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Bad coffee at 30,000 feet

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Had the pleasure of a united Airlines flight of late? For reasons that fall firmly below the line marked ‘interesting’, I’ve ended up on a couple of them of late, shoved to the back of the cattle section, grasping at anything that looked like a cup of coffee as it shuffled up the aisle on a trolley.

In days gone by, when you were on a flight, the safety demonstration was done by human beings. But human beings – as the self-service checkouts at any supermarket will demonstrate – are a disposable currency, it seems. So now you get a fluffy video, which in United’s case is pre- empted by some people in suits generally telling people how awesome they are. I’m paraphrasing, because the coffee hadn’t turned up by this point.

But one of these posh people got my interest. Because he started talking, as my flights were taxiing to the runway, of how his job was to ensure that United customers have the very best mobile applications. Never mind that something useful like Wi-Fi in the sky wasn’t being offered, instead he demonstrated tools that helped me check in at the airport and access my boarding pass and a seat map on my ageing phone.

And, to be fair, some of these tools have proven very useful. My initial temptation to write something grumpy about all of this, and about how software is supposed to complement people rather than replace them, was resisted when it became clear that United – as many airlines do – had come up with some interesting stuff.

Yet I can’t help drawing parallels to USB chargers for mobile phones. One of the very first columns I wrote for this very magazine was bemoaning the fact that major companies had subverted well-established USB technology to come up with a variety of ill-shaped ports to facilitate the selling of an expensive charging system. That’s not quite the case here, but the whole idea of unifying a check-in, booking, boarding pass and seat map system surely has benefits.

Sadly, we’re in an era where it’s not just tools like these that are individual to each airline, but also where different websites from the same company tell you different things. The abuse of cookies is another familiar drum to beat. In the aviation industry, it’s long been proven that if you delete your cookies and flush your cache, you can sometimes get a better deal by going to an international version of the same company’s website. In some cases, you can save hundreds of pounds on the same trip just by booking it in another country, with the same firm.

See, that’s the kind of thing that baffles me. And as much as I salute the way technology has tried to make the inconvenience of battling airports as convenient as possible, there are so many inconsistencies, as a consequence of so many companies going against each other. Is it idealistic to suggest that, at the very least, individual airports could impose some consistency amongst the airlines they play host to? And to call for using said technology for more transparency on pricing?

It’s the ongoing irony of technology: the more things advance – the more tools there are that allow us to do more things – the easier it seems to be to hide stuff from us.

The coffee was rubbish too, if you’re interested.

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