A letter to United Airlines CEO

Jeffrey A. Smisek
President and CEO
United Airlines
77 West Wacker Drive
Chicago, IL 60601

Dear Mr. Smisek,

Last Tuesday, August 15, I was scheduled to travel from O’Hare to LaGuardia on United flight 696. Eventually the flight was cancelled after several delays, and the alternative flight I was able to fly on, flight 694, was found to have an equipment problem, and we had to switch to another aircraft, incurring further delays.

I do not blame the airline for the weather and ATC related delays that befell flight 696, or the equipment problems related to flight 694. I do not even begrudge United for the three round trips I made between Concourses B and C trying to get alternate flights. However, I noticed many areas where United Airlines employees could have exercised greater compassion towards their passengers and better professionalism. Or at least, United could improve its processes significantly, if it couldn’t trust its employees taking the most appropriate initiatives in critical moments.

  1. When flight 696 was cancelled, there was no announcement at the gate that it was assigned (I forgot the exact gate number but this was on Concourse C, and different from the original gate due to the delays). Instead, the gate signage inexplicably started to show that the gate was to process a different flight. The cancellation was only listed on the departure notification screens. The next available flight for LaGuardia was over on Concourse B.

    Flight cancellation is a business decision on the part of the airline, but it is a disaster for its passengers. United should not simply announce the cancellation on the flight schedule boards. Instead, the first line of business after the decision had been made should be to reach out to its affected customers as quickly as possible and offer relief.

    I think a much more appropriate process calls for at least one verbal announcement over the PA system near the gate, and clear instruction that the passengers affected could get their rearrangements made either at the same gate, or at a nearby gate. Extra gate agents assigned to the task would have been welcome—after all, O’Hare is a United hub and there is no reason that it couldn’t mobilize some more resources for the task.

  2. When many of the passengers from the cancelled flight 696 reached gate B9 for rebooking on flight 694, they were left standing in line for more than 30 minutes, with none of them being processed in the mean time. At the beginning there were three United associates at the counter. Eventually two of them left, and the only one on duty left word with one person at the front of the line that he would not be able to process the change requests until the Pittsburgh flight, which was to start boarding soon, was sent off.

    Even though people standing in line may not be a planned event, it should be treated by the airline like a fire that needs to be put off. I don’t know why the two female employees left the counter without processing any of the people in line, or why the sole male employee who was left behind couldn’t process some of us before the boarding process for the Pittsburgh flight began, but mostly, I don’t understand why there was never a call for backups, for some additional gate agents to help out with the situation. Clearly, the airline and its gate agents did not care enough about their customers’ physical fatigue and mental anguish caused by the delays in processing their alternative flights.

  3. Our alternative gate for flight 694 was B19, and we were let to believe that we could just get over and board a plane available there already. We hurried over and waited in line, for another 30 minutes. It was after 20 some minutes that there was an announcement that we couldn’t board because they were waiting for the flight crew. Why was there no announcement at any time that people didn’t have to wait in line, but would be called in due time by boarding groups?
  4. On Thursday (August 16), I got an email from United saying that due to delay or cancellation, I was now scheduled to fly on United 3484, scheduled for Friday August 17 at 10:00 AM, from O’Hare to LaGuardia. I understand that this was due to some clerical error, such that United had not realized that I had reached my destination already. But…

    If a passenger of yours were delayed by more than 36 hours, should s/he be reached through email? Shouldn’t some customer service person be on the phone already, offering apologies, compensation, in addition to the alternative flight?

In fine, I suggest that United retool its processes in dealing with delays and cancellations, retrain its gate agents to treat each passenger with ultimate respect and compassion, and seize each instance of delay and cancellation, whatever their causes, as an opportunity for providing exceptional customer service.

And when the airline fails to excel at such an opportunity, a little apology and compensation for those gravely inconvenienced could go a long way towards earning some good well from its customers.



The Apoptosis of a Color Printer

(Ok, I understand apoptosis is usually not used (or useful) relating to an inanimate object. But bear with me.)


By my totally unfounded estimate, our Canon IP2000 Inkjet Printer must have died some two years ago. This is not an anniversary or any other special date, but I thought if I don’t write something down now, I’d never do it.

No, the printer was not that special to me that I’d treat it like a pet or something. It did print brilliant pictures, as brilliant as some good inkjets other people had did, especially when we gave it good inkjet paper. And it did not misbehave more frequently than printers of similar birth and persuasion. What made it special is the way it died, suddenly, unexpectedly, with a lot of good paper waiting for it because of the untimeliness of its demise.

That day was nothing particular; not warmer or colder than usual to be remarkable, and no storms of any kind like the Chinese would like to believe that a day would be if it were to herald something significant. All I remember was that the printer refused to print after a few good nights’ sleep. It simply blinked one of its lights in a mysterious sequence, and sat there quietly.

We looked up the User’s Manual, which was never consulted with unless we, or the printer, was in trouble. It did not clear up the matter much. The mystery only deepened, as the particular explanation for that sequence of blinks is that the print head is not installed, or installed incorrectly. Now I am not confident that I can tell the print head from the print tale, but no interior parts of the printer was touched between this moment and the last time the printer printed something.

Eventually I was able to find the Service Manual of the printer on the internet (it does not come with the printer). This was not something I could download, but only to view on the website. (I did show it to my son, so at least there was one witness. A minor, though.) This document cleared up things a lot better. In it, it is stated that the same sequence of blinks can also signify, can you guess it… the end of the printer’s life.

Now this printer was not used a whole lot, as we have had a laser printer all along, longer than the inkjet. And most of our printings were of text, which the laser printer reproduced with much better clarity and endurance. But this Canon printer’s life is calculated based on a number of pages or a number of days, whichever comes first!

I felt betrayed. This is madness! They planned the printer’s death before it was sold, and never bothered to tell those who bought it! Then I felt bewildered. If the printer’s like the razor and the ink and paper are like the blades, isn’t it to the manufacturer’s advantage to let it live as long as it could? Then I felt disgusted. I don’t want to keep the product of such an evil manufacturer in my house any more! We dropped it off at Best Buy, where they have an electronics recycling program.

Soon we bought a color laser printer, of a different brand, and forgot about this Canon.


But now I realized, I cannot simply forget. At least not until I’ve written about it, told some people, and maybe asked them to share its story with even more people. Then, there is a chance that we can help others to avoid the feeling of betrayal, bewilderment or disgust its brethrens might bring. And that would be a lasting legacy that’s worthy of this printer of mine!

Now let’s get back to the title. Apoptosis is the mechanism through which an organism refreshes itself. Instead of living with aged and damaged cells, the organism lets the old and damaged cells die, and generate brand new ones in their place. The peaceful death of some cells prolongs the survival of the organism.

In the case of our Canon printer, the apoptosis is not in the sense that certain parts of it died for the good of the whole printer. No, it’s the death of one printer for the betterment of a much bigger organization, the Canon Corporation. They have decided secretly that the printer should die some time after it was bought, while as buyers we had fully expected that the printer would last its “natural” life, and nobody ever bothered to tell us otherwise! Do they understand that even though I bought a Canon printer, my action did not mean I support the survival of the Company?

That was the last Canon printer I bought. Hopefully, whoever is reading this, you’ll not buy one in the future either.

[While I cannot find the “Service Manual” any more, I was able to find a “Simplified Service Manual” on the internet. And below is a section from it.]

Page from Canon IP2000 Simplified Service Manual

Earth population at 7 Billion

Overcrowded train in India
Overcrowded train in India

The world population is to hit 7 Billion around Oct. 31, which is a couple of weeks away. In particular, India is rapidly catching up with China, to become the most popular country in the world around 2030.

Yet in some parts of India, the Catholic church is encourage people to have more children! See http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44856793. Of course, use of condoms is also against Catholic teachings. Would somebody please wake up his Holy See?

Nuclear Power Plant’s Plan B Can Be Improved

I’m no nuclear scientist, and it is probably too early to have definitive information for what went wrong at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. From armchair guesstimation, I came up with this possible series of events that led us to the current state of affairs:

  1. The earthquake near Sendai disrupted the power grid in the Northeast region of Japan.
  2. The power generators automatically shut down for self-protection (they don’t want to generate power and keep it!).
  3. The nuclear generators automatically shut down, also for self-protection (the heat they generate was no longer needed by the turbines). This stopped the controlled chain reaction, but the radioactive fuel still generated some heat due to spontaneous radioactive decay.
  4. The back-up (diesel) generators started automatically, to keep the reactors cool.
  5. When the tsunami came, it knocked out the diesel generators.
  6. At this point, the backup batteries were pressed into service.
  7. About an hour later, the backup batteries were exhausted, and there were no more levels of backup.

Maybe Plan B often works out badly, causing the disasters we get to know. But they don’t have to.

In this case, it is apparent that the secondary backup system was started correctly, and the tertiary backup system was not destroyed or damaged, but rather run through its designed cycle. The problem is that the tertiary system was never designed to last many days while the primary and secondary systems were out of commission. (It’s also possible that the batteries were not even designed to power the cooling system.)

And why did the secondary system fail? After all, it was designed to run independently, without external resources, and it is apparent that the reactor buildings were not damaged by either the earthquake or tsunami. Here I venture a hypothesis. It failed because it did require an external resource after all, albeit one that was generally ubiquitous and plentiful.

You see, diesel is fossil fuel, and a diesel engine cannot run without air. And in a tsunami, the air intake would be inundated, smothering the engine. Furthermore, the seawater and debris would cause long term damage to the air intake and outlet systems.

This leads to the obvious solution: why don’t we design a completely independent and enclosed backup power generator system to run the cooling system? We can use the radioactive decay heat to run a small generator, which runs either a secondary cooling system or the main cooling system at a reduced level. This would not require any external resources, not even air, and therefore can be completely enclosed (a friend of mine relates the design to the generator in a nuclear-powered submarine). The only point where this system would fail is where there is no enough heat to run the generator, but the point is also one that relieves the necessity to run the secondary cooling system!

(Admittedly there is another possible failure mechanism for this design: if the surrounding environment is too hot—its definition depends in turn on the design of the cooling system—the backup turbine might not run, or the cooling system might not remove enough heat from the reactor. But if that happens, we have a much bigger problem on our hand than a runaway nuclear power plant.)

Hello world!

I haven’t been blogging for a while now. In the mean time, I read somewhere that Microsoft was closing shop on their blog site, and I was quite irritated. Why would they not send a nice email to the bloggers on their site (or at least me), instead of letting them find out from a news article? What if they didn’t read the news for a day or two?

This is my first post on WordPress.com. Funny that Microsoft kindly arranged to have my account “migrated” to a different site instead of trying to compete harder, instead of leaving me out to find a new home by myself. So far this site seems to be nicer than live.com. No wonder Microsoft can’t compete.

While I’m kind of grateful that Microsoft thought of a way for me to go on blogging, and that the new site turned out kind of OK, I’m not completely happy about it. For you see, for some reason, Microsoft’s live.com is just about the only site that is reachable from within the Great Firewall of China. Not Google’s blogspot.com, nor this site. Maybe Chinese government didn’t realize that live.com has a blog site! It was very small, after all! That must be it!

I also wonder what WordPress.com has done to deserve the ire of the Chinese government (I know what Google did, and I have mixed feelings about that). Maybe some careless blogger inadvertently mentioned some dissidents, like Liu Xiaobo? But wait, without Chinese government’s contribution, he would never have gotten the recognition that he did, such as winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m deeply puzzled.