I promised that my last post will go up as I am flying over the Pacific Ocean. Then I tweeted that I was looking forward to experiencing a 90-minute Sunday while flying overnight across the International Date Line. The gods did not approve of my hubris, and I as the post went up on Sunday morning I woke up at a cheap hotel on the outskirts of Denver, sans my luggage
I have since made it to Singapore and Thailand, but that travel journal will have to wait. This post is about Saturday night at the Denver airport, and about the future of humanity.
Seriousness meter: three beers.
I booked a flight to Singapore through Denver and LA because I like breaking up extra-long flights into two overnight legs. I can save on hotels by sleeping on the plane, and I get to spend a day in a city I’ve never been in.
Denver welcomed me with perfect weather, transit that runs on time, and wild jackrabbits. My flight to LA was leaving at 7 pm, so after spending the day walking around I sat down at a tap house to try a Colorado craft beer before I left.
As soon as my brew arrived, so did a text from United Airlines: the flight is delayed by an hour, leaving me with an hour and a half to make the connection at LAX. No problem, I thought, and ordered another pint. With the beer came a second text: another delay of an hour.
I finished the beer. I looked at the menu – there was still a stout I wanted to try. I looked at the updated flight arrival time in LAX – 35 minutes to make the connection. Quite out of character, I decided not to tempt fate again and ordered the bill instead of the stout. As soon as I left the bar came a text with the final delay: my flight from Denver will now be arriving at LAX after the connection to Singapore is departing.
I shrugged, went back inside, drank the stout, and headed to the airport.
While the article makes a strong case, I think that it is somewhat overstated. The modern economy has too many moving pieces for anyone to track, including the pieces themselves. It takes thousands and thousands of people to make a pencil, and many of them are intermediaries, service providers, etc. The lady doing corporate finance for the insurance shop that allows the transportation company to buy a fleet of trucks to haul graphite from the mine may think that she has a bullshit job. But without her, there’s no pencil.
At least, that’s what I believe while I’m in the office. I work for a technology service provider to the financial industry. My job is as removed from actual pencils as any, but I’d like to believe I’m paid an honest wage for an honest contribution.
But whenever I visit an American airport, my faith in the efficiency of labor market allocations wavers.
I remember going through JFK where a single line for security was splitting into two lines. This is something that isn’t hard for most humans to figure out. There was a lady standing at that intersection, holding an iPad that was visible to the people in line. The iPad would alternate flashing a left arrow with a right arrow, and the lady holding the iPad would look at it, then point the next person to the left of the right queue. If you moved towards the appropriate queue after seeing the iPad but before the lady told you to do so, she reprimanded you.
There’s a model of the modern economy that separates jobs into two kinds: those above and below the API. Algorithms are replacing middle management, and if you don’t have a job telling computers what to do, sooner or later your job will consist of doing what computers tell you.
When I came to the front of the line at JFK, I waited for the lady to tell me where to go, smiled, and thanked her. I felt some pity for her, whether it was deserved or not. I didn’t want to make her literally below-the-API job any more thankless than it was.
I arrived at Denver Airport and asked the first gentleman in a United Airlines uniform where I could rebook my flight. He sent me to the economy check-in lady, who sent me to the premier access guy, who sent me to the additional services lady, who informed me that her shift has just ended and she is going home. So she called the shift manager, and in he walked, wearing the different-color uniform and big smile of a man who can handle any problem.
The conversation below is very lightly edited from memory.
Boss Agent Manager Fellow, henceforth BAMF, a veteran of the aviation industry who has seen it all. Has access to the super special information systems that seamlessly coordinate global travel.
Me, a little sleep deprived and three delicious beers in. Has access to Google.
BAMF: How can I help you, sir?
Me: I was supposed to fly to Singapore through LA tonight, but the flight to LA is now landing an hour after the connection, so I need to rebook to a different flight.
BAMF: *type* *click* That’s not a problem, we have you on a flight leaving LA at 1 pm tomorrow, going to Singapore through Tokyo.
Me: Ah, but I don’t need to go to LA, that was just a connection. Can I just get on the flight from Denver to Singapore?
BAMF: *type* *type* *click* *type* I’m sorry, I don’t think we have a flight leaving Denver for Singapore tomorrow.
Me: *Checks Google* How about flight 143 at 11:35 am?
BAMF: I’m sorry but… *pause* *type* *click* Oh.
Sir, we can book you on flight 143 tomorrow from Denver to Singapore through Tokyo!
BAMF: But you may not want to do that. We found a hotel for you in LA, but we don’t have one in Denver.
Me: Oh, you have to book me a hotel directly? You can’t reimburse me?
BAMF: No, no, you will book it and we will reimburse you either way. Our system just doesn’t see any open hotel rooms in Denver, only in LA.
Me: *Checks Google, sees a thousand hotel rooms in Denver* I’ll take my chances, I think.
BAMF: Are you sure? If you can’t find anything and will stay in the terminal overnight, we have a special reimbursement form for that as well.
Alright, you’re all set now, you’ve been removed from the flight to LA and are booked on UA 143 tomorrow.
Me: Thank you very much! Now would you happen to know where I could get my bag? I assume they haven’t loaded it on the delayed flight to LA yet, because that doesn’t leave for a few hours.
BAMF: Ah, your bag is in LA, sir. We sent it ahead on an earlier flight. We always send the bag on the first available flight, whether you’re on it or not.
Me: Very well then, I’ll make do without it for a day. I assume that my bag will continue to Singapore tonight?
BAMF: Oh no, sir. We can’t send a bag on a flight if you’re not on it.
Me: ??!?! $#%&$?!
BAMF: *Looks at me like I’m an imbecile* It’s because that’s an international flight, you see. When you get to Singapore, you will need to file a baggage claim.
Me: With the United Airlines desk in Singapore?
BAMF: Of course not! You will have to file it with Nippon Airlines, since they’re operating the flight from Tokyo. Only the airline that brings you to the final destination can bring the luggage there.
Me: So you’re saying that the only way I can be reunited with the bag containing my utmost necessities for a month of travel is to ask a foreign airline who has never seen or handled this bag, and doesn’t fly to Singapore from LAX, to somehow transport it to me from LAX to Singapore?
BAMF: It shouldn’t take more than two or three days.
Me: Ok, I need to think for a minute. I see there’s a person waiting to speak to you, I’ll just stand over here for a bit.
BAMF: *utterly confused* Um, sir, there’s no other way to get the bag to Singapore. Trust me, I’ve been doing this for twenty years.
Me: OK. *thinks*
A couple of minutes pass, BAMF is helping a lady with something (or at least pretending to) while I’m standing off to the side, thinking and occasionally tapping Google on my phone. Every few seconds he shoots me an incredulous glance.
Me: So, I see there’s a flight from LA to Denver early tomorrow morning.
BAMF: Yes, so?
Me: So it lands in Denver a few hours before my flight to Tokyo.
Me: So since United Airlines brought me to Denver, I would like to file a baggage claim with United to get my bag from LA to Denver on the flight tomorrow morning, I will pick it up at the airport.
BAMF: *picks jaw off the floor* I… I guess we can do that.
When I arrived at the airport the following morning, I insisted on checking my bag onto the new flight myself instead of trusting United to reroute it. In doing so, I discovered that BAMF booked me on the wrong flight out of Tokyo. I was rebooked by the bag check lady. When I reached the gate to get my boarding pass, it turned out that I was now booked on a different wrong flight, and they had to change it again.
This all happened despite the fact that I told everyone involved the exact number and time of the flight out of Tokyo I needed to be on.
I hope you were as entertained reading this exchange as I was being part of it. Is there also a takeaway here?
That “United Airlines customer service” is an oxymoron we knew already. That it’s fun to tell professionals how to do their job after 5 minutes of googling you also knew; it’s basically a rationalist rite of passage. You also should know already to pack a change of clothes in your carry-on item when flying anywhere with a connection.
Here’s what I wondered as the scene at the airport unfolded: why do the United Airlines agents still have their jobs?
Everyone is constantly worrying about the future when more and more jobs are automated, and with good reason. But as far as I was concerned, the jobs of airline agents have already been automated, and yet they still have their jobs.
These agents are nothing but a stupid interface layer between me and the flight management system. Whatever else they do, like checking that the face on my head matches the face in the passport, can already be done better by machines. They are invariably slower than automated systems, more error-prone, and vastly more annoying.
The immediate cause of these agents’ employment is the fact that many travelers wouldn’t know how to use Google Flights or a similar system for booking flights and tracking their luggage. But it’s more than that.
Air travel is frustrating. Flights get delayed, luggage gets lost, passengers get dragged off planes. I suspect that many people not only want a human to interface with the flight booking systems for them, they also want a human to yell at when things go wrong. If you fly a lot you know that a big part of airline agents’ job is to smile while being berated by angry passengers. I’m beginning to suspect that it’s the main part.
It seems that customers are splitting into two kinds: those who prefer their commercial transactions automated, and those who prefer them humanized. I buy shoes from Zappos and soap from Amazon, but some people want a person to tell them that a shoe or soap matches their hair or whatever. I do my taxes online and never set foot in the bank or the post office, and yet there are always long lines at both. The market keeps providing ever more algorithmic services for me, and ever more human touches for those who want them.
But as the algorithmic services are becoming better and better, it doesn’t make sense to have humans doing the same thing but worse. Instead, there’s an opportunity for future jobs to pop up in the interface between the robots and the people who don’t want to deal with the robots directly.
That’s what tax preparers are – they use the exact same software that anyone can use at home, but they allow you to talk to a human (and blame a human) instead of learning the software. That’s what the United agents do.
When everyone realizes that Zappos has more shoes, and at a lower price, than any shoe store, I can imagine shoe stores being replaced by people sitting at screens. You would talk to these people, they would ask about your day and measure your feet, and then they would order you the shoes you want from Zappos. And if the shoes pinch, you would have someone to yell at while they smile.
You can already hire a personal assistant to interface between you and many algorithms, but each algorithm could have assistants interfacing between it and many customers. These jobs aren’t quite above or below the API, they’re part of the API.
I don’t just think that many future jobs might be of this kind, I think that a lot of present jobs are becoming inside-the-API as algorithms do more and more of the actual work. Those of us who prefer to deal directly with the algorithms will find this human API in equal parts frustrating and amusing.