When Algorithms Know

A few days ago I wrote about how an algorithm almost messed up my plans while I was traveling to Europe. Yesterday in my return trip the opposite happened: an algorithm improved my experience considerably.

My flight from Lisbon to Newark departed an hour late. This left only forty-five minutes to clear U.S. customs, go to another terminal, and pass security screening. It wasn’t enough, and I missed my flight. I went to the check-in counter and told an agent what had happened. He looked up my information, and said “no problem, Mr. Arango; the system had already booked you into the next flight out.” He printed out my new boarding pass and sent me on my way.

This time the algorithm had not only detected I’d miss my flight: it’d also looked for an available seat on the next flight to the same destination and booked it. I’d already resigned myself to an awful experience and getting home much later than I’d planned. Instead, the process was seamless; I only got home an hour later than expected. Sometimes the algorithm taketh away, sometimes it giveth.

(I made a point to tell the airline representative how good the experience had been. Those folks get much more grief than compliments from passengers in my situation.)