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Last Updated: Friday, 4 August 2006, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Web underused in time of crisis
Technology commentator Bill Thompson says the web was a powerful tool - but sorely underused - during the airport chaos caused by arrests on Thursday for alleged plotting to blow up planes.

Passengers were left stranded at many airports
This should be coming to you via e-mail from Venice, where the cybercafes have started offering wireless connections and you can even log on while sitting at the waterbus stop.

Instead I'm sitting on my living room floor trying to decide whether the 1900 Ryanair flight to Forli I booked myself on Thursday night will actually take off, and looking at the Trenitalia website trying to decide whether I'll be in Italy in time to catch the last train to Venice's Santa Lucia station.

Thursday wasn't a good day to try to get off this island of ours.

I woke to the news of the new security procedures and growing chaos, but since my Easyjet flight from Gatwick wasn't until that evening I decided to go to the airport anyway, hoping that the system would have settled down a little.

Unfortunately Easyjet cancelled all their flights from Gatwick, Luton and Stansted and I was left stranded.

After queuing at the British Airways ticket desk I learned that they weren't selling any tickets at all for flights within the next two days, so it seemed was no chance of getting on a plane that day.

The information screens were little help, showing flight times that had long passed, so I headed to a café downstairs and paid for a day's wi-fi.

Bill Thompson
None of the airlines has anything as useful as an RSS feed for flight updates that I could subscribe to

From my laptop I was able to check out the various airline websites and get a sense of what was going on.

Showing remarkable efficiency, Easyjet were already offering any passengers on cancelled flights free re-booking, so I moved my flight to Sunday, the earliest available slot and one that seemed to stand a chance of flying.

Then I surfed around, looking at news services and airline sites, and found that Ryanair was running a limited service from Stansted.

Desperate to get away, and confident that if I could get anywhere in continental Europe I could get a train or even another flight, I went there to see what was available.

When I finally made my way to the Ryanair ticket desk at Stansted at around 4pm on Thursday afternoon I was told that they were full and there was no chance of getting out that evening.

I couldn't even buy a ticket for tomorrow, as they weren't selling any tickets at all from the desk.

When I pressed her the woman at the counter did check and tell me that there was one flight to Italy on Friday morning with spaces, but she couldn't sell me a ticket.

So I sloped off to the corner of the terminal, got out my laptop and managed to make a booking, a lot happier than the man at the desk next to me who was getting increasingly frustrated.

Airlines had little face to face information but the web did

I may have used the web to get a flight, but it hadn't been my first choice for finding out what was going on earlier in the day.

While everything was developing during the morning I had the TV and radio on, and let my attention drift between them while I checked my e-mail, packed and got things together for the day.

I didn't use the web because things were happening so fast that the ability of speech-based media to break news immediately and the way I could split my attention between what I was doing and what was being said was invaluable.

But once I got to the airports and into the maelstrom the net was vital.

Even if I'd had a portable radio with me, the information I needed was too detailed to be provided by the mass media.

With my laptop I could check detailed lists of cancellations and try to find another flight.

The few attempts I made to call reservation centres at BA and Ryanair were as futile as I knew they would be, but I managed to get myself booked on the morning flight to Milan - since cancelled, as you might expect, but rebooked for the evening - within five minutes of being told there were spaces on it.

Of course it was far from perfect. There's no way to book a flight for the same day, and Ryanair didn't bother to send me an e-mail overnight to tell me that my early morning flight had been cancelled, even though they insisted I provided an address.

And none of the airlines has anything as useful as an RSS feed for flight updates that I could subscribe to.

But without the web it would simply have been impossible.

I now face another problem, of course. The new rules mean that I will have to check in all of my luggage, including my phone and, crucially, my laptop.

Do I trust the baggage system, with the danger of damage or pilfering, with my PowerBook? I don't think I can take the risk, so it's going to have to stay home and I'll cope by using cybercafes or whatever other access I can find.

And that means if anything goes wrong I'll be completely stuck. I won't even have my phone, once I've checked in my bag.

In the old days any working journalist would head off on a story with a pocket full of loose change so that they could phone the office - I wonder if I'm allowed a few euro coins in my clear plastic bag?

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet

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