Airport idiocy

On Sunday, I returned to Austin with Dana and the kids from Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania.  The good news is that I didn’t get arrested this time, didn’t mistake any tips for change, and didn’t even miss the flight!  But I did experience two airports that changed decisively for the worse.

In Newark Terminal C—i.e., one of the most important terminals of one of the most important airports in the world—there’s now a gigantic wing without a single restaurant or concession stand that, quickly and for a sane price, serves the sort of food that a child (say) might plausibly want to eat.  No fast food, not even an Asian place with rice and teriyaki to go.  Just one upscale eatery after the next, with complicated artisanal foods at brain-exploding prices, and—crucially—“servers” who won’t even acknowledge or make eye contact with the customers, because you have to do everything through a digital ordering system that gives you no idea how long the food might take to be ready, and whether your flight is going to board first.  The experience was like waking up in some sci-fi dystopia, where all the people have been removed from a familiar environment and replaced with glassy-eyed cyborgs.  And had we not thought to pack a few snacks with us, our kids would’ve starved.

Based on this and other recent experiences, I propose the following principle: if a customer’s digitally-mediated order to your company is eventually going to need to get processed by a human being anyhow—a fallible human who could screw things up—and if you’re less competent at designing user interfaces than Amazon (which means: anyone other than Amazon), then you must make it easy for the customer to talk to one of the humans behind the curtain.  Besides making the customer happy, such a policy is good business, since when you do screw things up due to miscommunications caused by poor user interfaces—and you will—it will be on you to fix things anyway, which will eat into your profit margin.  To take another example, besides Newark Terminal C, all these comments apply with 3000% force to the delivery service DoorDash.

Returning to airports, though: whichever geniuses ruined Terminal C at Newark are amateurs compared to those in my adopted home city of Austin.  Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA) chose Thanksgiving break—i.e., the busiest travel time of the year—to roll out a universally despised redesign where you now need to journey for an extra 5-10 minutes (or 15 with screaming kids in tow), up and down elevators and across three parking lots, to reach the place where taxis and Ubers are.  The previous system was that you simply walked out of the terminal, crossed one street, and the line of taxis was there.

Supposedly this is to “reduce congestion” … except that, compared to other airports, ABIA never had any significant congestion caused by taxis.  I’d typically be the only person walking to them at a given time, or I’d join a line of just 3 or 4 people.  Nor does this do anything for the environment, since the city of Austin has no magical alternative, no subway or monorail to whisk you from the airport to downtown.  Just as many people will need a taxi or Uber as before; the only difference is that they’ll need to go ten times further out of their way as they’d need to go at a ten times busier airport.  For new visitors, this means their first experience of Austin will be one of confusion and anger; for Austin residents who fly a few times per month, it means that days or weeks have been erased from their lives.  From the conversations I’ve had so far, it appears that every single passenger of ABIA, and every single taxi and Uber driver, is livid about the change.  With one boneheaded decision, ABIA singlehandedly made Austin a less attractive place to live and work.

Postscript I.  But if you’re a prospective grad student, postdoc, or faculty member, you should still come to UT!  The death of reason, and the triumph of the blank-faced bureaucrats, is a worldwide problem, not something in any way unique to Austin.

Postscript II.  No, I don’t harbor any illusions that posts like this, or anything else I can realistically say or do, will change anything for the better, at my local airport let alone in the wider world.  Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether, for the bureaucrats, the point of ruining facilities and services that thousands rely on is precisely to grind down people’s sense of autonomy, to make them realize the futility of argument and protest.  Even so, if someone responsible for the doofus decisions in question happened to come across this post, and if they felt even the tiniest twinge of fear or guilt, felt like their victory over common sense wouldn’t be quite as easy or painless as they’d hoped—well, that would be reason enough for the post.

53 Responses to “Airport idiocy”

  1. John S. Adair Says:

    We also flew back to Austin after Thanksgiving, and had already gone to our usual pickup spot outside Arrivals and ordered a Lyft before we realized the new system. We called our driver and he picked us up where we were, probably breaking rules in the process. I share your frustration with the new system.

    Maybe you could do a rant about the scooter madness while you’re in a complaining mood. 🙂

  2. Huw Price Says:

    Postscript II reminded me of this: 🙂

  3. David Eppstein Says:

    I also traveled through Newark Terminal C recently and found it to be a nightmare corporatized version of They Live crossed with Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Vast fields of vacant individual and isolated seats, each with its own inescapable tablet flashing “CONSUME CONSUME CONSUME”, taking over every departure lounge, every eating establishment, and every other place you could think to sit down. Not my idea of a pleasant place to spend any time.

  4. Don Reba Says:

    > And had we not thought to pack a few snacks with us, our kids would’ve starved.

    You can actually survive for three weeks without food. They would have been fine.

  5. Scott Says:

    Don #4: I didn’t write, “starved to death.” If a death were involved, it most likely would’ve been a parental suicide.

  6. Mitchell Porter Says:

    In both cases, isn’t it about profit? In Newark, they only want your business if you’re willing to spend a lot of money; in Austin, they (maybe?) want to walk you past as many opportunities to spend your money as you can, before you get to exit.

  7. Scott Says:

    Mitchell #6: But in Austin, it’s not like you’re walking past shops—you’re walking past parking lots and a hideous art installation. Even for Newark, your financial theory doesn’t explain why other airports haven’t done the same thing. Why wouldn’t it increase profit to sell food at a wider range of price points?

    When I looked at these newly-mutilated airports, everything I saw seemed to point to a simpler theory: some planning committee somewhere full of empty skulls, willfully oblivious to on-the-ground realities.

  8. JimV Says:

    In Bill Russell’s autobiography, he explained why black folk at that time were associated with fried chicken. It would last on the train for several days without spoiling, and places which would serve food to black people were hard to find on long trips. So, a tip from the past: carry fried chicken with you.

  9. Dan C Says:

    I also absolutely loathe the tablet menus (which, by the way, are at all kinds of airports now, in particular most of Dulles, whose international terminal is a hellscape beyond words). I was so upset the first time I saw them that I googled around to find out what was going on. Apparently the logic behind the tablets, according to the company, is that being able to order food the second you sit down will cut down on the time you need to eat. Although I’m marginally sympathetic to that idea, I thought it was kind of funny, since if airport restaurants just had decent service in the first place this wouldn’t really be a problem, and anyway as you point out they seem to just increase the time required since they’re designed so poorly.

  10. Dan C Says:

    *Sorry–the Reagan international terminal is the hellscape. As far as I remember Dulles is alright. Do not fly international from Reagan.

  11. Scott Says:

    JimV #8:

      So, a tip from the past: carry fried chicken with you.

    As it happens, we did.

  12. Gabriel Says:

    Without knowing the details, I suspect the culprits are politicians messing around somehow with the free market.

  13. Matthias Goergens Says:

    > The death of reason, and the triumph of the blank-faced bureaucrats, is a worldwide problem, [..]

    It’s common, but not universal.

    Smug greetings from my adopted home of Singapore.

  14. Edan Maor Says:

    It’s amazing how much harder it is to navigate places like airports when you have children.

    It’s not just about actually having children, which slows you down. It’s also that you’ll usually need to be going via elevators, which are usually out of the way and slow/congested. And there are numerous surprise issues, like the food thing, which can totally screw you up.

    We’ve discovered that carrying lots of extra snacks is an absolute must, ever since the first time we barely managed to find something edible for our son.

  15. brian Says:

    tangential question:

    > and if you’re less competent at designing user interfaces than Amazon (which means: anyone other than Amazon)

    I”m curious for what reasons you judge Amazon to be so competent at user interfaces? My experience, and the consensus I gather from friends, is that they many times have inferior user interface designs to competitors and have achieved market dominance for other reasons (e.g., execution, price, network effects) in spite of their user interface, not because of their user interface.

  16. JimV Says:

    Response to Brian, #11: I’ve used about a dozen other sites which do deliveries (Oh Nuts, Harry and David, Godiva, Wolfram, Vermont Store, …) and for my money, Amazon is the easiest to use. Some are nightmares by comparison. Many of the others started as mail-order catalogs, and didn’t seem to put a lot of effort into the web transition. Few of them show customer reviews. Most of my Amazon transactions are one click with no login required. I use the Amazon Smile link which automatically donates to my selected charity with each purchase. I would like to hear about a better site though (mainly so this doesn’t sound like an Amazon spam).

  17. Armin Says:

    #15 Brian: haha, I think Scott meant that anyone other than Amazon could have designed a better website. If so, that’s adorable: it shows that despite his seemingly superhuman abilities to juggle so many time consuming things and do them well, he is still a human, subject to the occasional slip-up.

  18. Raoul Ohio Says:

    In honor of the PBR Theorem (last post) and a victory for sanity and the American way, Miller Brewing has abandoned its Trumpian attempt to sell crappy beer by sabotaging production of the people’s choice, PBR!

  19. Scott Says:

    brian #15: By “interface,” I meant not only the facility for browsing products, but more importantly, the facility to change or cancel an order, update billing information and address information, see the status of orders, look up historical orders, etc. I’ve used Amazon regularly for ~22 years, probably placed ~1000 orders, and I can count the serious screwups on one hand. (I think several involved the hidden customization options on a product, or third-party orders that never arrived.) For comparison, 3 of my last 3 DoorDash orders were botched, mostly because of how difficult they make it to fix errors in an order once placed. From this experience, I don’t find it particularly mysterious how Amazon grew to one of the largest companies on earth, whatever else one thinks about them.

  20. Scott Says:

    Gabriel #12:

    Without knowing the details, I suspect the culprits are politicians messing around somehow with the free market.

    Airports seem particularly hard to leave to the free market—e.g., no one is going to open a second international airport in Austin to compete against ABIA anytime soon. But my position on such matters is extremely radical. While libertarians clamor for everything in sight to be left to the market, and while socialists favor “the people” (i.e., state), I’ll settle for absolutely anyone competent and sane.

  21. Daniel Seita Says:

    I find that Newark terminal C is one of my favorite airport spots in all of the United States, and whenever I go to Newark (which is fairly often since it’s a United Hub with San Francisco) I go straight to C if I’m not there already. I enjoy the iPads that we can use for sending our orders, and I can use my United MileagePlus miles to pay for the meals. (Or I can just pay with normal money … I don’t find the prices that outrageous, and I only have a graduate student salary.) Not to mention, the food itself is excellent.

    Granted, I’m childless, but I figure that navigating with young children is always going to introduce extra challenges.

  22. Scott Says:

    Daniel #21: I was about to write that the difference between navigating an airport alone, and navigating the exact same airport with two screaming kids, has to be experienced to be believed. It’s as if there’s a verdant forest full of harmless little bunnies and deer, that at night transforms itself into the terrifying lair of ravenous wolves.

    But then, tonight, I had the “privilege” of landing at the new and ruined ABIA a second time, alone, and it was … still horrible beyond belief. The blank-faces, the bureaucrats, took a tiny part of my life that was working perfectly well, and destroyed it for no humanly-explicable reason, and it’s going to depress me every single time I travel.

  23. Gabriel Says:

    Scott #20: Apparently, all those fancy restaurants in Newark’s Terminal C are owned by the *same* company, called OTG. That doesn’t sound too reasonable to me! Where is competition??

    Take a look at all the lavish praise for the new Terminal C food experience at the above article.

    I don’t think that’s what the average traveler is looking for. The average traveler *is* looking for a quick pizza, until he can finally arrive and can lay his head on a pillow.

    Some of the stuff is in the article is completely ridiculous: “A restaurant that changes its entire menu every day”! Really? For an airport terminal??

    How did this happen? Well, let’s see if government is involved: Newark Airport is owned jointly by the cities of Elizabeth and Newark and leased to and operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

    Similarly, Austin Airport is owned and operated by the city of Austin.

    Ask your local politicians to privatize the airport. Good luck though, since the public workers unions are much more powerful…

  24. justin Says:

    Hey Scott,

    Any comments on this paper:

    Proposes continuous time maxSAT solver.

  25. Scott Says:

    justin #24: I’d be astonished if analog implementation of their algorithm led to a speedup over existing SAT-solvers—a possibility that the paper insinuates without ever addressing the question head-on, let alone giving evidence for such a speedup (one of my biggest pet peeves with this sort of paper). Ironically, digital simulation of their algorithm might stand a better chance. But I’m not sure, and I’ll have no other comments (please see the new comment policy).

  26. Nick Read Says:

    Totally agree about eateries at Newark. Another problem in the terminal I often use is almost total lack of signage directing you to your gate—-finding which happens to be the sole reason I’m there :).

  27. William Hird Says:

    My favorite example of 21st century idiocy is people who post pictures of themselves on dating websites wearing dark sunglasses, or worse, posting pictures of themselves that are 25 years old 🙂

  28. Dick Veldkamp Says:

    Look on the bright side, Scott: the more unpleasant flying is, the fewer people fly. And that is a good thing for the climate. So (reluctantly) I am in favor of even more senseless and irritating security checks!

    In fact, if we want to distribute fairly the limited number of flights that is possible worldwide if we want to prevent catastrophic climate change, the number of flights in the US and Europe should go down by half.

  29. Daniel Seita Says:

    Dick #28: I’m sure Prof. Aaronson has addressed this previously on his/this blog, but what about addressing the conference situation to cut down on travel rather than relying on airport quality (and even there, quality is in the eye of the beholder — airports have gotten much better in my experience recently)? One could merge conferences together into a larger one, or host conferences back-to-back in the same location. If people are worried about getting lost in the bigger conferences, to my understanding that’s addressed by the workshops at those conferences.

    The machine learning and AI communities have done a reasonably good job holding co-located conferences, but I feel like there are too many of them in the first place.

    Presumably, with his increased status in the theory community, perhaps Prof. Aaronson has more of a role in deciding where and when conferences should be held.

  30. jonas Says:

    Re Dick Veldkamp #28: I’m not an economy expert, but I think that would be more effective if we could get airplane travel less convenient compared to some alternative. It is for that reason that I’m eagerly waiting for someone (possibly Elon Musk) to build a vacuum train network in North America, starting with a line from Los Angeles CA to New York City NY.

  31. gentzen Says:

    justin #24: Here is an older comment:

    “And we’ve seen no non-trivial algorithms for general NP problems like circuit-SAT.”

    What counts as a non-trivial algorithm? Does the simplex-algorithm count as a non-trivial algorithm? It works fine in practice, most of the time. Do the recent analog Max-SAT solvers (like this from 20 Jan 2018 or that from MemComputing, Inc. initially presented on 16 Dec 2015) count as non-trivial algorithms? The inventors claim that it works fine in practice, but I admit that claims from startups should be taken with a grain of salt.

    The precursor of the algorithm from 20 Jan 2018 was actually presented already in 2011, with the explicit idea to trade an exponential amount of energy in the analog computation for a solution in polynomial time. That concept also appear in a paper from 2011 by “the other set of authors”, and was criticised in a review of “A Survey and Discussion of Memcomputing Machines” by Daniel Saunders from 2017

    But increasing the voltage/current beyond bound for the sake of keeping the computation time constant is so obviously not scalable and not realistic, that this raises questions about why the authors put forward such an obviously flawed argument.

    Note that the paper from MemComputing, Inc. has the title: “Evidence of an exponential speed-up in the solution of hard optimization problems”, i.e. addressing directly Scott’s “biggest pet peeves with this sort of paper”.

  32. amy Says:

    They just don’t want nobody near the tip jars, Scott. They’re on alert now. Seriously, though, is there no CIBO there? LaGuardia has a similar setup, as I recall — I found it a little confusing, then just wildly overpriced, but I wasn’t traveling with kids. The tablets…you get these UX people who aim for cute rather than comprehensible/useful, and I run into the same trouble with Icon/Canvas. They keep redesigning things and I’m like just tell me where the fucking files are, don’t make me click every adorable little nugget on the page hoping it’ll do an Olympic floor routine and unfold to reveal my damn files.

    I’ll also take this opportunity to be smug about the much-maligned O’Hare. I actually really like O’Hare. Not only are there decent odds of actually being in the airport while a friend is passing through, but it’s reasonably pleasant (for an airport), the Blue Line’s right there (meaning you can also get back from downtown for a few bucks) there’s a lot of food that’s actually good, there’s a pleasant little yoga room hidden away by the veterans’ hideout, and if you get stuck there overnight (and usually you don’t), you probably either know someone in the area or can get accommodation nearby pretty easily. And if you’re there on a long layover, it’ll cost you, but you can go work out. They’ve also got the World’s Most Depressing Wine Bar for the sad people who drink wine in airports. I don’t see what’s not to like.

  33. fred Says:

    In this sort of situation, a little perspective and compassion can go a long way in making me realize that I’m actually the lucky one… unlike me, the “blank-faces” have to spend their entire life at that airport.

  34. fred Says:

    Solving this through technology: 20 years from now, connecting remotely with other people through VR will be nearly indistinguishable from actual face to face interaction, forcing the travel industry to rethink their business model.

  35. Jacob Says:

    I flew back to Austin over Thanksgiving and was frustrated by the change as well. Particularly the lack of signs explaining things. I felt like an idiot in my own airport.
    However, the congestion reduction will definitely help. I once waited over 45 minutes after 11pm on a weekday to get to the spot where I could pick someone up. the airport capacity is up 30% in the last few years and rerouting rideshare/taxi to another place than personal pickups are pretty standard.
    Good idea, terrible execution.

  36. fred Says:

    Isn’t protein folding fundamentally a QM problem?

  37. Uncle Brad Says:

    On the topic of fried chicken, if you’re ever in the Dallas area be sure to check out Babe’s.

    Also, do you know anyone who has poked Q# with a stick yet?

  38. Steve Says:

    It’s a bit ironic that a computer science professor would complain about increasing automation! 🙂 I do understand and partly agree with your sentiments, though. Still, I would imagine the airports desire to be more modern (rightfully so; compare PHL airport before and after its updates) and things will presumably be more streamlined in the future?

  39. Scott Says:

    Steve #38: Computer scientists have also been the leaders in opposing all-electronic voting machines, and insisting that voting must include paper records in a box that you can recount by hand.

    I don’t think this is a coincidence. 😀

  40. fred Says:

    “Computer scientists have also been the leaders in opposing all-electronic voting machines”

    Lol, why stop there and not force the entire banking system (critical to the existence of modern society) to go back to paper trail as well?… or go back to coal, cause, ya know, nuclear energy is kinda complicated and risky?

    Maybe those “computer scientists” should focus more on boring stuff that actually matters, like cryptography and security.

  41. Uncle Brad Says:

    Fred #40: In my experience, the banking system is only correct eventually.

  42. Scott Says:

    fred #40: Try to focus. Optical scan is a perfectly functional voting technology, extremely fast to tally, leaves a paper trail, used in many advanced countries without problem. I don’t know of any alternative to electronic banking that’s equally functional (a paper trail would generate way more paper than in the case of voting).

    The other thing is, part of what makes voting so hard is the requirement that you not be able to prove how you voted to anyone else (to discourage bought/coerced votes). This is what’s killed many, many electronic voting proposals, and there’s no similar requirement for banking.

  43. Dan Staley Says:

    My understanding is that banking software is far, far ahead of most voting software used in the US, especially when it comes to security. (There’s a much more more direct financial incentive to making banking software secure!) And I would bet that when banking software was in its nascency, it was used alongside a paper trail.

  44. fred Says:

    Ideally ppl should be able to vote using their phone. Maybe blockchain could be useful for this.

    Things can be improved – back in 2000 the US immigration system was a total paper work mess, with cases getting lost, etc. Now they have quite a slick online based system, where you can query for case status, send questions, etc.

  45. Scott Says:

    fred #44: You’re not commenting from a different planet, are you? 🙂

    My many colleagues who regularly deal with the US immigration system invariably tell me it’s a bigger mess than it ever was.

    Again, what makes secure online voting hard is the requirement of not being able to prove how you voted to a third party. There are clever cryptographic proposals for online voting, but they currently seem a long way from practical deployment. Whenever online voting systems have been opened up to public scrutiny, “white hat hackers” like my friend Alex Halderman have totally laid waste to them.

  46. PauB. Says:

    Dan Staley #43: An anecdote I’ve heard was that at some point State of Nevada said that they would consider electronic voting machines *if* they are built and audited to the same standards as slot machines in their casinos. Needless to say, there were no takers… 😉

  47. fred Says:

    Scott #45
    “My many colleagues who regularly deal with the US immigration system invariably tell me it’s a bigger mess than it ever was.”

    I guess they didn’t deal with the INS back in late 90’s.
    When I got my green card through the diversity lottery program, that year all winners applying in the US waited and waited for their interview, and eventually we all got a deportation letter… and at the very last possible week (you have a year to get the green card, whether or not it’s your fault there’s a delay) the state department had to sue the INS into giving everyone their green card stamp…

    Believe me, it’s much better now, having just got my citizenship (yes, I did wait almost 20 years to finally upgrade my green card to full citizenship).

  48. fred Says:

    Back in 2000, the only way to get progress on your INS case was to go downtown, wait in line for 3 hours, and talk to a teller who would look at my papers and refuse to hand them back to me.

  49. John Says:

    fred #44
    Voting from a phone has the problem of someone like an abusive spouse coercing his partner to vote as directed in front of him. As far as I can make it there is no technical way around this problem. Even if cryptographic voting protocols can be implemented, and that is a difficult technical problem, it would likely have to be on site.

  50. Job Says:

    Is it any easier to build a static QC than one that can run an arbitrary circuit?

    Basically, should we start with printed quantum circuits instead of quantum FPGAs given how sensitive they are to any interaction with the environment?

    Also, suppose we generate n random circuits, and build a static QC for each, and they work as expected. Is it still a demonstration of quantum supremacy?

  51. fred Says:

    John #49

    I would say that person who could be coerced into voting by a spouse clearly has bigger issues going on in her/his life to worry about than election fraud…

    And that’s such a small fraction of the population, it would be massively offset by the amount of new voters brought in by true on-the-fly online voting. Think of all the people who currently go on-site to vote and get pushed away for whatever reason (there’s plenty of that going on).

    A real-time easy voting system would be a revolution. The government could conduct referendums on demand. It’s the way to go for “true” democratic representation.
    It may take 50 years to happen but it’s going to, in one form or another.

  52. corey Says:

    if you’ve never missed a flight, you’re spending too much time at airports :–)

  53. Andreas Karch Says:

    Now you tell me? Just a few months after I signed on to join the faculty at UT?