Tag Archives: flight

The problem is NOT the computer

We were checking in to board the plane, and the woman at the check-in desk told me our seat assignments. “That’s not right!” I said. “We’re a family of three, traveling with a child. You cannot give us three separate seats.” The woman apologized, but said that the plane was full and she could not give us three seats – or even two seats – together. I argued and became insistent that we be given seats together, and she brought in her manager. The manager was able to do some rearranging and gave us two seats together for one parent and the child, and another seat nearby. I thanked her for accommodating us and said that the airline policy should be that families – especially with children – should always be seated together. That’s when she said it:

“The computer assigns the seats. That’s the problem.”

Before steam started coming out of my ears, I swallowed hard, counted to 10 (in binary) and then calmly and patiently explained to the woman that the problem was not the computer.

Perhaps nothing reveals the great need for Computer Science to be taught to every student in school than this very common misunderstanding. People in every job and every walk of life use computers every day. And many of them fail to understand fundamentally how computers work.

Computers do not do things magically, and they don’t operate on their own (yet). Computers do exactly what they are told by human beings, and how they accomplish those tasks is also controlled by human beings. That is called programming.

In this case, the airline (or their programmers) instructed the computer (their servers) to assign seats to passengers once they book a ticket (or when they check in or whenever). Seemingly, those instructions (program) prioritized business travelers, frequent flyers, people who checked-in early, etc. There seemed to be no provisions within the program for families or children.

The solution to the problem is very simple: adjust the program to ensure that children traveling with families are always given seats next to their parents (or at least one parent). Sure, this might interfere with frequent flyers choosing their ideal seats, but the program can be written to maximize the choices for prioritized customers without sacrificing at least two adjacent seats for every child traveling with family.

The problem does not come from the computer. The computer is only doing what it has been told to do by the airline’s programmers. The problem comes from the programmers not being told to prioritize children by the airline.

Too often people blame “the computer” when things do not go well. It’s more than just “blaming the messenger” – it shows that people really do not properly understand how computers work. It’s a mystery to them, so they can blame computers for mistakes .(And also presumably to praise computers for serendipitous good fortune – “Congratulations! The computer has selected you to be upgraded!”) If people truly understood that computers were programmed by human beings to produce the results they come up with, then they would not only be better able to explain problems but also feel empowered to fix those problems. Imagine the manager’s response if she had really understood the way computers work: “I’m sorry for the trouble. The computer system has obviously been programmed poorly to not take into account children traveling with their families. I will make a recommendation to my superiors that the program be revised so this problem doesn’t happen again.”

Aside: I know I’m whining a bit about my own situation. However, I’ve been on airplanes where air hostesses were scrambling to rearrange passengers after boarding to try to unite families who had been separated by “the computer.” It’s a problem that affects many airline customers as well as many airline employees. I could write about the dismissive treatment of passengers by airlines, but I’ll have to wait until I can do so calmly!


photo credit: andreas160578 from Pixabay (CC0/public domain)

Fly me to the moon

It’s rare to have moments of joy and wonder on overnight intercontinental flights …at least not when you fly economy. But sometimes the stars literally align and amazing things happen.

We were flying home from Rome to Addis Ababa on Monday night, the three of us squeezed into tight quarters on a nearly fully flight. We were glad to have three seats in the middle since that meant that at least one of us could sleep (for Nadia, three seats means a princess-sized bed!).

Around 4am, I woke up and got up to stretch my legs. I walked around the plane, circling around to use the loo. All the rows were occupied, with all the window seats filled with sleeping passengers. The portholes in the bulkheads were just too small to allow me to see anything. Grumbling, I headed back to my seat.

Determined to climb over someone if I had to, I got out my camera and headed back down the length of the plane. Fortunately, someone had got up and there was a free window seat on the right side of the plane. I got in and looked out.

Serendipity. The window was perfect. Just beyond the wingtip was the moon, full and bright. It was a “supermoon,” bigger than normal since it was at perigee (closest point to Earth in its orbit), 50,000km closer to the Earth than at apogee (furthest point). Coincidentally, this supermoon was passing through the Earth’s shadow: such a supermoon eclipse only happens every 30 years or so.

flyingmoonI took out my camera and snapped away. Unfortunately, the plane was vibrating too much and there was too much ambient light reflecting in the window to get a really clear photograph. Instead I put the camera away and enjoyed the sight.

The moon doesn’t go dark during a lunar eclipse, since it gets some ambient light bent through the Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, it turns a rusty red – some people call it a “blood moon.” For me, this was no harbinger of doom but a gorgeous sight that speaks about how beautifully the universe works and how much we know and continue to learn.

We know when eclipses happen and can predict to the minute when they start and end for any spot on Earth. I knew that 4am would be the perfect time to look out the right side of the airplane as we flew over the Sudan-Ethiopia border and see the moon in our shadow. Eclipses work like clockwork and show how knowable and predictable the universe is. Instead of demystifying the universe, however, this just increases my wonder and amazement at how perfectly it all works.

Meanwhile, it was a gorgeous sight. I got up and returned to my cramped seat with a huge grin on my face. My knees and back would get relief later. For now, I was filled with wonder and appreciation for our beautiful universe.

See better photos of the supermoon eclipse here.

Featured image: Supermoon Lunar Eclipse by Nasa/Aubrey Gemignani CC-BY-NC-ND

Magical Misery Tour

JpegIn the past six weeks, I’ve flown 12 times across 7 countries. Some flights were on double-decker jumbo jets, while others were on small commuter planes. The carriers came from three different continents.

On greeting family members, the stories about those flights come out …and they’re invariably of frustrations. Lost bags. Cancelled flights. Flustered air stewards, surly ground staff and threatening security agents. Cramped seats and inedible meals. “The glamour of flying is long gone,” I find myself saying, recalling the days when passengers dressed up for flights and enjoyed luxurious surroundings and amenities on board.

And so it is. Flying is a drudgery. The process is at best tedious. Security, budget cut-backs, and the mass-marketing of flying has rubbed the sheen off international air travel.

And yet.

When the captain tells the cabin crew to take their seats for take-off, and the engines push you back into your seat, take a look out of the window. When your stomach gives a lurch and the angle of the land tilts just so, think about what has been accomplished.

An enormous piece of metal has broken the bonds of gravity and has hoisted hundreds of human beings into the air. Terrestrial beings take flight, and the distance between remote corners of the globe is reduced.

What a species we are: we have accomplished something miraculous. We have severed the chains that kept us earth-bound and allowed ourselves to cross unimaginable distances in hours. And we have turned this process into a boring, unpleasant ordeal.