Thursday, March 27, 2008

Staying flexible at T5

"We wanted to make the experience of being in an airport exciting. We wanted to capture the spirit of travel." said Heathrow's Terminal 5 architect Richard Rogers.

Check-in here for chaos: Disgruntled passengers find Terminal Five is much the same as Terminal One, Two, Three and Four

It certainly looked that way to me yesterday: the baggage system malfunctioned, causing hours of delays in retrieving luggage, at least 34 canceled flights, and a temporary ban on checked items.

Too much excitement; too much the spirit of today's travel experience, I'm afraid.

I remember the opening of Denver's new airport a few years ago: it was plagued with similar problems in it's automated baggage handling system. I don't think that they ever got it right: in that case, the problem was compounded by having built the handling tunnels to be too small for human crews to substitute for the automated ones. I was on one of the last flights through the old Stapleton Airport the night before the switch in 1995, and the facility had been completely gutted to furnish the new airport. I can imagine that BA (and it's passengers) will face months of similar "settling in" glitches.

I think that we just have to accept that people are not particularly good at anticipating events, and stay flexible when hitting the road. Air travel seems particularly vulnerable, since single-point problems (weather, aircraft, baggage handling) can affect so many people and the effects can ripple throughout the system so quickly. There is no "routing around" the problem, only 'shouldering through.

It seems that transportation systems need to be designed to route around failure more quickly and automatically, much as the Internet is able to. The mechanisms aren't the same, of course, but the model is good: why aren't there better designs for routing systems for physical distribution of goods and people. Current systems seem to place too much emphasis on economy-of-scale and hub-and-spoke architechtures: perhaps more flexible routing (Open Skies?) and smaller packets (commuter airlines?) might improve performance.

Something to mull on the evening commute (stuck in traffic after an accident along the A12...another system vulnerable to disruption by point failures).

T5 photo credit Daily Mail

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