Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Bug in Airline Reservation System Resolved by KLM

I wrote before about finding an annoying bug in airline reservation systems that prevented booking multi-city itineraries. I reported the bug to Singapore Airlines and KLM through their web site feedback links.

The result was interesting. SQ wrote back saying "We regret the problem, will look into it", while the KLM bot answered "We are very busy and unlikely to reply in less than 4 weeks". 4 weeks!! Guess their SLA was written by retired union negotiator...

The results have been even more interesting.

SQ has done nothing to fix the problem.

After I got frustrated and just phoned KLM Singapore directly,
they, in the person of Nura Akbar, engaged me in a series of emails to understand and fix the problem.

Well done Nura, and well done KLM.

The actual problem turns out to be in a configuration setting. The default value for Minimum Connection Time (MCT) is 12 hours. It seems none of the airlines bothered to set this properly, so it was impossible to book a flight that departed less than 12 hours after the arrival of the previous flight.

Now if KLM would just allow seat assignments during online bookings...

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Major Bug in Airline Booking Sites

I have been travelling a great deal recently, and have had to use the online booking sites of various airlines to pick up tickets. I kept running into a strange problem with errors when trying to book multi-sector tickets, the sort of trip where you go from one city to another, then another, rather than just point to point.

On both KLM and Sinagpore Airlines, there is a button on the booking form labeled "Multi-city". This takes you to a dialogue that lets you add flights one by one. All pretty straight forward until you try adding the third flight. The error that comes up indicates that the flight you have chosen is not available because of the departure time.

The actual bug is quite simple. A programmer has added a check to ensure that the departure time is after the arrival time of the preceding flight. EXCEPT there is an error in the calculation of the time. Where flights start on one day, and arrive the next morning (most flights from Asia to Europe), the booking system is incorrectly calculating AM flights as PM flights (12 hours are being added to the time).

Although simple to recognize, this bug has been there for months. I have sent email to the airlines involved, but without any fix to the problem. Clearly, the booking engine is shared by a number of airlines, and so they are all suffering from the same bug.

It is amazing to me that an industry that lurches from financial crisis to financial crisis can manage to have a major bug in a revenue generating system. It is simply not possible to book a multi-sector ticket online because of the problem.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Car Sharing Done Right

I have been hesitant to talk about the Honda Diracc car sharing service for the simple reason that it is so good. Like a favourite beach or restaurant, letting everybody else know reduces your own chances of getting in.

About a year ago, I was wandering along Orchard Road when I came across one of those ubiquitous booths selling something. Normally I give these a wide berth, but in this case, it was an exhibition on green technologies, and Honda had a booth displaying their Civic Hybrid. The car caught my attention, and while looking at the specifications, I realized it was part of a fleet of cars offered on a sharing basis.

The sales guy was friendly and knowledgeable, and the next thing I knew, I had signed up for a year long membership. A couple of weeks later, I received a letter inviting me to attend a familiarization session. This took place in the car park of Raffles City and took about 5 minutes to run through the activation system and use of the in-car terminal. With that, a smart card was handed over and I was ready to go.

Honda Diracc works by positioning a fleet of Honda Civic cars at 13 different car parks scattered around the central business district. These locations are called ports. I am lucky to have one port near my apartment, and another near where I work, so it is pretty convenient. A member is able to pick up a car at any port, and drop it at any other port they choose.

I should say that owning a car in Singapore is not something one undertakes lightly. There is a complex and shifting set of rules that result in high costs of ownership and usage. With the amount of travel I do, and a non-driving spouse, there is not much rational excuse to own a vehicle. Taxis are relatively cheap and plentiful, and no amount of limo rides can equal the cost of owning and operating a vehicle.

Unfortunately, while taxis in Singapore are cheap, they are operated by rather perverse individuals who do not see themselves as being in the service industry. Rather, passengers are treated as a necessary irritation to be tolerated in order to earn money.

This results in taxis being almost impossible to obtain when required. The downtown area is barren of available taxis at quitting time. The only vehicles to be seen are cruising around with "On Call" or "Shift Change" signs. To get a taxi, one has to call a booking number, wait on hold for an operator, then wait on hold again while she dispatches the job and waits for a driver to respond. The fee for booking, CDB surcharge, and peak hour surcharge turn my trip home into a lengthy and expensive affair.

Enter Honda Diracc. By clicking on the web site, I can instantly check to see if a car is available at the port beside my office. 90% of the time (holiday eve an exception) a car is available. I stroll over to the car park, wave my smart card at the window, and the doors unlock. Once inside, I enter my PIN on the LCD screen mounted on the dashboard, select the port where I will drop the car, hit enter, and the ignition key pops out of the ignition lock.

And that's it. No paper work, no need to re-fuel before dropping off, no hassle. I have to say this is one of the best engineered, best functioning systems I have had the pleasure to use. After a year of event-free usage, I remain a happy customer. I even managed to recover a cash card that I had inadvertently left in the ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) terminal by calling the office which arranged to fetch it for me.

Economically, a car from my office to home is actually cheaper than a taxi, even without all the booking charges. The Diracc charges are calculated on time and distance (the chart of charges is here), with gas, insurance, and parking at ports all included.

The other car sharing schemes in Singapore all require either advance booking and/or paper work and re-fuelling. They also tend to be positioned to serve those in the HDB heartland rather than those living in the downtown areas. BusinessWeek recently carried an article about a similar service in North America, called ZipCar, which has locations in 8 cities including Toronto in Canada.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Singapore Election - Post Mortem

I was surprised to see a letter to the editor in the May 11, 2006 Straits Times which does an excellent job of summarizing the behaviour of the PAP that led to 33% of voters choosing the opposition.

Entitled "why 'people's hero' lost the hearts of 33% of voters", Jacob Tan Teck Lee zeroes in on the more questionable tactics of the PAP.

Here is the letter in its entirety:

Why 'people's hero' lost the hearts of 33% of voters

SINGAPORE'S history of nation-building is nothing short of spectacular. The PAP should be the people's hero, yet it lost the hearts of 33 per cent of voters, even in the Prime Minister's own GRC. Why?

The PM inadvertently revealed the dark side of the PAP when he said his focus would be to 'fix' the opposition and figure out how to 'buy' his support if the opposition won 10 or more seats, though he did subsequently say that his choice of the word 'fix' might have been too strong, and offered his apology if it had offended anyone.

However, it affirmed for many their uneasiness over the political tactics of the PAP over the years:

  • The morphing of the original GRCs from three MPs intended to guarantee minority representation to super-GRCs of up to six MPs (perceived as creating a barrier to entry for the opposition with their cartographical contortions and as a means of bringing in new, untested PAP candidates under the air cover of ministerial heavyweights).
  • The lawsuit (intended to safeguard the integrity of debate) seemed to have become extended into an ever-ready weapon of political dare-and-do. The PAP-Workers' Party dare-you-to exchange was especially grating to voters hungry for higher political discourse.
  • The conversion of HDB upgrading (one of our secrets for social stability) into the spectacle of which PAP MP can offer more money to their voters ($80 million here, $300 million there but to the almost-total exclusion of the candidate's own positions on national issues).

    It is not that the voters take the good work of the PAP for granted. Travel the world and you will know how much the PAP has done and is still doing for Singapore. The PAP deserves better. But only if it tears itself away from its dark electoral insecurities and rises to its historical role of nation-building.

    The PAP, as a political party, is not obliged to hand over its seats to the opposition. However, the PAP, as the Government, is a steward of our political process and it owes itself and Singapore, as the founding party and only governing party, to shepherd the political development to greater and more open political participation and not to political atrophy.

    Some suggestions for the PAP Government:

  • Eliminate super-GRCs and return to the original three-MP GRCs, not all of which need to be minority-represented if the 'minimal quota' is already reached. Smaller GRCs reduce the charge that GRCs are a means of letting in 'backdoor' MPs.
  • Maintain greater stability in electoral boundaries. While population shifts may necessitate changes, the PAP should stop the practice of moving wards around as jigsaw pieces to reconfigure weak GRCs/ SMCs and carve out new SMCs. With greater electoral stability, the opposition has a better chance to nurture their chosen constituencies with their more limited resources.
  • Stop focusing on individual-constituency HDB upgrading as the primary election platform of MPs. Today it seems we conduct town-council elections and get a national parliament as a by-product.

    It is the national policies of the PAP that have raised resource-scarce Singapore to First World standards. Let them be the PAP electoral showcase instead.

  • Lawsuits should be served when slander or libel is committed. They should not be part of the political lexicon of campaigning thrust-and-parry.

    The PAP has done so much for Singapore. It should be more confident of itself that it will continue to win the support of voters on its track record even when it loosens its grip on the political process. Indeed it will be more heartily supported.

    Jacob Tan Teck Lee

  • Apple's Device Model vs. Component Freedom

    Walt Mossberg, the personal technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal has an article up today suggesting that Apple's "device model" is superior to the "component" model championed by Microsoft.

    Ignoring the giggles that ensue from suggesting that Microsoft is a big supporter of standards-based open computing, Mossberg is essentially arguing that life is easier when one company makes end-to-end systems.

    "Apple's Device Model" is the same as saying appliance. One could argue that there is no need to hack the OS on a microwave oven in order to have choice in the market, but in fact the choice is limited to microwave ovens that basically do the same thing. There hasn't been much change since the original appliances were created 30 years ago, discounting annoying voice chips.

    The danger with mono-culture in nature or technology is that innovation stops and one becomes vulnerable to change, whether a real world virus or shifts in the business landscape. Microsoft has effectively killed off innovation in a number of software markets with the Windows mono-culture.

    Personal Information Mangers used to be a thriving category with companies supplying multiple ways to support the organizational needs of people with many different ways of thinking. Now we just have the rather ponderous and opaque Outlook. Ditto personal databases, spreadsheets, and presentation programs.

    Apple is using the components created by the PC revolution (video cards, power supplies, hard disks, interfaces, displays, memory). If they had been successful with their closed strategy from the beginning, we would all be staring at very expensive 10 inch monochrome monitors.

    I vote for the component model every time.

    Wednesday, May 10, 2006

    Singapore Election - No Opposition Needed

    Politics in Singapore can be breathtaking. But it is usually the short, sharp, intake of disbelief.

    On Thursday, May 4, 2006, The Straits Times reported the Prime Minister as saying that "Singapore had succeeded because it had a dominant People's Action Party government which could think long term and run the country without being distracted by the opposition."

    Interesting statement that, because it is offered without any proof. One could just as easily state that Singapore has succeeded in spite of the dominant People's Action Party. Without there having been any other party in power, it is all just speculation.

    He went on to say "the real job of the opposition was not to improve the government, but to trip it up."

    Another short, sharp, intake of breath required here.

    This is a complete perversion of the principle of parliamentary democracy, in which the opposition is the loyal opposition..

    Lee is recasting electoral politics as a "winner take all, loser gets nothing" event. It is that kind of thinking that has destroyed African democracies, where the tribe that gets power does everything in its power to benefit its supporters and to hold on at any cost lest they become the minority.

    I have a great deal of respect for what Singapore has accomplished, but there are definite signs of an insular mentality within the PAP - one that leads them to believe that they hold a monopoly on the ability to govern.

    When you start to believe that no other opinion than your own is worth listening to, it is time for a hard look in the mirror.

    Tuesday, May 02, 2006

    Singapore Elections - We Really Know Who You Are

    A report on describes residents unease when they received election pamphlets by mail that displayed their NRIC (National Registration Identity Code) on the mailing label.

    The article quotes the Elections Department:

    "In response to Channel NewsAsia, the Elections Department says the NRIC numbers are given out to political parties as an assurance that the electors are genuine persons.

    The Registers of Electors may be purchased by political parties and aspiring candidates to facilitate their communication with registered electors."

    Which is nonsense of course. The Elections Department has to know that a voter is genuine, but having done so, there is no reason to further distribute sensitive information such as the NRIC to third parties. This lack of awareness of basic security is breath-taking, particularly given the very public and ongoing problem of identity theft.

    Anyone who believes that national ID cards are a benign move permitting good government needs to realize that once a number is established, the genie is out of the bottle.

    It is routine for security guards at buildings in Singapore to demand physical possession of your NRIC card before permitting entry to a building. Which makes it somewhat difficult to prove one's identity while inside the building, and leaves a nagging sense of peril that the guard is using your NRIC card for some other nefarious purpose, but hey, that's security.

    Monday, May 01, 2006

    Singapore Elections - We Know Who You Are

    The Today newspaper carried an article on April 22, 2006 entitled "Be ready for checks at rallies" which describes new rules apparently permitting the police to conduct physical checks on people attending political rallies.

    I attempted to find the rules, or the press statement that Today is quoting from, on the Singapore Police web site, under Media Releases, but it does not appear to be there. Further digging turned up something called the Police Elections Liaison Office, with a web site here. The actual document is in .pdf format here.

    One wonders how the average citizen is supposed to know about all these rules, or who is making them.

    The rationale for allowing police to completely control political rallies and those who attend them was given by Mr. Seng Han Thong of the People's Action Party.

    "Election rallies are opportunities for terrorists who want to "sabotage". "These places are more vulnerable and the measures are to ensure that no one can take advantage of such a situation."