service. I’ve resisted them so far, because I remember back to when the first incarnation of Clear wanted to sell its members’ biometric data. We then talk to Xovis Technology‘s Cody Shulman about how airports are better managing all sorts of lines in airports. Finally, air passenger traffic is dropping again because business travelers are still missing-in-action (MIA). All this and more – click here to download the podcast file, go up to the Subscribe section in the top menu bar to subscribe on your favorite site, or listen right here by clicking on the arrow on the player.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #179:

Since The Last Episode

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois; no travel since the last episode, just a lot of travel planning. I’ve talked over the past couple of episodes about pushing forward with our first post-lockdown international trip; a bike tour through the bootheel of Italy. We booked the trip in the spring and then last month — I talked about in the last episode — we booked our hotels pre- and post- the ride and the flight over. But not the flight back, because — what else do we want to do while we’re here? I just wrapped up an interim CIO gig last week, so there’s no huge rush to get back — and it’s been 5 years since our last time in Italy, so… As we were thinking about this, a friend, a former colleague pinged me “ Hey there – Just saw your tweet about your upcoming international trip. Sitting here waiting for our pierogies (he now lives in Southern Poland). Where’re you going?” Turns out he and his wife will be in Syracuse, Sicily in October. So there was our answer — after our bike tour ends in Lecce, we catch a flight to Catania and hang out on the beach for the next week. And I can’t remember the last time I said this, but “Thanks, Twitter” for that.
  • So, next step, fire up Google Flights and look for one-way flights from whatever airport is near Lecce to Catania. Which turns out to be Brindisi Airport in Salento — 24 miles, an €8/30-min train ride from Lecce, so pretty convenient, except that the best flight to Catania is an Air Dolomiti-Lufthansa connection with a 13-hour layover in Munich. Yeah, no. So next I look at Bari, where we’re flying into. 90 miles away; less convenient, but doable. The flight options are not much better — a 6am Ryanair flight (which I kinda think of as Spirit Airlines without the charm), a 5pm flight with Volotea (whom I’ve never heard of, but Google and Wikipedia say they’re a budget airline based in Barcelona), and those same insane Air Dolomiti connections through Munich. This makes no sense. What gives? A little more Googling tells the rest of the story. Alitalia has been winding through bankruptcy since 2017 and now 4 years later, after 75 years as Italy’s national carrier, it’s finally closing down– the day before I’m trying to book our flight to Sicily. Timing; it’s a beautiful thing.
  • A little more Googling says there’s a new Italian carrier coming, ITA, but it’s still working through negotiating for Alitalia’s landing slots and equipment and labor contracts, so it’s not taking bookings yet. OK, then. Getting out of Lecce is starting to pick up a little “escape room” vibe. It’s a 7-hr drive, a 14-hr train; so if we’re going, we’re flying. I book the most basic seats on the Volotea flight — €17 for two seats — just to have something and let the whole Alitalia/ITA thing play out a bit more; I can always add the luggage fees and reserved seats later if need be. I book it on Weds, Sept 1; 5pm flight out of Bari, gives us time to have breakfast, pack, and train up to the airport with enough time to deal with the craziness of budget airlines, which is key. My last budget airline experience was flying Wow Air from Reykjavik to London. I arrived 2 hrs before check in to see what appeared to be a stationary check in line of a couple of hundred people. Three days later, on Saturday, I wake up to an email from Volotea saying “We regret to inform you that given the current context of uncertainty about the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been forced to reschedule your flight.” to 12:30 — 4½ hrs earlier. I look at the train schedule — there goes the leisurely breakfast and a bit of the budget airline safety margin, but it’s doable. The next Saturday, the 11th, I wake up to yet another Volotea e-mail (you’d think these guys would knock off early on Friday). Same wind-up — “given the current context of uncertainty about the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic” — but worse punch — “we have been forced to cancel your flight”. Ugh, guess that door out of the Lecce escape room was a dead end. I fire up Google Flights again and now see Alitalia flights out of Brindisi. Seems their replacement, ITA, has figured out how to take bookings. But following the link from Google Flights takes me to the Alitalia website with a banner still saying they’re shutting down. Another escape room fake exit? I flip over to Amex Travel; I can book the flights there. No direct flight, so I take the afternoon flight with a 2-hr connection in Rome. I put it on the Platinum card; figure I’ll need all the status I can get if I have to file for a refund. And then this week, I read about Alitalia telling passengers to bring just a single piece of hand luggage because of strikes and growing labor protests. My friend sends me a text “You still tracking for Sicily?” “Kinda” I replied.
  • Bridge Music — Give You Up by Yongen (c) copyright 2007 Licensed under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa v1.0 license

Following Up

  • Jim McDonough stopped by the TravelCommons Facebook page to leave a comment on the post pointing to my list of the best bars and restaurants I’ve visited in 2021. I said that I think it’ll take guidebooks a while to catch up with all the closures caused by the COVID lockdowns. Jim agreed, saying
    • “I heard Rick Steves talking about the topic. All of his guidebooks are out of date. It will take him all of 2022 to get them repaired – assuming Delta, etc don’t clobber 2022”
  • As predicted in the last episode, Southwest Airlines extended their in-flight alcohol bans to January 18, 2022, staying aligned with the new expiration of the federal in-flight mask mandate. American also extended their economy-class ban, but continue to serve alcohol in their first and business class cabins. That alignment offers them a good explanation for the ban right now, but it’s going to make it tougher to reinstate in-flight drink service because I don’t see the feds ending the in-flight mask mandate anytime in the near future. Although, I dunno, maybe as the US’s only Prohibition airline, Southwest is looking to reposition their “Wanna Get Away?” slogan as “Wanna Get Away from Drunk Mask Fights on Spirit and United?”
  • Back in the Spring, I talked about Irene and Claire missing their Global Entry/PreCheck expiration notices and then in June, about a fake email “make sure your PreCheck doesn’t expire” phishing campaign that scammed a bunch of benched frequent fliers. So last week when I got an email starting “Your Trusted Traveler membership will be expiring soon”, I was a little wary. I was expecting it; after Irene and Claire missed their renewals, I logged in and saw that mine expired in December. But still, I examined the entire email — message headers, mail server authentications. It looked legit, but even then, I typed the web address ttp.dhs.gov into the browser rather than clicking through the link in the email. It was legit, so I buckled in, selected Global Entry (which I always recommend since for only $15 more, you get both PreCheck and the fast path through US passport control), and cranked through the application. It wasn’t bad; the only part that required any real thinking was the 5-year look back on international travel. I had my passport in front of me, but if you’ve country-hopped within the EU’s Schengen Zone, you only get stamped going in and out of the zone, but not when crossing borders within the zone. In kind of a sad commentary on my traveling style, one of the things that helped me fill in those blanks was a spreadsheet of my downloaded Untappd check-ins. I opened it up in Excel, filtered out check-ins before 2016 and venues in the US and Mexico (turns out I haven’t been to Canada in the last 5 years), and then wrote down the countries that were left. Very easy, and an incentive to always have at least one beer in each country I visit — like I needed any more encouragement.

    After I paid the $100 fee and was dropped back to the front page, I saw two interesting notes. The first –“Please remember to revisit our website for your application status updates. Notification of when you may schedule an interview appointment (if one is needed) will only be posted here.” So I guess don’t trust any emails about interviews. The second was more interesting – “Due to a significant increase in application volume, we are extending the grace period from 18 months to 24 months for any submitted renewal application. This means you will continue to receive full benefits for 24 months while U.S. Customs and Border Protection is finalizing your renewal application.” Which was interesting because the email I got from them said “6 months to 1 year”. Whichever it is, my guess is that I’m not getting that interview scheduled anytime soon. 
  • I’ve gotten a bunch of discount offers recently for a CLEAR membership — $100 off with United, full statement credit from Amex. I’m not sure why the sudden push, but I’m holding out. I enrolled in CLEAR’s first iteration, back in April 2008, 13 years ago — I talked about it in episode #64 (but not before I slandered the Dutch by saying their language sounded a bit like a competitive throat-clearing exercise). A couple months later, I wrote a blog post about my experiences — it was OK, but I couldn’t see much value over, what was to me, free premium status lines. And today, I’m still not sold on its value over PreCheck. But what really keeps me from picking up one of those free membership offers is that the first iteration of CLEAR abruptly closed down the next year and had to be sued to stop it from selling its customers’ biometric data — fingerprints and iris scans — before it went bankrupt. The current iteration of CLEAR says “We never sell or rent personal information about you”, but I dunno. They reserve the right to update their privacy policy periodically. What keeps them from updating that “We’ll never sell” sentence when money gets a little tight.
  • Bridge Music — Flight by Ga’inja (c) copyright 1999 Licensed under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa v1.0 license

High-Tech Airport Line Avoidance

  • Frequent travelers are an obsessive lot — they/we obsess over things like packing efficiency (utilizing every cubic inch of our carry-ons) and gaming frequent flier programs. But top of the list is avoiding airport lines. For years after 9/11, line avoidance was more an art (or luck) than a science — through trial and error you’d get a sense of which lines would be shorter during Monday morning rush hour in ORD, or maybe some good-hearted airport worker would shout “There’s no line at Checkpoint D” and then jump out of the way of the stampede of roller-boards.  And then, we jumped at the chance to give iris scans to CLEAR or allow the TSA to do background checks in exchange for a shorter line, brushing off any questions about the trade-off of privacy for convenience.
  • But what about the airports — what are they doing to help us out? To dig into this side, I talked to Cody Shulman, managing director, Americas at Xovis Technology about how they help airports track and report on the airport lines we’re trying to avoid.
    • Mark: Cody, a number of big US hubs have installed Xovis’ technology, DFW, Minneapolis- St Paul, San Francisco, Atlanta. How does your technology help travelers in these busy airports?
    • Cody: Let’s take DFW for example. Let’s first take back-end efficiency. We’re kind of behind the scenes. That’s where DFW terminal operations and their customer experience teams are working together to use the system. They’ll make key staffing changes where passenger traffic is the busiest and do it in the moment. And at the same time, they’ve taken the approach to give access to the local TSA leadership. So, there is no longer a disagreement when there is an issue. Problem solved rather than just finger pointing — it was bad, there was a line, there was a queue over here; no, there wasn’t — because we’ve visualized it all for them, it’s facts. And then on the public side, the passenger facing side, you have all the same information at your fingertips that the airport has. So, before arrival you can use the DFW airport app to see all 15 checkpoints and their current wait times by queue down to the two-minute interval.
    • Mark: Cody. I’ve noticed that, in more and more airports you go to, the airport websites aren’t great, they’re not optimized for mobile, which you think would be a key use case, and sometimes they’re not well publicized. But if you drill in and you find them, you actually can find those sorts of wait time stats and those are critical. So, at DFW, is that your technology driving those stats?
    • Cody: Yes, exactly. And I think you’re also spot on in saying that they’re underpublicized and underutilized. DFW, before they instituted and implemented that into their app, had pretty low utilization. In the world of FlightAware and Flight Tracker, people have these agnostic airport apps that can do everything with tracking of your departure and what not. But then when DFW added this, it’s really useful for DFW because you can use any single checkpoint among those 15 and reach your gate and, on top of it, when the situation, even if it’s somehow dramatically changed when you got there, the signage right in front of you at the airport still shows for every terminal where there are three checkpoints, the wait time at the adjacent terminals and the walk time. So you can self calculate and figure it out yourself
    • Mark: Yes, absolutely. I’ve seen that more and more lately and it seems to be like a good add on.
    • Cody: There’s a trust element even to it as well. So, when this first started to launch with the airport, they were doing it with very vague statements: under 15 minutes, over 15 minutes. Then they went to between five and 10 minutes/10 and 15 minutes, and gradually they trusted the accuracy of the system down to two minutes. Any more than that they decided would just be kind of wonky for the customer. I remember when they first put up those signs. I can still remember the woman: she came up to me in front of the television screen and said, “Excuse me, do you work at the airport?” I kind of shrug my shoulder and go with you can probably answer your question rather you know, why not? So, she goes “That thing up there, is it right. Do you trust it?” And in my head, I’m going “Oh, you’ve asked the wrong guy.” Like I could, I could go on for minutes and minutes here.
    • Mark: Yeah. How do I say no to that? But Cody, what makes it accurate? What makes you confident that you’ve got something down to a two-minute interval?
    • Cody: The system works with two key components. We have software, which is dashboards that are our live visualizations and historical ones for users. And we have hardware. We have sensors. Those sensors are designed for airports. They’re made by Xovis ourselves, and they’re optimized around queuing, and queuing in a complex environment like security, or especially check in which is super unstructured. We’re measuring a very specific thing, and that’s people and it’s their height. You end up under a sensor. It’s not a camera. And we’re taking a measurement of your head height and your shoulder height. And with the difference between those two we’re sure that it’s you as in a human; not mark, not anything else that’s personally identifying but that’s it’s you. That’s step one. That’s a person. There are lots of people around in a queue. We want to make sure that we capture people exhibiting what we call queue-like behavior. So that’s moving in a sequence close enough to other people understanding that some people travel in groups and then there are some independent, and we balance that out algorithmically, so that we know that it’s a person and they’re in the queue.
    • Mark: How do you guys manage traveler privacy?
    • Cody: It’s a super relevant and honestly, for me, a pretty easy question; we’re not detecting faces. Nor are we detecting heat or mobile devices or anything else sort of personally invasive or inconsistently available across every person. It’s just those heights. And again that height differential. So, when we transmit data off our devices, our sensors were not transferring images. It’s just coordinates. It’s X and Y; there’s nothing personally identifiable.
    • Mark: Cody, looking out what’s in the development around adding more convenience to help future travelers. If we look out 2-5 years, what’s next on the horizon for travelers?
    • Cody: To me, the most noteworthy thing for the passenger side is a connected and a predictive experience. Take Seattle. Our services are present on all the checkpoints in Seattle and we’ve taken it a step further and integrated with Delta in their FlyDelta app. There’s a feed to the user in the app to know what wait time to expect when you’re a departing passenger from Seattle. Let’s take that one step further and for that particular elite or frequent flyer in their office. It’s a weekday afternoon. They have to catch an evening flight. What if all the things talk to each other and said, “Hey, this is the time you should probably leave.” Okay, you’ve set up auto enable your Lyft to come at this time. It’s going to drop you at the security checkpoint that, in this moment, we know is the best one because you can reach your gate from any of the five. Then you’re through security. You have time for that extra beer which, not only do you want to have, but the airport wants you to have, because that’s where the real money is. You’ve your beer; you’re happy; you’re relaxed. They’re getting revenue. Happy, relaxed people spend more and then you’re “Wait! I have to grab…” I had a beer, but I grab a water before my flight. So, you walk over to Hudson news and there’s a line. Again, you don’t know that there’s another Hudson news, which there probably is, 3 doors over. Maybe that doesn’t have a line which is better for your wait time, or in COVID times, maybe a more comfortable experience. It’s not as crowded. Or restroom. You get off a plane, you want to know how crowded it is when it was last cleaned. And then flip it to the operational side: stop cleaning in a circle. Clean when that wide body plane came in with 400 people who all went to the first restroom and that thing’s trashed now.
    • Mark: I’ve seen that, I’ve experienced that before.
    • Cody: Just having a smart airport experience and even in public US airports, which are strapped for cash. There’s a changing tide and I expect to see that coming forward and making a customer better experience for everybody.
    • Mark: Fantastic. Cody Shulman, managing Director Americas, Xovis Technology. Cody, thanks for taking the time with us
    • Cody: Mark, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
  • Bridge Music —The Void by Saurab Bhargava (c) copyright 2006 Saurab Bhargava

Business Travel Still MIA

  • Listening to airline and hotel CEOs let the air out of their revenue forecasts for the rest of the year, I went back to the TSA’s web page that gives the daily numbers of passengers going through airport security checkpoints. Back in the June episode, the first time I had fun with those numbers, checkpoint volume had passed 2 million for the first time since the lockdowns and the numbers were going up. Looking at a 7-day moving average to smooth things out a bit, it grew through June until it hit 2 million the first week of July. But after a month, in the first week of August, it turned, dropping back below 2 million and now, running in the 1.7 million range, about 20% down from its peak. Over the same period in 2019, the peak number was 2.6 million and it never dropped below 2 million.
  • It kinda makes sense. This summer’s peak was driven by leisure travel — people, families getting out of the house and going to see places and other people. But as that travel faded, as it always does, when kids go back to school, this time there isn’t enough business travel to replace it.
  • As I mentioned at the top of the episode, I just finished up a 6-month interim CIO gig. It’s had the least amount of business travel of any job I’ve had — by a long shot. Regular listeners to TravelCommons will recall that there have been times when I’ve traveled every week for 3-4 months straight, and a year or two when there was maybe 6 weeks in those years that I didn’t travel. So this last gig, where I had only one business trip, down to Miami in May, was a huge change in my standard operating procedure. 
  • I’ve talked in past episodes about this, skeptical of predictions like Bill Gates’ that 50% of business travel will go away. I was going through the TravelCommons archives, cleaning up show notes and the like, and found an episode from December 2008 where I was answering listener questions about why I travel for in-person meetings instead of video conference; when tech analysts were saying it was “on the brink of widespread adoption.” I’m nothing if not consistent.
  • Of course, it’s difficult to do in-person meetings when people are still working from home; it would be a bit awkward doing a sales call around someone’s kitchen table, having to project the PowerPoint deck on their white tile backsplash. I gotta think you’d lose a bullet point or two in the grout lines.
  • But by fits and starts, slowed by the Delta variant, people are heading back into their offices and international travel barriers are dropping. At this CIO gig, one colleague, the global head of operations, lived in the UK and so couldn’t get into the US to meet with his staff at some newly acquired plants. He was doing daily video calls, but after a couple of months, he’d made all the progress he could and needed to physically meet with these people. So when Canada dropped their travel ban, he flew from London to Toronto, holed up in a hotel room, worked through Canada’s 14-day quarantine, and then drove across the US border at Buffalo and caught a domestic flight to Chicago. It’s just one data point, but I’m grabbing on and holding tight, hoping to tell Bill Gates “Told you so!”


  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #179
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