Delta gets it

About six months ago, the passenger to my right informs me, Delta Airlines installed the new information system that I just experienced for the first time at La Guardia airport this morning. It's one of the most effective uses of information technology I have ever seen. Even if you don't usually fly Delta (as I don't), you might want to wander by one of their gates next time you're in an airport and check it out. Air travel still sucks, of course, but Delta earns my eternal gratitude for a brilliant application that makes it suck less.

There were two large-screen monitors at my gate. One hung above the desk where everybody waiting in line could see it. The elements of the information display, which ought to win an Edward Tufte award, included:

Describing these elements statically doesn't do justice to the dynamic nature of this system in action. Since users can't control the display, timing and pacing are crucial aspects of the design. Early on, during the half-hour of activity I watched, the "help system" -- instructions that explain standby and rebooking policy, show pictures of boarding passes and receipts (with crucial items highlighted), and even depict Medallion and mileage cards -- was in heavy rotation. So were the weather reports. Toward the end of the cycle, the focus shifted to the standby, rebooked, cleared, and upgrade lists. As standby passengers move to the cleared list, for example, both lists adjust.

The airlines' monopoly on this kind of information has surely created a lot of air rage. It pisses people off to wait in long lines in order to beg harried agents for vital scraps of information. "How about that," said my neighbor in 18B. "Technology that actually makes our lives better." It's all about transparency, of course. There's no reason not to share this information with travelers. I suspect, though, that the decision to do so did not come easily. Was there internal debate about whether passengers should really be allowed to see all this realtime data? In any event, congratulations to Delta for doing the right thing, and for doing it so well.

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