Integration Or Incantation?

I was travelling recently with Virgin Atlantic. I went to check in online, typed in my booking code and selected both our names, clicked "Next", and got an odd error saying that I couldn’t check in. I wondered momentarily if it was yet more pre-Brexit paranoia about Frances’ Irish passport, but there was a "check in individually" option which rapidly revealed that Frances was fine, it was my ticket which was causing the problem.

The web site suggested I ring the reservation number, which I did, listened to 5 minutes of surprisingly loud rock music (you never mistake being on hold for Virgin with anyone else), and got through to a helpful chap. He said "OK, I can see the problem, I will re-issue the ticket." Two minutes of more distinctive music, and he invited me to try again. Same result. He confirmed that we were definitely booked in and had our seat reservations, and suggested that I wait until I get to the airport. "They will help you there." Fine.

Next morning, we were tackled on our way into the Virgin area by a keen young lady who asked if we had had any problems with check in. I said we had, and she led us into what can best be described as a "krall" of check-in terminals, and logged herself into one. This displayed a smart check-in agent’s application, complete with all the logos, the picture of Branson’s glamorous Mum, and so on. She quickly clicked through a set of very similar steps to the ones I had tried, and then click OK. "Oh, that’s odd", she said.

Next, she opens up a green screen application. Well, OK, it’s actually white on a Virgin red background, but I know a green screen application when I see one. She locates my ticket, checks a few things, and types in the command to issue my pass. Now I’m not an expert on Virgin’s IT solutions, but I know the word "ERR" when I see it. "Oh, that’s not right either" says the helpful young lady "I’ll get help".

Two minutes later, the young lady is joined by a somewhat older, rather larger lady. (OK, about the same age as me and she looked a lot better in her uniform than I would, but you get the idea.) "Hello Mr Johnston, let’s see if we can sort this out". She takes one look at the screen and says "We actually have two computer systems, and they don’t always talk to each other or have the same information."

… which could be the best, most succinct summary of the last 25 years of my career I have heard, but I digress…

Back to the story. The new lady looks hard at both applications, and then announces she can see the problem (remember, all this is happening on a screen I can see as well as the two Virgin employees). "Look, they’ve got your name with a ‘T’ here, and no ‘T’ here" (pointing to the "red screen" programme).

Turning to the younger lady, she says "Right, this is how to fix it." "Type DJT, then 01" (The details are wrong, but the flavour is correct…) "Put in his ticket number. Type CHG, then enter. Type in his name, make sure we’ve got the T this time. Now set that value to zero, because this isn’t a chargeable change, and we can do a one letter change without a charge. Put in zero for the luggage, we can change that in a minute. Type DJQ, enter. Type JYZ, enter. OK, that’s better. Now try and print his pass." Back to the sexy new check in app, click a few buttons, and I’m presented with two fresh boarding passes. Job done.

Now didn’t we have a series of books where a bunch of older, experienced wizards taught keen you wizards to tap things with sticks and make incantations? The solution might as well have been to tap the red screen programme with a wand and shout "ticketamus"…

The issues here are common ones. Is it right to be so dependent on what is clearly an elderly and complex legacy system? Are the knowledge transfer processes good enough, or is there a risk that the next time the more experienced lady who knows the magic incantations might not be available? Why is such a fundamental piece of information as the passenger names clearly being copy typed, not part of the automated integrations? As a result, is this a frequent enough problem that there should really be an easier way to fix it? Ultimately the solutions are traditional ones: replace the legacy system, or improve its integrations, but these are never quick or easy.

Now please note I’m not trying to get at Virgin at all. I know for a fact that every company more than a few years old has a similar situation somewhere in the depths of their IT. The Virgin staff were all cheerful, helpful and eventually resolved the problem quickly. However it is maybe a bit of a management error to publicly show the workings "behind the green screen" (to borrow another remarkably apposite magical image, from the Wizard of Oz). We expect to see the swan gliding, not the feet busily paddling. On this occasion it was interesting to get a glimpse, and I was sympathetic, but if the workings cannot be less dependent on "magic", maybe they should be less visible?

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