It started out like any other typical travel day: up at 5 A.M. to shower and shave, then do a quick check of e-mail for any important overnight messages. Finally, head to the car and race to the airport to check in by 5:45 A.M. to make my 6:30 A.M. flight to the west coast.

Now for the panic attack: A line 50 people deep at the United Airlines counter and only two somewhat flabbergasted airline employees behind the counter virtually guarantees no chance of getting baggage checked for this flight.

But there’s hope! I have my cell phone, and I’m part of the empowered Internet generation!

A quick call to Expedia will solve this problem, I reason, because they booked my electronic ticket for me. I’ll just get them to move me to a later flight or to a different airline (49 people now). Expedia informs me that they can’t get through to any United Airlines representatives, so I’ll just have to wait until I get to the counter.

All is not lost, however, because I can call the United Airlines 800 number and take care of my business personally. (So much for the “added value” of Expedia’s full-service travel agency.)

After an annoying array of phone menus and 15 minutes on hold listening to the artistic stylings of Yanni, a courteous United Airlines associate answers the phone. After explaining my situation, she courteously tells me that, in fact, I’ve already been booked on a competing airline’s flight to the same destination.

“What service!” I shriek. Now, all I have to do (at 6:45 A.M. with more than 25 people in front of me) is get to the ticket counter to exchange my electronic ticket for a paper one, so that I can go to the competing airline’s counter and wait for their 25 people to clear out so that I can get on their 7:05 A.M. flight.

“What? Service?,” I wail.

A fine, avoidable mess
Could United Airlines have avoided this whole mess? Absolutely.

As I spoke to more of the travelers in line with me, it became clear that we were almost all in the same e-ticket boat. We had been rebooked on different airlines with flights leaving within an hour of the original flights.

One “dirty little secret” about the airlines’ reservations systems is that they don’t work together. Any airline can put you on another airline’s flight—as long as they print out a ticket that can be re-entered by the other airline’s ticketing agent (the airlines’ version of paper-based XML).

But one airline CAN’T view or modify another airline’s electronic reservations. So now most of us were just waiting for the agents to individually handle our e-ticket to paper ticket conversion. Then we could take our paper tickets to the other airlines, miss their flights and start the process over again.

How does the problem get fixed without massive engineering efforts? If the flight’s been cancelled and everyone’s been rebooked, then print out all of the new tickets in advance so that when customers show up, you can hand them the new tickets and send them on their way.

Does this require a system rewrite? No. Does it require any extraordinary effort on the part of the agents? No. Does it require someone at the systems and/or administration level to think through these issues and determine reasonable manual backup procedures in the case of system failures or overloads? Absolutely!

Do you have adequate manual backup systems in place?
Think about all of the automation you’ve added to your company’s processes in the last three years. When you added the automation, did you make any of your departments or users totally dependent on the electronic methods of performing their work?

It’s likely that you did so without even thinking about it. Now I won’t pull a “Judge (Thomas Penfield) Jackson” on you and make recommendations about your internal systems and policies that I can’t even pretend to understand, but I will recommend one thing.

Take the time to look at the electronic processes that would put your business in the most difficult position if, for some reason beyond your control, those systems were to fail. Figure out the most efficient way to handle those problems manually and how to use any auxiliary or supplemental systems to hobble along until the main systems come back online.

Document the manual processes and TRAIN YOUR EMPLOYEES on the right times, places, and circumstances under which to implement them. In the electronic age, you can spend millions building electronic systems and then lose millions AND lots of credibility when they fail if you don’t have any way to keep the process flowing.

Back at the terminal…
Now it’s 7:30 A.M. I’ve made it to Mecca, the ticket counter.

I inform the agent that the flight they’ve rebooked me on has already left. After making a few empathetic comments about the rough day I’m sure the agent is having, I inform her that the most efficient flight for me to move to is one at the ticket counter next door whose flight leaves at 8:15 A.M. and actually gets me to my destination at approximately the same time as the original flight I was scheduled to take. She graciously agrees to book me on that flight and I’m on my way. Even in the electronic age, a kind word can get you just as far as a cell phone.

Tim Landgrave is the founder, president, and CEO of Vobix Corporation , an application service provider based in Louisville, KY.

Do your workers know how to cope if your automated systems fail? What have you done to ensure your business can keep working? Describe your plans in an e-mail or post your comments below.