A general view from Newark Liberty International Airport on November 17, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. In traveling for Thanksgiving, we all depend on complex computer systems to get us home on time, and in safety.
A general view from Newark Liberty International Airport on November 17, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. In traveling for Thanksgiving, we all depend on complex computer systems to get us home on time, and in safety. - 
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Let's start with a big number: 24 million people are expected to board airplanes this week, many of them today, and all relying on complex computer systems to keep everything sorted out.

"If Thanksgiving is on Thursday, you'll see me Monday or Tuesday," sayss Dennis Harris from Columbia, South Carolina, who is going to his sister's place in Connecticut. "I'm the early bird--I gotta get that worm."

Not everyone has room in their schedules to build in a three-day buffer, though. And the computer systems that get us all home are pretty complex. 

"The airlines have multiple computer systems," says Henry Harteveldt, an airline and travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. "They have reservation systems, check in systems, flight systems, and they're all interconnected. And when these systems become inoperable, it's as if the airplanes' wings have been chopped off. The airline literally cannot do business."

As United Airlines combines with Continental, it has been struggling with its computer foul ups, including one last week that delayed more than 600 flights. If you think about it, flying is like factory logistics: everyone's hoping for just-in-time delivery. The widget you hope gets there "just in time" is yourself.

"The just-in-time analogy is a perfect one because just as in the manufacturing world, the airline world has gotten very lean and when things go wrong it can have a lot of impact. "Eric Johnson is a professor of Operations Management at Dartmouth. "It's really all about building resiliancy. And in this case building resiliancy means being able to recover quickly. Airlines are getting better at that, but the systems are also getting more complex." 

The federal government has been trying to modernize the technology of the entire air traffic system. The move from radar to Global Positioning Satellite navigation and more direct routing of flights is said to be about four years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.


Nokia. Sort of like the Ottoman Empire, great, once upon a time. Five years ago, Nokia made the top selling mobile phone. These days think Samsung Galaxy or the IPhone. But Nokia is beating Apple in at least one area: At a time people are still kvetching about Apple's new mapping software, many critics are liking the maps brought to you by Nokia. 

"It's just generally more accurate,"  says Sam Biddle a senior staff writer for Gizmodo. "You type in an address, you get things in the same proximity. A lot of times with apple you get these wacko results. If I'm looking for a pizza place in Boston, don't take me to Kansas, don't take me to Japan."

Biddle did a side-by-side video of Nokia and Apple's maps apps. He says that while the company may be rolling out the software a little soon--there are still bugs--it's a solid choice for those who have been cursing iOS maps recently. Still, others are griping about the bus and subway directions on Nokia's maps. When we asked him if there was an Android version, he laughed and joked that the only people that would install a non-Google maps app on a Google-friendly device would have to be on a serious mission to be ironic. 

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Follow David Brancaccio at @DavidBrancaccio