I am writing this at 6 a.m. sitting on a bar stool at the Empire Tavern at LaGuardia Airport’s terminal C. I am gearing up for a full day of travel out to the Pacific Northwest. I will be there all week and will land in NYC (JFK airport — flying out of LaGuardia and into JFK saved the company a couple hundred bucks!) just after 10 p.m. Friday.
The length or location of my trip is not significant. I tell you just so there is some context to my story. What is significant is my experience with technology at all the airports I fly into, out of and through. Most of the time, technology seems to increase efficiency of processing thousands of people through check in, baggage check, security, and boarding. I typically do e-check in. I get my boarding pass texted or emailed to me. I get flight updates via text message. I use digital signage to find my way to my gate. You get the idea. So today, I sit down at this bar to have a breakfast that I hope will carry me through until late afternoon when I finally get to the west coast (I have a layover in MSP and if my flight is more than 20 minutes late, I will likely miss the connecting flight). Seems at this Empire Tavern, you are encouraged not to interact with waiters. You are supposed to rely on technology to order and pay for your meal. That information is somehow communicated to a prep, cooking and serving staff teams. Your food is supposed to be delivered in 15 minutes or less. There are a few employees walking around in case you have questions, but otherwise they leave you to your relative isolation; as I look around I realize that most people are engaged with the technology, whether it’s the iPad on the bar with games, or their own cell phones, and I am somewhat relieved. It is, as I mentioned, 6 a.m. and I have already been up for hours. I have little desire to strike up a conversation with a stranger (and anyone who knows me knows that I usually love to strike up conversations with strangers — not joking).
OK, let me get to the point (forgive me for rambling, I am trying to get past the “I woke up when it is still the middle of the night” brain.) My experience with this technology-enabled breakfast ordering process was less than stellar. I think that’s probably why they make you choose the tip amount prior to even being served… because the interface between technology and human is still unreliable, and that’s not the fault of the servers. I order a small bowl of oatmeal with bananas and a hot green tea. The bowl comes out — really quick — as promised. My tea never makes it. So I try to catch the attention of one of the floating staff member whose primary job is to answer questions and get salt, pepper and sugar to those stressed out travelers who have minutes to shovel their meals into their face and get to the mile long zone 2 boarding line (I am convinced that he must believe that his real job is to act in stealth mode and not make eye contact.) Flagging down one of these helpers is not easy. I finally grab one and ask him if I can please have my tea. He tells me to order it on the iPad. I told him I did, with my oatmeal. I point to the bowl and tell him that I only received half my order. He said, “Oh” and walks away. Hmmmmmm. OK, let me try again.
I am able to connect with a different employee. I review my issue (by this time I have been sitting here for a half hour but I arrived at my gate really early, so I am not in a huge rush; I just want something to drink) and ask if I can please have my tea. He has to defer to someone else to check my order to confirm that I am waiting for my green tea. Annoying but totally understand. This “someone else” tells him to “just get it for” me. I can tell there is tension in her voice. I have a feeling that I am not the only person having trouble receiving what I ordered and paid for. This is confirmed when the guy sitting next to me tells his server that he has been waiting almost 20 minutes for his sparkling water and coffee. And then again when a server comes over to me with a slightly sad looking pistachio muffin, which I kindly told her I did not order (it was for the lady three bar stools down from me). And finally, a woman walks up to the counter and says that she ordered a muffin and coffee 30 minutes ago and has to catch her flight. She was clearly agitated and very short with the floater.
The point? Well by now you have guessed, the point is that while technology is helpful and can create great efficiencies and increased productivity. It can even offer stressed out early morning travelers the ability to sit in isolation without being judged. But sometimes that interface — the place where technology and humans have to interact and receive information from each other in order to maintain efficiency and productivity — is buggy. In a time when technology has caused us to expect instant gratification, immediate and correct information and feedback, we forget that there is always the possibility of failure, whether at the equipment, signal transmission or interface levels. We, as a society, may have lost our most important of virtues as a result of technological advancement and consumption- those of patience and understanding. It’s times like these, at 6 a.m., without my hot tea, that I sit back and remember that the world isn’t over because I don’t have my green tea. There is an issue somewhere in Empire Tavern’s process that they will eventually fix. And it won’t be while I am here. But that happens. And it’s OK, because right now my cell phone just buzzed, telling me my flight is on time at gate C20 and I will boarding in 15 minutes. Gotta fly!