Tuesday, 21 March 2006

The Amazing Race 9, Episode 3

Brotas (Brazil) - São Paulo (Brazil) - Moscow (Russia) - Frankfurt (Germany) - Stuttgart (Germany) - Bad Tolz (Germany) - Grünewald (Germany) - Munich (Germany)

Transportation and navigation problems, culminating in Desiree and Wanda's elimination after a succession of wrong turns and difficulties reading a map and obtaining and following directions from local people, dominated "The Amazing Race" for the two weeks of this double episode.

As is often the case in real life, the longest legs of the reality-television travellers' journeys proved less confusing to arrange than local transport. There's really only one way to get from continent to continent, if either time or money are factors in your decision: Fly. Intercontinental cruises or passenger travel on cargo ships are more expensive than flying, even if you're not in hurry. Airline and airport procedures are relatively standard worldwide (in many airports, you can barely tell what continent you are in unless you read the signs), so flights are relatively straightforward to arrange, especially if price is no object.

So all the teams in the race ended up on exactly the same flights from São Paulo to Moscow. But once they got to Moscow, some did better than others at getting around. Notably, Danielle and Dani, from Staten Island (New York City), took for granted that they knew how to hail a taxi. Which, no doubt, they did -- in New York City. So we saw them standing on a Moscow street, futilely making grand New York taxi-hailing gestures with upraised arms, and asking in puzzlement and frustration, "Why aren't any of these taxis stopping?"

The answer is that gestures -- even ones that seem "natural" and automatic to those who use them -- are culturally specific. It's rarely a good idea to make any gesture (other than pantomime) without first taking note of whether that gesture is used by locals, and has the same meaning as you are used to.

In some world cities you hail cabs (with various gestures) on the street. In others places you get a cab by standing in a line ("queue") at a taxi stand. In other places (including most of the USA except for a few of the largest cities) you phone for a taxi rather than expecting one to happen by wherever you are.

As I note in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World , you should watch what local people do, or:

... Ask local people how you should signal to passing vehicles that you want a ride. In Russia, you hold your arm out at a downward angle, palm down, with your fingers extended and waving as though beckoning passing traffic in toward you at the roadside.... In many places in the world, [pointing or thrusting or upraised] gestures have obscene, rude, or insulting connotations. In a new place, it's safest not to point at all and to beckon Asian style, with your fingers together, palm down.

The racers had a variety of problems trying to get on the last flights of the day from Moscow to Frankfurt.

Just when some of the teams got to the Aeroflot counter to buy tickets, the computerized reservation system went down, and didn't start working again until after check-in had closed for the last flight of the day.

In order to allow time for outbound customs, immigration, and other processing, the cut-off time for international flights can be two hours or more before departure. That's why you should always plan to be at the airport at least two hours before any international flight. I once was denied permission to check in, and had to watch my scheduled flight depart without me, when a delay on the London Underground (the "tube") kept me from getting to Heathrow Airport until about 90 minutes before the departure time. Fortunately, the airline had another flight later the same day, and accommodated me on it at no extra charge, although they weren't required to.

As a result of missing the last flight, some of the racers ended up spending the night -- as do hundreds of travellers from all over the world every night -- either on the floor of Terminal 2 at Sheremetyevo Airport, or in the overpriced, iconically Stalinist, Sheremetyevo 2 Hotel nearby.

There's also a post-Soviet Novotel nearby, but its rates are set for expense-account business travellers. The least costly Moscow accommodations are at hostels, but they are nearer downtown, a US$45 cab ride (as we saw earlier in this leg of the race) one-way from the airport. And the best values in tourist accommodations throughout Russia are probably in homestays with families, but they have to be arranged well in advance.

You and the racers might be tempted to blame ex-Soviet computer technology for the Aeroflot computer outage. If you did, you'd be wrong. A variety of older and locally-developed reservation systems are used by Aeroflot's successors and their competitors on domestic routes within Russia. But even before the breakup of Aeroflot, the division that became today's Aeroflot Russian International Airlines used the Gabriel reservation system, once of the international standards, operated by the global airline cooperative SITA (which also runs the .aero top-level Internet domain for the aviation industry). In May 2005, well before the filming of "The Amazing Race 9", Aeroflot Russian International and its agents in Russia all switched to the Sabre reservation system based in the USA. What we saw was a Sabre (or, more likely, Sabre connectivity) outage, not a failure of some obsolete or inferior Russian system.

How often does a major reservation system go down? And what can you do about it as a traveller?

The last time I heard about a prolonged outage of a major reservation system was on 3 January 2006, when the "Apollo" system (one of the brand names of Galileo International, which was spun off from United Airlines some years ago, and is currently a division of the Cendant Corporation) used by United Airlines went down for "approximately four hours".

According to United Airlines spokesperson Robin Urbanski, none of the airline's worldwide staff, either at airports or in telephone reservation centers, were able to access any information in reservations during that time. That included both reservations (PNR's) and the electronic tickets stored in PNR's.

Urbanski confirmed that some United flights did depart, and some passenger were checked in, during the Apollo outage.

Airlines like to point out that you, the traveller, can't lose your e-ticket the way you can lose a paper ticket. But the converse is equally true: An airline can't lose your paper ticket the way they can, and sometimes do, lose all record of your e-ticket. Or, less seriously but still problematically, lose your reservations. To some degree, a paper ticket and an electronic reservation provide a degree of redundancy. Since an e-ticket is stored in the PNR, an airline that doesn't have a record of your reservation or e-ticket probably doesn't have a record of either.

How, I asked, did United determine which passengers to check in without having access to reservations or e-tickets?

According to Urbanski, passengers who presented "boarding passes" they had printed themselves, before the reservation system went down and they came to the airport, were allowed to check in, pass through security screening, and board flights.

A homebrew "confirmation" and boarding pass was taken by the airline as sufficient evidence of having paid for a ticket!

It's trivially easy to save a Web page or e-mail message confirming a reservation or e-ticket, edit theHTML and/or image file, and print out a forged confirmation in any name, for any flights. Since the only authoritative record of whether there is a reservation or e-ticket in that name on that flight is contained in the passenger name record (PNR), such a forgery is completely indetectable except by comparing it with the PNR.

(I was skeptical when Bruce Schneier first pointed this out in 2003. At that time, I believed the airlines' claims that tickets would still be subject to a significant number of random spot checks after check-in and security screening. But that doesn't seem to be happening any more, if it ever was.)

What about people with paper tickets, which are printed on individually numbered, controlled stock with many physical security features that enable them to be verified independently of reservations?

If passengers with paper tickets had already gotten boarding passes, they might have been allowed to fly. Otherwise not, since regardless of whether they had tickets, they couldn't get through security screening without showing boarding passes. Security screeners aren't supposed to check tickets: They are only supposed to compare the name on each boarding pass with the name on the ID presented by the passenger, and compare the photo on the ID with the person's appearance. And United couldn't print them "official" boarding passes while Apollo was down.

What is wrong with this picture?

  • The people who had physically verifiable paper tickets to prove they had paid for flights were left behind, while anyone with a do-it-yourself boarding pass, which proves nothing beyond minimal competence with an HTML or image editor, was transported. (Transported for free, if their boarding pass was forged.)

  • By accepting homebrew boarding passes as sufficient evidence of tickets, United completely compromised any actual security provided by "verification" of boarding passes or ID against either paper tickets (with their physical security) or PNR's (with their electronic security), both of which airlines have a financial interest in protecting against unauthorized entries and alterations.

  • Security screeners were willing to accept "boarding passes" printed at home (for passengers claiming to have e-tickets), but were unable to accept any sort of hand-written boarding pass issued by airline staff at the airport for passengers with paper tickets. (At least that's what Urbanski told me, although this strains credibility.)

It's hard to give any definitive advice on the basis of this incident. In other countries, without the bizarre and ineffectual "security screening" procedures in the USA, the reverse usually happens when airline reservation systems are down: Passengers with unverifiable e-tickets are left behind, while passengers with paper tickets are manually checked in and transported.

The bottom line on this nonsense, I think, is that both e-tickets and print-them-yourself boarding passes were developed to save airlines money, not to make life easier for travellers. Both fundamentally compromise purportedly essential "security" systems. And neither the airlines nor the government cares: Both airlines and the USA government are more interested in securing airlines' profits than in airline passengers' convenience or security.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 21 March 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

Interesting somewhat rambling post ranging from the amazing race to crs's to etickets. Luckily those are all things I am interested in.

Posted by: Ben, 24 May 2006, 09:13 ( 9:13 AM)
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