Friday, March 21, 2008

On Maintenance...

I can't believe it. I think that maybe I'm not meant to fly. My travel to and from EclipseCon 2008 (which I'll be blogging about in the very near future, once I collect my thoughts) was fraught with yet more joy (or lack thereof). I suppose it was foolish of me to expect things to get better, but what can I say, I'm an optimist at heart (or a sucker for punishment, depending on how you look at it). In hindsight, airline travel pain points aren't all about safety and security... they're often about maintenance.

My flight from Chicago to San Jose last Sunday was initially delayed because of a generator problem which somehow resolved itself, so we were cleared to fly about a half hour late (which was good, I thought, since I figured there was no way we'd all fit on later flights with all the masses heading to mecca). Once on the plane, though, the captain informed us that in addition to having to wait for the plane to finish being refueled (aren't they supposed to do that before people get on the plane?), there was an issue with the "chimes". Apparently, something about the forward lavatory was interfering with the pilots' ability to communicate with the crew. A technician boarded the aircraft and spent 30 minutes trying several things, including rebooting the plane, to resolve the issue. Another announcement informed us that a part needed to be ordered and that we were to stay on the plane and wait for an estimated hour until it arrived. Eventually it became apparent that the part would take longer than expected to arrive, and so those that wished to re-enter the terminal were allowed to de-board the plane. I decided to get off and stretch my legs, so I took my backpack with me and headed to the terminal. About fifteen minutes later, decision was made to abandon the aircraft, soon after which chaos ensued as those that had left their carry-on bags on the plane attempted to re-board the aircraft to retrieve them amidst the mass exodus of passengers whom had decided to wait it out. Miraculously, a replacement aircraft was found and we finally departed almost exactly three hours later than our original departure time.

My return flight (from San Jose to Washington en route to Ottawa) was only marginally better. All passengers had boarded and were ready to depart on time when the captain made an announcement that there was a minor maintenance issue that needed attention. I knew the drill. On comes the mechanic to go through his diagnostic routine which, again, involved "control-alt-deleting" the aircraft (to use the captain's words). Once the plane was restarted, the problem magically disappeared (which wasn't necessarily all that reassuring, especially after the captain admitted that the issue had been with the plane's navigation system), and after the ten minutes or so that were required to reprogram the coordinates of route to Washington, we pulled away from the gate only an hour later than we were supposed to.

When will the madness (maintenance) end?

Monday, March 10, 2008

On Airline Travel...

Nick blogged the other day about pain points. Well, I have a few of my own to share based on my recent experiences traveling on commercial airlines. It’s easy to let frustration get the better of you in the face of the increasing number of ways in which air travel can make you feel quite insignificant, but hey – most, if not all, of it is in the interest of safety or security and hence for the common good, right? Sometimes I wonder.

Like Ed, I generally consider myself a fairly patient person. Lately, though, it seems that every time I fly, my patience is tested. On my way to Embarcadero’s Product Advisory Council (PAC) meeting in San Francisco last month, for example, one of the screening personnel at the security checkpoint gave me a hard time about my laptop computer. Here’s roughly how our conversation went.

Screener: Is this your laptop?
Me: Yes.
Screener: It’s kind of big to be a laptop, isn’t it?
Me: Oh?
Screener: Yes. I’ve seen larger, but usually they have some kind of handle built into them.
Me: Sounds more like a portable desktop computer than a laptop.
Screener: Exactly. Haven’t you heard of the MacBook Air?
Me: Yes, I wish I had one.
Screener: Then why don’t you get one instead of carrying this thing around?
Me: I don’t make decisions about what hardware I use for my job – my employer does.
Screener: Your employer doesn’t like you very much, do they?

See, I told you that branding is everywhere. I just didn’t expect to have it waved in my face by airport security. Somehow I think that if I were the one poking fun, the conversation would have taken a sharp turn for the worse…

Coming back from the PAC, I had what was probably the most pleasant flight from San Jose to Toronto I’ve ever had. I got to catch up with my old university acquaintance, Donald Smith, and we even had a spare seat between us. That’s where the joy ended, though. Upon arriving at my connecting gate in Toronto, I discovered that the aircraft for my next flight was late arriving due to a “maintenance item” that required attention. After a while, the plane arrived, and by the time we boarded and were ready to push back, we were about 45 minutes late. But apparently we weren’t the only plane looking to push back at that exact moment, so we had to wait another 20 minutes or so until the congestion cleared. Finally on our way to the runway (or so we thought), the captain announced that before we could take off, the plane needed to be de-iced, for which, unfortunately, there would be a 45 minute wait. We waited, and at last the de-icing was done, so we headed down the runway… but just before take-off, the plane slowed down and turned back toward the gate. The captain announced that the “maintenance item” had re-surfaced and that we had to proceed to the gate for an inspection by a maintenance crew. Of course, the maintenance crew deemed the aircraft unsafe to fly, so all of the passengers were cast out and told we were on our own since the remaining flights to Ottawa that night were full. We were instructed to proceed to the baggage claim area to retrieve ours bags, where we waited… and waited… and waited some more, until finally there was an announcement that somehow a spare aircraft had been found and that we had a new departure time which turned out to be only five hours later than our original one. Of course the tipping point came when, as we were boarding the “replacement” plane, one of my fellow passengers observed that the new aircraft seemed oddly familiar…

I was supposed to arrive in Washington for the OMG technical meeting on Sunday (yesterday). But we had near-record snowfall in Eastern Canada this past weekend (52 cm in Ottawa), which wreaked havoc on airline flights. My original flight, scheduled to leave Ottawa on Sunday at noon was, of course, canceled. After an hour and a half on the phone, I was able to secure a seat on the 9:00 a.m. flight Monday morning. Naturally, that flight was late departing because of gate mismanagement, so when I arrived in Toronto, I really had to hustle to make it to the luggage claim area and through customs to get to my connecting gate for my departure time of 11:25 a.m.. I arrived with 15 minutes to spare, which turned out to be 45 minutes because, of course, there was a “maintenance item” that needed to be addressed. So, I waited in line to board the plane only to find out that Air Canada, in its infinite wisdom, had decided that since my flight from Ottawa was late arriving there was no way I could possibly have made the connection, so they gave my seat to someone else and re-booked me on a later flight… nine hours and twenty five minutes later, to be exact. I was offered the opportunity to try for a stand-by seat on the 3:55 p.m. flight, but was told that the chances were slim since most flights were full due to the cancellations over the weekend. I had to do a podcast interview at 3:00 p.m., though, so I decided to shoot for the 6:00 p.m. flight instead (can you see where this is going?). As luck would have it, I made it onto the 6:00 p.m. flight, only to be the “random” passenger selected for the extra security search half way to the plane (apparently flights to Washington require extra security precautions – go figure). I finally arrived in Washington, but, you guessed it, my luggage didn’t. So, here I sit in the hotel room waiting for a call from the concierge to tell me that my clothing has arrived. If it doesn’t, it’s going to be an (even more) interesting week…

Friday, March 7, 2008

On Due Diligence...

No, I'm not talking about e4 (surprise!). In the midst of the fray I let curiosity get the better of me this afternoon. I noticed Atoine Toulme's newsgroup post about a BPMN diagram of the Eclipse legal process and wondered what the same diagram would look like if created using the free community edition of EA/Studio, Embarcadero's Eclipse-based business process modeling tool. Here's what I came up with.

What was interesting to me, other than the obvious differences in appearance between two renderings of the same diagram, was that I would have chosen to draw the process differently. It reminded me of an article I read recently about the wide variation in the way different people choose to represent their processes. BPMN has indeed become the de facto standard for process model diagrams, but if everyone uses the notation in a different way, can we truly communicate our ideas using the same language? Food for thought.