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Flying the fiendly skies

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I’ve solved the airline overbooking problem. Yes, this does apply to IT in the enterprise. Be patient.

Unless you were completely off the grid last week, you know about the contest between United Airlines and Dr. David Dao. Dr. Dao had purchased a ticket, boarded an overbooked United flight, was randomly selected to give up his seat because United had overbooked the flight, once it counted its own flight crew that also had to get Louisville. Dr. Dao refused to give up his seat.

The result: United enlisted the help of three airport police. One concussion, two missing front teeth, and a forehead gash later, they dragged the 69-year-old Dr. Dao from the airplane.

(Sidebar: If you’re certain United had the right to remove Dr. Dao from the flight and the entire argument is about technique, or, if you’re certain it didn’t, please read PolitiFact’s Analysis. Short version: Citing Embry Riddle Aeronautical University aviation law professor Stephen Dedmon, PolitiFact concluded: “The specifics of Dao’s case can currently be debated but not resolved without knowing all the specifics or legal interpretations. It would take a court ruling to decide UA’s provisions were appropriate and properly applied.”)

The airlines inform us that they have to overbook, because some passengers who buy tickets don’t show up, resulting in empty seats on the flight. They overbook to compensate in order to maintain profitability. Occasionally, due to the laws of statistics, this results in a few more passengers than seats.

I have a better solution. It does require an advanced degree in statistics but is otherwise quite workable. In layman’s terms, it works like this: Don’t overbook!

Here’s how it would work: A passenger books a ticket for a flight. That means the airline has the passenger’s credit card information. Change the rules so the airline can charge passengers for their seats whether or not they show up. Empty seat or full, the airlines don’t lose money, and in fact they gain a bit, because the plane weighs less and uses less fuel.

We can sweeten the airlines’ pot even further: Five minutes before flight time they can sell any remaining empty seats to travelers flying standby.

This isn’t even hard. But what’s it have to do with enterprise IT?

Enterprise IT has its own passenger no-show problem. It works like this: Through the magic (okay, bureaucratic nightmare) of the IT governance process, a business manager … or, if you’re Agile, product owner … gets a project request approved.

No matter what methodology you use, if the business folks don’t show up for interviews, walkthroughs, workshops, and such … if you have empty seats, that is … your project can’t move forward.

To solve this, some IT shops emulate the major air carriers. No, they don’t send in the local police to remove business stakeholders from wherever they are and drag them to where the project’s business analyst is waiting for them, amusing as that might be.

What IT shops do is to overbook, although what they call it is multitasking: Developers and business analysts are assigned to enough different concurrent projects that there’s always something productive to work on for at least twelve of them.

This is a terrible idea (see “The end of multitasking as you know it,” from my old InfoWorld “Advice Line” blog). One of the most important factors in achieving reliable project success rates is the flip side of this coin — to only launch fully staffed projects, with “fully staffed” defined as “never waits on the availability of a project team member.”

Instead, IT should rely on a solution roughly analogous to what I suggested for empty seats. Only instead of selling the unused interview time to a different project’s business stakeholder, the EPMO (enterprise program management office), IT Steering Committee, or whoever or whatever else is responsible for IT project governance establishes a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule: If business stakeholders fail to show up for interviews, demos, daily stand-ups, or what-have-you in ways that slow a project down, the project is immediately and unceremoniously cancelled.

This might sound draconian. It might be draconian. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable.

Start with the understanding that there’s no such thing as an IT project. Projects are always about business change, so if business stakeholders don’t show up when they’re scheduled to show up, the intended business change can’t be very important to them.

The analogy isn’t that you’re booting them off the flight. You’re cancelling the flight.

Or something. The analogy isn’t what matters. It’s getting even with those lousy no-shows.

No, that isn’t it. You’re merely adjusting to the company’s dynamically changing business priorities. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Or at least, it’s the boarding pass.

Comments (12)

  • Ah…That’s the ticket! (Oh, you already said that. My bad…)

    Anyway, the only challenge I see is that the CIO has to first make the case to the CEO, COO, and the Board of Directors CLEARLY spelling out the costs to IT in dollars and sense of every missed meeting, using 3 to 5 examples and as many graphs, film clips, and consultants as it takes to get those costs burned into the Powers-That-Be’s business DNA.

    You need consultants because if you are a competent IT manager, you usually focus on presenting unwanted facts to a usually unwilling and un-understanding audience, which is still usually enough to win the day. But, IMHO, in this case, you really have to win the war, not just co-exist. And, you will likely only have one real chance to do it, before the forces of envy, short-shortsightedness, and fear assess the threat you bring to their world and tar dysfunction onto you and your goals.

    So, you really need to make that first attempt be the last you ever need. And the way to get to your goals almost certainly won’t be the path you now envision, so get good help whether or not you think you will need it.

  • The following is a solution I thought up last week. It kind of resembles yours. Maybe some combination of the two might work well. Here it is:


    Each airplane has x number of seats. The first x number of people buying tickets will be pretty much guaranteed that they will get their seat.

    After the first x number of tickets for those seats are sold, then from that point on the airline is overbooking. The airline should be required to inform anyone attempting to buy a ticket that they are in the overbooked category, and if the plane is full with people who bought the first x number of tickets, then they are going to get “bumped”.

    The airline might sweeten this deal some by reducing the price of the overbooked tickets, and if someone who bought one gets bumped, they could have their choice of going on the next flight, or getting their money back and cancelling the overbooked ticket.

    If some of the first x number of people who bought tickets do not show up, or cancel their reservations, or whatever, then the people in the overbooked category will get those seats, in the order in which they bought the overbooked tickets – i.e. the first person who bought an overbooked ticket gets the first no-show seat, etc.

    This way, it would be strictly a first-come, first-served basis, and anyone who bought tickets from the first group, i.e. the regular tickets for actual empty seats, would not have to worry about getting bumped.


  • In fact, the airlines use that idea already, at least in part. If you don’t use a ticket and want to get credit for the ticket value on a new flight, it will cost you a substantial amount (up to $200 on at least some airlines, I believe) to change the flight. If the airline was successful in overbooking that flight, it got the money for the seat from the passenger who flew and the change fee from the passenger who didn’t fly (and maybe the full price of the ticket if the passenger doesn’t fly again).

    So of course the airlines overbook. In fact, I bet they could have gotten at least one more passenger to get off Dr. Dao’s flight if they had offered $10,000 plus a guaranteed seat on the next available flight. And it would have cost them a lot less than the negative publicity they generated by removing Dr. Dao.

    I’m not sure there’s an analogy to the IT business, though.

    • “In fact, I bet they could have gotten at least one more passenger to get off Dr. Dao’s flight if they had offered $10,000 plus a guaranteed seat on the next available flight.”

      One passenger had already offered to be bumped for I think $1300 or $1600, however UA wasn’t interested in paying more than the absolute minimum required – $800. Penny wise, pound(ing) foolish?

  • This time I disagree – you can’t just cancel the project. The IT team has worked hard to staff the project and those folks have to be paid. Cancelling the project transfers all the cost risk to the IT team and the business team is the one that failed to perform.

    I’m starting to believe you have to escalate something like this way up the business side and charge them for non-work. And when they complain that they got less than they paid for IT has to show them how the hours were spent – uselessly because ‘you guys’ didn’t show up and do your job.

    Agile makes this easier in many ways because we know the points required to fill a sprint – fail to produce that much work and some of the team works on less-important stuff. And it’s fully visible to everyone.

  • I took something different away from the United mess and it relates to IT. Public relations and picking your battles.

    In IT we deal with the spectrum of politics in our organization. The CEO ultimately gets to bend our ear more than a line manager – like it or not. We also need to offer some flexibility and not live by a steering committee or we look unfriendly and have difficulty making business change happen.

    United needed to find a cheaper option to their problem. As a CIO, I need to keep the company employees motivated and friendly with my team so that they are receptive to new initiatives. Yes internal employees are captive internal consumers (Bob’s word) but they can check out on me or *gasp* hire an outside firm for their next project. May even be one of those dreaded consultants.

    The lesson learned for me is the minute a business starts to cite policy and procedure as a reason for a business decision they have lost it. United needed to empower their people to do the right thing. If they had, an entire different story would have occurred.

    United obviously is filled with managers and not leaders. Never take your customers (or consumers) for granted.

  • In reference to “The end of multitasking as we know it” I see a lack of real-world processes – In truth we multi-task not because we are being interrupted but because we are waiting on someone (as in your current article). Your multi-tasking example could better represent reality by writing half of the first word, then sitting around for 15 minutes, then writing the rest and finally moving on to the next word OR using that 15 minutes to finish writing the second and possibly part of the third word.
    Granted, overbooking does not solve that, but if you have multi-leveled projects such as long term ones and short term ones, you can layer them efficiently and multi-task to your hearts content without fear of calling the airport authorities….

  • I’ve cancelled flights before and paid cancellation fees that were about $50 less than the ticket was. Basically I paid for the flight and the airline kept my payment and gave me a $45 or $50 credit for the next time I wanted to fly anywhere. The airlines claim that they need to overbook so they don’t fly with empty seats is a bald faced lie. They overbook so that they can get paid twice for the same seat. They’re really gambling that enough people will cancel their tickets so that the airline doesn’t have to refund some of the money that they’re overcharging by paying people to take a later flight.

  • Bob, I’m concerned that your solution violates another tenet you often speak of, “relationships outlive transactions”.

    Yes, cancelling projects will make IT feel better. It will assert IT’s control of such projects. It will let everyone know they shouldn’t be wasting IT’s time (which, I agree, they shouldn’t). What it won’t do is improve IT’s relationships with the rest of the enterprise. Something like this needs to be the last option, not the first.

    I’m reminded of a situation in my last job. We handled billing for the enterprise and Sales teams constantly modified standard contracts with non-standard clauses. Not surprisingly, many of those clauses could not be supported by the billing systems. So we had a group within Billing that did nothing but manually monitor such clauses and issue the required credits/debits. When I started with the group, we had 5-6% of our staff doing nothing but manual billing.

    One solution was to identify frequent clauses and modify the billing systems to handle them automatically. Over time, that reduced the workload by half. To reduce the other half, the Billing VP issued a rule that any non-standard language in a contract sent to Billing would not be supported by Billing. Left unstated was how such contracts, legally signed, would be supported if Billing didn’t do it. It was our “big stick” to enforce compliance, but it also created many problems when customers weren’t billed correctly, as well as bad blood between Billing and Sales.

    My solution, implemented with the one billing system that I supported, was to reach out to the Sales teams. I explained we had limited bandwidth to support manual billing, so Sales needed to limit the number of such non-standard contracts. I told them I trusted them to decide if a contract had enough revenue potential to use up that bandwidth, with the caveat that once the bandwidth was gone, we wouldn’t be able to support the next such contract. I also asked that any such language be sent to me before it was signed, so my team could suggest options that didn’t require manual work, but met the customer’s needs.

    Because my team and Sales had developed a good relationship over the years, this worked perfectly. A contract worth a lot, say $1M annually, might have non-standard language. We supported it. A customer offering much less in business would find Sales less willing to modify the contracts, or would only do so in ways that the systems could support. By the way, all of this was in a company with 15,000 employees, so it can work in a large enterprise.

    If IT has good relationships, your suggestion will be necessary rarely, if ever. If it doesn’t have such relationships, then that seems a bigger problem than some wasted resources. If business sponsors aren’t showing up after requesting projects, IT needs to find out why and fix the process. Then IT can cancel projects for the few teams that simply refuse to cooperate, and then only as a last resort.

  • If I may, an organization that would be willing to implement what you suggest probably does not have that problem to begin with…

  • Bob, I hate to say this but you are about as clueless about the United situation as Oscar Munoz.

    First off, as already mentioned many tickets are already sold as nonrefundable and good for only one particular flight. Perhaps some of the people being bumped had those tickets and were bumped anyway, but at least were offered other tickets. So your idea doesn’t work.

    Secondly, the people were not bumped due to overbooking by passengers but because at the last minute somebody decided that a certain United flight crew “had” to be on that flight. Actually there were no doubt other crews who could have been called in from home or sent from other airports to do whatever that crew was wanted for. The airline should be expected to offer the bumped passengers up to the value of sending that particular crew, and if the passengers valued their commitments more highly than that amount (a doctor was bumped to send a flight attendant?) United should have shifted to a different alternative.

    I was on a flight once that was delayed because the scheduled flight attendant was stranded at a different airport. They identified an arriving flight attendant who wasn’t out of hours to take over, but somehow she left the airport before being contacted. They finally induced a flight attendant scheduled for a later flight to work mine, giving them time to find somebody to replace him there. With their massive computer systems, such rescheduling should be an easy problem for an airline as compared to rebooking both staff and passengers from a cancelled flight.

    Oscar Munoz (and Bob) failed to recognize that to retain customers in a competitive industry you need to expect your employees to inconvenience themselves for customers not vice versa.

    I was on a different flight that was full, and after everyone boarded the airline discovered that due to atmospheric conditions it wasn’t safe for the plane to take off full. In this case someone had to leave, and perhaps you can argue that a lottery was allowable just like an entire flight can be cancelled due to weather with no extra compensation. Fortunately they got enough volunteers in exchange for a free ticket that no lottery was needed.

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