United’s CXL PLCY 15 May 2005

26 comments Latest by Anonymous Coward

I can’t tell if United is trying to bolster their fineprint street cred with the TXT MESG crowd or they’re just dumping their machine-speak on their customers. See the section I’ve highlighted in red below:

united airlines cancellation policy

Sure, we can figure out that it means “This ticket is non-refundable. Changes will cost you $100 plus any difference in fare. If you don’t cancel before you fly you can’t use it for another flight” but why can’t they write it clearly so people don’t have to translate it? The people booking flights on your site don’t work for United and aren’t familar with your internal shorthand. These little things matter.

26 comments so far (Jump to latest)

A friend 15 May 05

That line is directly from their old-school reservations system.

Peter Cooper 15 May 05

Eugh, what a horrible transfer on the return flight, especially considering the outgoing is quick and direct!

Ian 15 May 05

Trust me when I say this is the least of their problems! My wife works in the travel procurement department for a corporation that spends $400 million a year on travel. Obviously they work very closely with the airlines.

It’s literally a miracle that most planes even get off the ground. The organization and IT of airlines is literally in shambles. It runs on this 60’s era mainframe system with unbelievable complexity. There’s even still parts which are done manually ….. yes I said manually. I wish I could unlearn all I know of it, but I’ll spare you any more details :-)

Joseph Wain 15 May 05

Preemptive welcome to Portland! (If that’s not a formulated sample screenshot.)

What are you… er… will you be in town for?

Dan Hartung 15 May 05

It doesn’t seem all that long ago but it must have been (pre-Orbitz, Travelocity, Priceline et al.) when this sort of thing would have actually been the kind of lo-fi design that makes people think they’re getting one over on the corp, or at least getting a bargain. I don’t think that’s the case any longer, but it might figure into their thinking.

Jonathan Fenocchi 15 May 05

The more I use sites like Expedia, Orbitz, United, and Continental, the more I dislike the general design concepts presented therein. The sites don’t just look ugly, either — finding things is extremely difficult, and everything is so cluttered you just want to leave the site and say “Screw it!”

Maybe someone should write a Greasemonkey script of some kind. ;)

Christopher Fahey 16 May 05

Ian, I think you are correct that the main reason for these cryptic codes is the travel/airline industry’s reliance on decades-old computer systems.

But Dan has a point: If the industry actually thought that improving the system would help their bottom line by helping consumers, they might actually put some effort into fixing it.

As things stand now, however, an argument could be made that exposing consumers to plain-english explanations on the strict rules and conditions regarding their flights would be bad for business. Why bother telling consumers how many ways they can potentially be screwed before you even screw them?

Personally, I think such an argument is not only unethical but stupid, but I’m sure it’s part of the problem. If the opposite were true, if the airlines actually thought it was important for their customers to understand the conditions of their flights, I think we’d see a little more progress on the IT front. For example, the machines that print the tickets could probably do a last-step “translation” from these mainframe acronyms/codes to english.

Christopher Fahey 16 May 05

On another note:

Jason’s text messaging analogy is really insightful: There is an interesting similarity between the way the old airline mainframes abbreviate information and the way text-messaging users abbreviate their communications.

The analogy points to why I am in general uncomfortable with the idea of text messaging: It’s a technologically backward and primitive interface, a lo-fi content medium (text) with a crappy interface (a tiny numeric keypad) forcing users to stop thinking like intelligent human beings and to start thinking like simplistic machines, forcing us to “translate” our perfectly good english into primitive lo-bandwidth codespeak.

The more we lower our standards and expectations about how computers should communicate with us, the more we will adapt to their limitations — instead of the other way around. So we are dumbing-down as much as our computers are getting smarter. At this rate, humans will soon deliberately behave so much like computers in their day-to-day communications that even the dumbest computers will be able to imitate us flawlessly.

The Turing Test will be passed in no time.

Wesley Walser 16 May 05

I just don’t understand how a company that so many people are dependant on could be doing so poorly. Surely with all of the money going in and out of those places there is a way to actually MAKE money.

Ian 16 May 05

Nope, in fact they basically lose money on just about every consumer sale. They’re basically a public service at this point. The only money they make is on business customers who have to fly last minute and at specific times and so pay more. A big reason the airlines are hurting is because even these companies are watching their travel pennies. My wifes company is in consulting and they used to ALWAYS travel first class. Now they force the consultants to fly coach unless they’re going overseas.

Chris W 16 May 05

Re: Text Messaging Is the End of Human Intelligence

I don’t abbreviate my text messages…I’ve got this nifty feature called T9 that lets me type real words faster than their abbreviations. I’m sure most people have it and use it.

I use, and like, text messaging. It does exactly what I need it to: deliver short comments or questions which don’t merit an entire conversation (phone call) or immediate answer to a friend while both of us are preoccupied with other business.

And hey, I can even use my phone’s text messaging capabilities with Backpack.

Lo-fi != primitive. I’m pretty sure the classic Unix command line would count as ‘lo-fi’, but by no means is it something to shake a stick at. Text messaging is a perfectly viable technology, and many people are finding good uses for it.

Sure, there’s garbage on the SMS airwaves. But there’s garbage on the web, too.

jordan 16 May 05

I’m glad you translated that; I’d never have been able to figure it out. I’m not exactly sure how ‘CXL’ translates to ‘cancel’, either.

See, I’d present a big problem, because I’ve never flown before - and now they’re dumping some random combination of letters and numbers at me?! How hard can it be to change it back out of that, or at least provide a translation?

Michael Spina 16 May 05

Relying on dinosaur mainframes is no excuse. This is a web site. I’m not much of a programmer, but it would take me less than five minutes to write a PHP function to translate “CXL FLT” to “Cancel your flight.” Even modern databases on the web return all kinds of cryptic information, like arbitrary ID’s and ones and zeros. Translating and filtering to something human readable happens every day. I don’t buy it.

I’m going with Christopher’s theory that it just won’t make/save them money (at least according to their bean counters), so it’s not worth doing.

Bob A. Booey 16 May 05

United sucks.

Arne Gleason 17 May 05

‘…but it would take me less than five minutes to write a PHP function to translate “CXL FLT” to “Cancel your flight”.’

If only the problem were that easy. There is something devilishly deceptive about these archaic-codification-to-usable-info problems (and big system problems in general). There’s almost inevitably a large nest of time-eating-gotchas on what seems to be a clear path to a fix. Not that this shouldn’t be fixed, but I do have some sympathy for those who have to cope with these monster systems, while others without such worries heckle “Even I could fix that in five minutes – it’s so obvious”. If it really is so easy, you may want to use that info for your own venture (there are big rewards waiting for those able to easily do what most others find difficult).

Dan Boland 17 May 05

There’s almost inevitably a large nest of time-eating-gotchas on what seems to be a clear path to a fix.

I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Regardless of the hoops the code might go through to reach “CXL FLT,” it’s still outputted somewhere, whether there’s a line in the code that says “Output this statement” or whether it’s a field pulled from the database and displayed. Either way, in my eyes, it would be independent of the logic required to get to that point. The only way it would be a mess to fix is if the system were a mess to begin with.

Arne Gleason 17 May 05

That’s the thing with gotchas. It’s very easy to build a convincing argument that they won’t pop up because you can outline a number of compelling success scenarios. The problem is that the quick and easy success scenarios assume total unit isolation of the problem with no unknown interactions (“How could there be unknowns? It’s so simple!”). Or maybe it is so easy and I’m defending the indefensible (wouldn’t be the first time).

Mike Curry 18 May 05

I totally agree. Even the latest technological advances by the use of online websites and transferring data back to XML still relies on taking whatever good “data” and structure you have via your XML format or web database and then converting it back to huge steaming pile of crap so that the airline industries can read it. Crap out - convert to useable/readable/understandable/relational data - use for your purpose - convert back to crap.

OTA is a joke and just a big hoax by the travel industries that are members to make it look like they are using a standard and technology that isn’t 50 years old, but in the end you still have to deal with data stored in a 50 year old mainframe.

Jeremy 18 May 05

Dealing with one of the major Airline GDS systems in a very similar area right now. There are times where even they have to come out and admit that they can’t even parse their own data from their own mainframe. It’s hit and miss and sometimes they can give you the data you are looking for depending up on its formatted, but we have run across some fields that can only be distinguished by a person manually parsing the data and using their logic to determine where one field ends and the next starts.

Mike 20 May 05

Airlines, all of them, suck. Plain and simple. The entire travel industry is rotten to the core. People need to stay put more anyway.

www.incenpr.com 21 May 05

ur on This Is Broken (thisisbroken.com)


my website

madkd 25 May 05

What’s really broken with the airlines, and perhaps this should be another entry, is their weight limitations. If I prefer to use one big bag that’s 50+lbs I must pay a fee however I may bring 2 and sometimes 3 49lb bags for no charge? Idiots.

Anonymous Coward 28 May 06

It is more than disturbing to not be treted as a HUMAN BEING.
As humans, we all make mistakes.
I can see paying for problems that may occur relating to a mistake, but - when purchasing a ticket (for under $125-) where is the sense in being charged $150- to make a change - to make a change on a ticket that is still two months in the future?
It is also disturbing that when calling, I find I am discussing my problem with someone in INDIA.
I shall do my best to see that no one I know EVER travels on United, again.

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