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    Entries in transportation (3)

    Tuesday
    Apr252017

    Notes From the Road #21 - Friendly Skies Edition

    I was waiting for an early morning flight today (on Delta, the best airline in the world), and heard a gate announcement from across the terminal for a United flight that was also soon to depart. The United gate agent was seeking volunteers to give up their seats on the 6AM flight to Chicago and take a later flight. With everything that has been in the news about the recent problems United has had with overbooking and removing passengers from flights, I couldn't help but wince a little as I heard the announcement. And I wasn't even on the flight. Nor that airline. Just the stench of what has been going on at United wafted across to my Delta gate. Aside - my Delta flight also was seeking folks to volunteer their seats as well. Must have been a big day to get out of Rochester today.

    But the announcements this morning, and the United follies of late made me think I hadn't done a 'Notes' post in a while, and since I KNOW you must have been waiting, on edge, for me to share my thoughts on the United stuff and air travel in general, here are my frequent flyer informed Top 10 observations/comments on the current state of the friendly skies...

    1. On the United stuff - pretty much everyone was at least partially in the wrong there. United operations should have a better plan to get its employees where they need to be. United gate staff and on-site managers should have had more leeway to increase the compensation on offer in order to coax the desired number of passengers from the flight. Airport/aviation security should have found some other way to accomplish the de-planing of the passenger that did not involve concussions and a busted up face. And finally, despite the unfairness of it all, the passenger in question, once three airport security staff boarded the plane and requested he de-plane, had to comply. He should have been mad. He probably should have dropped a F-bomb or two. But he should have left the plane and taken up his case back at the gate. On board an aircraft trapped with 100 other folks in close quarters who have nothing to do with this incident is no place to decide to hold your own sit-in protest. 

    2. I think an underrated element of the air travel experience is the newness of the aircraft itself. The plane I am on now is really, really new seeming. It almost has that new plane smell still. Creates such a positive feeling right from boarding when the plane is new(ish), and not one of those dreary, run-down, relics from 1987. 

    3. I know this is easy to forget, but another thing that would make the overall experience better is for everyone to realize that you are not the only person on this flight, and unless you are the pilot, you are also not the most important person on this flight. You know what? We all have connections to make! We all sat through the turbulence over Colorado. We all had to endure the four hours to LAX with the terrible wifi. Treat everyone nicely, we are all in this misery together.

    4. But given that we are all miserable, we can't take that out on the individual employees of the airline - gate agents, flight attendants, customer service folks - any of them. Ninety-five percent of the airline staff are giving their best effort to get us where we want to go - safely, on-time, and as comfortably as conditions, (which none of them created) allow. Sure, can an airline worker have a bad day? Be rude? Of course. But so can the guy at the gas station, the clerk at the DMV, and the passenger in Seat 17C who keeps hitting the call button to ask for another ginger ale. 

    5. Air travel is a volume business. Delta, American, Southwest, and United, (the Big 4), might carry 125 million passengers each year. If they are lucky, they will make $6 of profit on each passenger (it is often less). So even if you think your $1700 fare to SFO was really expensive, the airline barely makes enough to cover the costs of getting you there. So like your local grocery store, volume and thin margins is how airlines make money. I think some of the disconnect in the air travel experience is we see our fares as big-ticket purchases, but the airline sees us all as contributors of $6 to the bottom line.

    6. It is never a good idea to argue with the TSA. See point #4 - the person manning the scanner or waving the magic wand or doing the patdowns did not make the rules. The process is often ridiculous, but the time and place to make your stand is not at 5:30AM with 72 people in line behind you who just want to make their flights. Write your Congressperson if you don't like what goes on at airport security.

    7. No matter what scheme an airline uses to manage the boarding process, (line up with numbers, line up in groups, high status first/lower status next, etc.), boarding will be probably the worst aspect of the flying experience. This is mostly our, (the collective we) fault. We lug too many things on the plane, we can't count rows, we have to position phones, tablets, e-readers, magazines, boxes of Good n' Plenty just so at our seats before we sit down. Just please, for the love of all that is holy, stash your bag under the seat, don't try to stuff the roller bag where it clearly will not fit, and just sit down. There is nothing more likely to make you weep for humanity than to watch 120 of us attempt to board a plane.

    8. You do not, under any circumstances, need to make a phone call telling someone 'We just landed' the SECOND after the wheels touch down. I promise you that call can wait 7 minutes until we are at the gate and getting off the plane. Trust me.

    9. Your bags will almost certainly not get 'lost' or even delayed. In 2015 the USA rate of lost luggage was about 3 per 1,000 passengers, a 10% reduction from 2014. Delta (and American I think) now allows you to track the movement of your checked bags via it's smartphone app. I get a little notification when my bag gets placed on the plane, when it is switched to my connecting flight, and when it is unloaded at the claim area. Will you be one of the 3 out of 1,000 who has an issue with your bag? There's a 99.7% chance you will not. So get over that one time in Indianapolis nine years ago when your bag went missing and it had to be delivered to the Fairfield Inn a couple of hours later. You were fine.

    10. There are going to be times where you miss your flight, when weather or mechanical issues cancel the flight, when you are stuck in a middle seat between two guys who are the size of a WWE tag team, or when there's a crying baby, no wifi, or the plane has run out of red wine. That is just how it is. But remember none of those things are happening to you, they are happening to all of us too.

    And it could be worse. Remember that 27 hour drive to DisneyWorld when you were a kid? And Dad threatened to turn the car around about 19 times? And your brother got car sick on your Keds?

    Think about that compared to that crowded, stuffy, 2 hour 32 minute flight where you watched Moana and had some honey roasted peanuts and a Sprite.

    That's it, I am out. Safe travels out there.

    Wednesday
    Dec182013

    Uber, surge pricing, and data at work (at work)

    The on-demand black car service Uber took quite a bit of flack over the weekend for implementing what is known as 'surge pricing' during a pretty nasty snowstorm in New York City. If you are not familiar with Uber, (and you should be because it really is an amazing service), the basics are pretty simple. Users use a smartphone app to summon a black car or equivalent that picks them up and then are taken to their desired destination. The entire payment transaction (including leaving the driver a star rating) is executed via the app, for prices (at least in my experience) ranging 15-20% more expensive than 'regular' taxi service.

    But during times of extremely high demand for rides and low supply of on the road drivers (like on a Saturday night in a bad storm), Uber implements 'surge pricing', essentially increasing the cost of rides anywhere from 2 to even 6 or 7 times the normal fares in order to balance demand with supply. The ECON 101 logic is pretty simple - the increased prices (which users are warned about in advance of booking a ride) will serve to simultaneously reduce demand while increasing supply, as more drivers will be enticed to get out on the road in order to earn increased fees during the surge pricing period.

    In addition to using basic pricing flexibility to manage and try and balance supply and demand, Uber also is attempting to mitigate the one really frustrating piece of the typical customer's experience, (I can attest to this one), which is the simple lack of availability of a car when you need/want one.

    But the backlash from last weekend's surge pricing in NYC seemed pretty harsh as people took to Twitter to vent about their frustration with Uber for radically increasing their prices during a time of "crisis" in the city - it seems like there were scads of celebrities that were particularly peeved about having to pay what they felt like were exorbitant prices for transportation around town.

    Putting aside the natural lack of sympathy I have for anyone complaining that their on-demand, door-to-door, black car service costs too much (on a Saturday night in the busiest city in America and during a snowstorm), I wanted to highlight this story as one of the very few that we see that showcases how data, technology, and the combination of the two are actually conspiring to benefit the front-line worker - in this case the Uber affiliated black car drivers.

    Normal taxi drivers or even limo drivers might see a little extra in their pay rates for working a Saturday night, but certainly could not take advantage of the dramatic increase in demand for their services as the Uber drivers who braved the storm were able to realize.

    Through a combination of new technology, absence of the pricing regulations imposed on traditional taxi services, more flexible labor rules, and most importantly, the presence of information of the increased demand, these Uber drivers were able to make better and hopefully, more informed, data-driven decisions about whether, where, and when to provide their services.

    Most front-line workers never really get the exercise the kind of labor pricing power that we see in this example. Last Saturday night lots and lots of pretty well-off people wanted black car service on one of the worst weather nights of the year. The kind of night that most folks would rather stay home and stay warm, much less venture out into the cold and wet and storm to work for their normal pay.

    Thanks to data and technology at least in this example, the Uber drivers who did venture out into the weather did a little better than most front-line workers.

    It looks like they were paid what they deserved. Which is not always easy to say, both for black car drivers and for the celebrities they ferried up and down Manhattan last Saturday night.

    Wednesday
    Nov062013

    It's a good time to be a truck driver, (until the self-driving trucks take over)

    And when I say 'good time' please do accept that as a relative comparison to say burger flipping, making lattes for annoying customers, or working the graveyard shift at the Kwickie Mart.

    I caught this really interesting piece on Forbes, DOT's New Curb on Driver Hours Is Hurting Productivity, Truckers Charge, that while seemingly a dull piece about changes in Federal work rules governing working hours for commercial truck drivers that would only be interesting to say actual truck drivers and trucking company operators, actually to me reveals much about the future of work and the automation of work here (and likely everywhere).

    First, take a look at the main point of the piece in Forbes, then a take from me on why this matters more generally, (and why robots are involved, naturally).

    Rules limiting the number of hours that commercial drivers can be on the road are resulting in a marked drop in productivity, trucking companies claim.

    The latest Hours of Service (HOS) rules were put into place on July 1, 2013 by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. They state that drivers of commercial motor vehicles can be on the job for a maximum of 11 hours, following 10 consecutive hours off duty. They must take a minimum 30-minute break during the first eight hours of a shift. Their maximum average work week is capped at 70 hours, down from the previous limit of 82 hours.

    The trucking industry fiercely opposed the tighter rules during public hearings, but to no avail. Today, a trucking company whose driver exceeds the limit by more than three hours can be fined $11,000 per offense, and the individual driver faces civil penalties of up to $2,750.

    During the public comment period, truckers warned that the rules would cut deeply into their productivity. Now, they say, that is precisely what has happened.

    Schneider National, one of the nation’s largest truckload carriers, predicted back in February of 2011 a productivity drop of between 3% and 4%. Four months after implementation of the HOS rules, Schneider is reporting declines of 3.1% on solo shipments and 4.3% on team shipments.

    Pretty straightforward, right?

    The Feds tighten up the rules around how long in a day and for a week that commercial truck drivers can be behind the wheel, thus creating an artifical constraint on labor supply, (I am not going to even try to get in to the debate about whether or not this change in rules was needed or makes sense, because I simply do not know), and the trucking companies begin to feel the pinch in lost output and productivity.

    The simple solution, and the reason this story was interesting to me, would be for the operators to simply hire more drivers. But it turns out, this would not be an easy solution at all.

    From a related Bloomberg piece on the changes in truck driver working hours regulations:

    Adding more drivers to payrolls will be a difficult undertaking. The industry was 158,000 drivers short of what it needed to meet demand in the second quarter, according to (trucking industry analyst firm) FTR Associates.

    The shortfall probably will widen by the end of this year to 251,000 truckers, the biggest deficit in nine years, and reach a record 338,000 by the end of 2015, according to FTR’s Driver Shortage Surplus gauge. The economic expansion and higher turnover help explain the industry’s labor shortage.

    “Every cost gets passed down,” said Sean McNally, a spokesman for the ATA, an Arlington, Virginia-based industry group. “As the labor market tightens and as demand for drivers goes up, typically wages go up as well. The competition is already fierce for good drivers. This is only going to increase that competition.’

    An industry and job function that had been already been facing labor shortages, (Mama's don't let your babies grow up to be truck drivers), and now feeling even more of a pinch from a forced reduction in labor capacity (in the name of safety, at least according to the Feds). In the short term, it seems like wages are going to have to rise at least some in order to get more people recruited into becoming commercial truck drivers. Of course the operators, (and their downstream customers), don't like to hear that. Increased wages means lower profits.

    But longer term, it seems like while we have read lots and lots over the last two years or so about self-driving cars, the real 'killer' application of the self-driving technology is going to be for commercial trucking.

    If the big trucking companies are looking at labor shortfalls that estimates say will increase to over 300,000 in a couple of years, then something is going to have to break. And applying the self-driving technologies to a very real and growing economic problem will provide the necessary incentive to push the development of these technologies into higher gear (apologies for the very unfortunate pun).

    It will probably be a pretty good time for the next few years to be an experienced commercial driver. But after that, probably not so much, as automation or self-driving or whatever it ends up being called will eventually put 'truck driver' on the list of careers that end up being displaced by technology.

    Which of course will make it even more difficult for the trucking companies to find the human drivers they need today, who will begin to sense their days are numbered from the first moment they get behind the wheel.

    Happy motoring.