Friday, August 28, 2009

My life as a flight coordinator

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, I worked for a couple years for a company that sells a whole lot of airline tickets and things like that. I had a card that said I was a travel agent, but in truth I was more of a web developer, webmaster, and systems administrator. But it was interesting, and I learned a lot about travel. I even did a little traveling for things like training, meeting with prospective vendors, and so on - maybe 25,000 to 35,000 miles a year. (If you think that's a lot, you probably haven't lived in Hawaii.) And I got to see some new places and people as a result - Portland, Atlanta, Austin, and George W. Bush.

That ended, a couple years passed, and I found myself doing some other things that required a bit more travel. 28,000 miles in the second half of 2004. 70,000 miles in 2005. 111,000 miles in 2006. 28,000 miles in the first quarter of 2007. And around the end of 2006, some of the other folks involved talked amongst themselves and decided that since I had an actual background in travel, and was good with the 'net, they should talk me into helping out with flight coordination for the others.

Sound good so far? Well, there were four minor things that complicated matters a wee bit:

First, lest the process become too simple, "the others" were about 60 people who came from 30 different countries. The inevitable visa issues were, thankfully, not my problem!

Second, to make things even more fun, a fair portion of them were working, studying, or just wandering around aimlessly in or between entirely different countries. And someone was always moving. Like the Swede who moved from Sri Lanka to Thailand. Or the Russian who moved from Australia to Kenya a month after that. Or the South African who moved from the Bay Area to the Southeast a month after that. "Where are you flying from, these days?" is a common conversation-starter.

Third, they needed to go a lot of different places. Even places you probably don't hear about unless you're in a geography bee. In the first few months I helped with flights there were teams on the ground in Buenos Aires, Dhaka, Montréal, Nairobi, New Delhi, New York, Nusa Dua, Paris, Rome, Vienna and Yaoundé. Do you know all three of those italicized ones without looking them up?  There were days where I booked over 100,000 miles of air travel for various people in a 24-hour period!

Fourth, like everyone else on the planet, they did have their preferences. "Aisle or window?" was merely the beginning. There were preferred airlines and alliances, which I can relate to completely as a frequent flyer. There were meal preferences, departure-time preferences, preferred airports to depart from. Many wanted to arrive early, stay late, or stop en route for sightseeing. And of course, there are the dislikes - certain people, myself included, simply loathe certain airlines and airports!

So it could be pretty interesting and pretty chaotic. But through extensive use of e-mail, instant messengers and VoIP, and a little occasional help from real travel agents we worked with in countries where it's just about impossible to find fares, I managed to get everyone where they needed to be, and most of them seemed happy that I was doing it.  I stayed with it for two and a half years, then handed the duties off to a teammate in the summer of 2009 so that I could focus on my full-time job and school.

Tools of the Flight Coordinator Trade

I have a lot of travel web sites bookmarked. Of course there are the usual airline sites, yawn, everyone knows about those. More interesting are the search sites and some of the supplemental information sites.

ITA provides the back-ends for a bunch of travel web sites. This demonstration of the technology on their own web site doesn't sell tickets, but it does show what fares published by the airlines should theoretically be "out there" somewhere. doesn't sell tickets either, but it checks a whole bunch of airline websites and web fare search sites to come up with a huge comparison price list, which can then be narrowed down by price, time, airlines, and other factors. is the only major fare search site based in the US that will find fares originating in most other countries too - others tend to allow origins only in the US and a few other countries. It's also recently started offering delivery of paper tickets to several other countries, which is handy when e-tickets simply aren't available.

Owned by the same company since 2001, these two brands now use the same technology - their web sites are different colors, but you'll notice very similar "more options" search menus. They usually have very similar prices, but sometimes an airline will put a special deal on just one or the other.

The oldest and to my eyes clunkiest of the sites, still occasionally gets a good deal from one airline or another, so I check it "just in case." It's run by the same folks as the SABRE reservation system, which has ties to American Airlines. is virtually unknown within the US - I was tipped off to it by a former co-worker who's now with Expedia. It's owned by a bunch of European airlines and Amadeus, the big reservation system there. It prices everything in pounds instead of dollars, but doesn't have to deal with US politics and can thus offer flights to countries US sites don't. must be on-screen when doing seat selection. It's got the seat maps for every type of plane on every airline anyone cares about, with colors and annotations showing which seats are best or worst, and why. Also very handy for finding out whether your next flight has laptop power!

If there were a religion of frequent flyers... would be its Jerusalem. Everything you could possibly want to know (and probably a lot you couldn't possibly want to know) about every airline, airport, hotel chain, frequent-flyer program, reward credit card or whatever, out there.

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