Innovation Lessons Found Between Martha's Vineyard and Singapore

It started at 4:30 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, last Saturday. The cell phone on my nightstand started ringing with a 336 area code. It was US Airways.

"We're sorry, but last night's weather meant the crew got in late. Your 8:20 a.m. flight from Martha's Vineyard to LaGuardia is now leaving at 11 a.m.," the representative said. "We've checked, and that still should give you enough time to get to Newark for your 3:15 p.m. flight to Hong Kong."

Through the early morning haze, I asked, "Do I have any other options?"

"Not that we can see," the agent said.

I tried to go back to sleep, but it was impossible. I had been in the States for four days — the primary purpose of the trip was celebrating Innosight's 10 year anniversary — and was pretty desperate to get back home to Singapore. My planned route was to fly from Newark to Hong Kong, layover for an hour, fly to Singapore, and make it home before midnight Sunday.

The US Airways flight ended up taking off right before noon. As it touched down at 1 p.m., I figured I had about a 60 percent chance to make it through the traffic between LaGuardia and Newark.

In the taxi ride, I noticed I had a voicemail. It was an automatic message from Continental, my carrier from Newark to Singapore. It reported a travel disruption, but my "new flights" were the same time as my old flights, so I figured it had just caught my US Airways blip.

My taxi pulled into Newark at 2:05 p.m., safely in time for my flight.

When I got my boarding pass the agent looked at his computer quizzickly. It too showed a flight disruption but he said I was still on the same flights. Off to security and a triumphant return to Singapore.

I got through security and looked at the monitor to find my gate. I saw the words all travelers dread: "HONG KONG - DELAYED - 9 PM DEPARTURE."

It was nearly a six-hour delay. That delay meant that my one hour layover in Hong Kong would now be seven hours, minimum.

To its credit, Continental handled the situation well. I received $50 in meal vouchers to use at Newark airport (which has a surprisingly high number of food choices), a 10% off coupon for any Continental flight, and a complimentary room in the airport hotel in Hong Kong. Staff were uniformly apologetic and incredibly helpful to me and the dozen or so other travelers in similar situations.

So, approximately 44 hours after that early wakeup call in Martha's Vineyard, I finally touched down in Singapore's Changi Airport.

If you've never been to the Changi airport, it's a frequent traveler's dream. Instead of having centralized security, it has security screening at each gate. That means that arriving passengers can go wander around the peaceful airport, shop duty free, and so on.

When I arrive in America, I mentally prepare for 20 to 30 minutes to wait in the line for immigration. Not in Changi. I swipe my passport in the machine, have my fingerprint scanned, and am through in seconds. I didn't check bags this trip, but even when I do they somehow seem to arrive within minutes. I blasted through customs, and hopped into a taxi.

The total time from leaving the plane to getting in a taxi: 11 minutes.

I'm not an expert in airport design, but Changi's approach seems to have several advantages to me:


  • You never have to obsess about whether a busy airport will impact your ability to make it through security to catch your flight. The airport's overall traffic level has little impact on the time it takes to get from the front entrance to your gate.
  • You have ample opportunities to shop when you land, which can be helpful for those of us who sometimes forget to get presents for the family when traveling.
  • The airport's interior is designed like an oasis, with calming music, carpet, gardens, free wireless, and ample seating. I strangely enough look forward to spending time in it.

So, what does this all have to do with innovation? There are two key lessons here, one from my experience with Continental and one from my experience with Changi.

Bad stuff happens. There's no way around it. Sometimes a flight gets delayed. Sometimes the test you are running doesn't pan out. Sometimes a lead customer falls on tough times and reneges on a promise. The key isn't whether or not you encounter difficulty. It's what you do with that difficulty. I left my 40+ hour journey with good feelings about Continental.

The customer is boss. Changi, in my mind, is an example of intelligent design with the traveler in mind. It's pleasant, peaceful, and efficient. Innovators should always look at the world through the eyes of the customer. Is there a way to challenge common assumptions, like Changi does with distributed security, to delight the customer?

The best news of all is that the trip was so exhausting that I had no problems at all falling asleep Monday night. No jet lag this time!

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