What are the people at the airport typing?
January 20, 2011 7:17 PM   Subscribe

Why is it that everything at the airport (e.g. checking in, changing a seat, or buying a ticket) requires such an insane volume of typing?

Day before yesterday, I'm checking in at the airport (website said I had to), and I give my passport to the agent at the desk, and she starts typing.

She typed for at least fifteen minutes. I bet she hit over 1,000 keys. But what was she actually doing? When I go to the website to check in, I put in my passport number, my name, and whether or not I have a bag. It takes like forty-five seconds.

It's not just this one time, its every time. In the movies, when the character is trying to catch up with the love of their life at the airport before they're gone forever, they say, "Just give me a ticket! Fine!" and then they always do the joke where the person at the desk goes into some mad Rowan-Atkinson-at-the-keys routine. In fact, it seems like its so common in the movies and TV that I'm surprised I can't find anything about it on TV Tropes.

I started trying to watch what she was typing but I couldn't see the screen so I had to go by the keys. It looked like some kind of old timey forms-based thing:
X F E [space] X R F [space]...and a whole lot of other stuff.
A lot of three-character non-words followed by space. Also, a LOT of numbers. Usually ending with .00 (she used the number pad), as if they were amounts of money.

Have you ever worked at an airport check-in desk? What is going on back there? Do they have some special version of Snood or something? A chat program where they are actually just making fun of all the passengers?
posted by jeb to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
They are blogging about the customers.

Just kidding. I have no idea. I have always wondered this too. I suspect they are using softwares that were developed back in the 80s. Codes for everything, plus some Dilbertesque requirements for management's amusement.

I also figure that if they are looking for seats or worse, other flights, they have to enter in all the data every single time. Yeah, its stupid. I have tried to get database programmers to understand how human beings actually work, and ultimately, I lost.
posted by Xoebe at 7:34 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've never worked at the check-in desk, but I was a Skycap, and checked bags curbside, and man let me tell you it was just the shittiest old green-text-on-black-background kind of computer system you ever did see. Something smooth and visual and Mac/Windowsy would've undoubtedly been faster, but why replace it? It's not like customers are gonna be like, "YOU ARE TAKING FIVE MINUTES INSTEAD OF THREE, I WILL REFUSE TO FLY" So there it stayed, a hella shitty old system that was all text-based and looked like something outta Mr. Wizard's World.
posted by Greg Nog at 7:35 PM on January 20, 2011

There are several systems, so which one the person was using depends on the airline. They are generally mainframe-based, so the interface is plain text and a bit cryptic. If you watch this video you can see an example of what one such system looks like.
posted by jedicus at 7:43 PM on January 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

This video explains a little about how to read what you might see in a computer reservation system, particularly with regard to fares.
posted by jedicus at 7:48 PM on January 20, 2011

My guess is that jedicus has it. I haven't seen airlines' software, but you'd be surprised how much software in finance, healthcare, and other big-enterprise industries looks like something out of the late 70's. Enterprise software can be painfully difficult to update, and the customers are locked in once they've installed the software and trained their people. Add to this the potential for catastrophe if the system goes down because you brought up that nice UI, and there are a lot of reasons not to change anything.

So they're probably wading through some Byzantine text-only program that requires 4 keystrokes to get to the next relevant screen. (open menu, choose from menu, choose from submenu, page down past the useless first screen). On a modern browser this would be 1 click and a little scrollwheel action.

Why do the kiosks look so good then? Because they are a separate UI that communicates with the mainframe / database. They don't do anywhere near the number of functions that the agents' terminals can perform. So it was simple to program the kiosks with their 4-5 possible functions, and if they all crashed there was always a fallback - the agents.
posted by Tehhund at 7:56 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't know what ticketing systems in airports look like now, but I can give you some background that might explain things a little.

Back in the early 90's, I worked at a company that created interfaces for those reservation systems that jedicus' link refers to. Those systems are obviously, very old, and were built at a time when not a whole lot of research (or any?) had been done on ways to make computers and computer programs easy to use. A ticket agent (or CSR in a call center, or a travel agent) adapted their workflow to fit the system. Sometimes there were two or three other systems all combined (if the customer was renting a car and reserving a flight and a hotel room), so they would have to ask the same questions (name, address, etc.) several times in the course of one interaction. And since the system are real-time, if it took a while to get a rental car figured out, by the time the agent switched back to confirm the flight, the seat had already been sold, requiring a lot of backtracking.

Once management figured out that if they could reduce the amount of time any individual agent spent with a customer, they could increase the number of customers they served (and bring in more cash), then they hired people like my old company to design ways to make everything look nice and work faster. But a clunky system is not going to necessarily run any faster with a pretty interface (although the customer experience might be better). So even if you were to be able to see a nice Web 2.0-ish screen if you looked over the ticket agent's shoulder, they're still dealing with the same mainframe system that was initially developed ages ago.

On preview - I just watched the videos in jedicus' links and now I have to go lie down. My first job at that company was to write a program to scrape all those screens. AAAIIIIEEEEE!!!
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:20 PM on January 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

In the late 90's I had an 18 month consulting gig with one of the large airline reservation companies. There are only a handful of large airline reservation systems, and almost all of them are written in TPF assembly language to run on IBM mainframes. The place I worked was using modern programming languages and techniques for a lot of the new tools and services they were offering, but the core code base was (at that time) over 30 years old and written in TPF. The code was extensively tested and very reliable. This was a business where outages were measured in millions of dollars per hour. It was also very complex because of the hundreds and hundreds of interfaces with other reservation systems: airline, hotel, and rental cars. And it could process tens of millions of transactions per day. The trade-off for that reliability and throughput is that they were still stuck with "green screens" and lots of cryptic two and three letter codes/commands to interact with the system. I have no idea what your check-in agent was doing the other day, but I expect it involved some change to your flight that required reseating or something where she was trying different queries to make something work with your flight.
posted by kovacs at 10:04 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh wow, I remember my days as a travel agent. The desk agent was doing several things, particularly if you didn't already have a seat assignment. In no particular order, she was reviewing and updating your PNR (Passenger Name Record) with your passport information, getting a seat assignment, if it's a flight to/from/over/under/around/through the USA then checking a separate screen for any secondary security screening, updating bag information (along with its associated costs, most of which are in whole-currency amounts ending in .00), and quite possibly finishing up her work on a previous reservation.

jedicus' links are accurate from a travel agent point of view, and being a desk agent at an airport is even more typing. They can get into the seat assignment maps, look at the company-only section of a PNR, and have about 18 billion more data entry screens that TAs can't touch. Commands beginning with X, if I remember correctly in the WorldSpan system, were for company (airline) use only except for fare classes.
posted by fireoyster at 1:30 AM on January 21, 2011

Greg Nog: the shittiest old green-text-on-black-background kind of computer system you ever did see. Something smooth and visual and Mac/Windowsy would've undoubtedly been faster

As a general rule (I don't know about the specific systems mentioned here), that is highly unlikely. GUIs are easier to get into for the casual user, and have advantages when it comes to data presentation, but for a trained professional, a simple text-and-key-presses kind of system will be much faster after becoming familiar with said system.
posted by Harald74 at 4:04 AM on January 21, 2011

I haven't seen airlines' software, but you'd be surprised how much software in finance, healthcare, and other big-enterprise industries looks like something out of the late 70's. Enterprise software can be painfully difficult to update, and the customers are locked in once they've installed the software and trained their people.

If you dig deep enough into many big corporations' IT departments, you will, honest-to-god, still find COBOL guys working away, keeping various ancient things running. Some of the stuff is just that old and simply too complex and mission-critical to even try to port to something newer.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:00 AM on January 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also don't forget that the airlines seem to be singlehandedly propping up the dot-matrix printer industry. Anytime I'm waiting by an airport gate, I hear the familiar eeeeeeeeeeeeeee-zzzzzp-eeeeeeeeeeeee of decades past.

That said, those things are like tanks. Up until a year ago, I supported a medical billing office that printed everything with a dot matrix. A few years ago, I got a panicked phone call saying that the invoice printer had died. I dialed in, redirected the jobs to their other printer, and hopped in my car so I could take a look. Upon further inspection, I discovered that the printer was over 20 years old, and had been operating without incident that entire time. A quick call to Okidata, and a "new" Oki Ml-321 (with RS-232 interface card!) was overnighted to us the next day. The same exact printer was still in production. Amazing.

Also, don't get me started about the headaches that came from migrating that office to Windows after their software vendor abandoned their xenix-based product (yes...we were using xenix in 2005 -- it was rock solid). The Windows GUI was crap compared to the old text-based UI.

posted by schmod at 8:15 AM on January 21, 2011

Shut up, you, thorzdad; I am in .edu IT, and the Big Fish of student information systems is still all chewy, nougaty COBOL at its core.

On a mailing list for DBAs last month everyone had a good laugh at the naive idea of rewriting all that stuff in something newer (a language that allowed for, say, lower-case letters...). Mind you, some people argued for its stabililty and reliability, but enough examples of crud were produced to make most of us suggest it was just intertia and cost that kept us on that old codebase.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:41 AM on January 21, 2011

jedicus is right. My mom helped to write one of them in, I believe, Fortran. I also have limited experience with using one of these systems and it's basically like using telnet or something... all black screen and green command line. In fact, the first video linked shows a system that looks considerably more modern than the one I've seen.

I've heard my mom talking about how they don't really have a way to switch over if they wanted to. They'd have to shut everything down, replace thousands of computers and retrain thousands of employees. That's the extent of my knowledge on that, though.
posted by cmoj at 11:53 AM on January 21, 2011

A lot of early IBM tech was developed specifically to deal with airline reservations, since they developed around the same time. We're talking custom programming languages running on custom operating systems running on custom hardware, with custom data formats being transmitted over custom networks. There have been some interestingly weird attempts to update airline IT since then -- United was using Apollo Unix workstations for checkin, along with that company's own weird OS and network, for a good 20 years after Apollo went out of business. But I get the impression it's a horrible mess.

Lots of other industries are stuck on COBOL, which is horrible but at least it's a general purpose language that you can run on modern servers if necessary. Not the airline stuff!
posted by miyabo at 3:37 PM on January 21, 2011

Thank you to everyone for your contributions, but I don't see the link between "the software is old and arcane" and "it takes 1,000+ keypresses to check in." I'm familiar with old character-mode software: I use vim as my editor and I have Bloomberg on my computer. I watched jedicus' videos. It seems like to choose a fare, you'd press the number in the first column. One key. Like, when I was a kid, the card catalog at the library was an old character mode thing. You'd hit like 'S'-[enter] for 'search by subject, then type in your query followed by enter, and then it would show you a list of books. You could hit the number next to the book for more details, and some other pair of keys were assigned to next/previous pages. The thing is, this is usually a pretty fast way of navigating, once you learn it. In fact, I have my Google set up to work like this via Google Labs. Finally, how ever arcane the software made by the GDS companies is, or ITA, the online retailers and checkin systems must interface with it, right? So oldness is not necessarily a sufficient explanation for all the typing.

I think fireoyster's answer contains the outlines of what is going on (for instance, it was a Delta flight so the GDS probably was Worldspan), but I wish we had someone who could actually explain the specific things that need to go in there.
posted by jeb at 8:12 AM on January 23, 2011

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