January 31, 2008
Airline Restrictions: An Analogy for Lack of Transparency

One buzzword making its rounds at the moment is "transparency," and it's one that I find myself using increasingly, no matter my aversion to adopting terms. In an era of Web 2.0 technologies, I find increasingly--as I wrote about earlier this month--that there are too many people who haven't gotten Web 1.0 correctly, either.

As Steve Cody and I wrote about recently, many companies are making a variety of costly gaffes online, and part of the reason is that the same principles regarding open communication and transparency still apply.

Recently, when I was preparing for a flight to New York City, these problems became apparent. I was going for an overnight trip, so I was in need of a variety of belongings to cart along with me, but not enough to pack checked baggage.

Beforehand, I logged onto the Transportation Security Administration site to see what the rules were for carting information on. However, there were fundamental questions that went unanswered from the site. For instance, "Is an electric razor allowed in carry-on luggage?" "Can I pack multiple laptops in carryon luggage?" Etc. Sure, the second question might not be asked that often, but I can't imagine that I am the only person who might have reason to carry multiple computers with me for a trip.

At a loss for how to proceed, and realizing that there was no more OFFICIAL information available on the matter, I consulted some unofficial sources. WikiAnswers seemed stumped as well; Yahoo! Answers had pondered it but was otherwise undecided, with one person providing the rather unhelpful message, "no you stupid."

I decided to instead call Logan International Airport and pose these questions, to which the attendant answered that he didn't see why electric razors would be a problem and had no idea about the laptops. Instead, he directed me to call U.S. Airways to inquire.

U.S. Airways site doesn't provide insight into the matter. If I were wondering whether I could bring antlers on the flight, I'd be in luck, but electric razors are another question altogether.

I ended up calling U.S. Airways, per the Logan employee's suggestion. She said that one laptop was allowed but that one would be the limit, although she didn't seem to have the firm voice of confidence in here definitiveness. In regards to electric razors, she put me on hold for a long period of time, only to come back and tell me that razors aren't allowed. I pointed out to her that the TSA site says that safety razors weren't allowed, to which she started muttering back to me, and I realized that she was reading from the same TSA site I had been on before. She said, then, that safety razors were indeed allowed, to which I posed to her what that meant for electric razors.

She said she didn't know and then arbitrarily arrived at the conclusion that they were. Except, of course, I couldn't have this in writing, and I didn't want to have to do something with my $100 electric razor at the security line if the security guards didn't have the same interpretation of the TSA site as she did.

I felt sort of like the out-of-town traveler who is being given directions at a stoplight by a local who actually has no idea where you're headed but can't stand to send you away empty-headed or admit he or she doesn't know. The chill factor led to my not taking the electric razor, but I'm still no more sure what that means than when I started.

For me, this is the perfect anecdote for where many companies are in a Web 2.0 space. They have a definitive idea of what their message is, and they expect you to understand and abide by those rules, but there is no clear communication to the user as to what those rules are. This seems to be the case for fair use, for non-traditional media consumption, for governmental entities, and a variety of other sites. Unfortunately, it leads to the schizophrenic responses to audiences that I've written about in the past.

Any thoughts? Send me an e-mail at samford@mit.edu.