I had rather a dramatic return to the UK over the weekend. Owing to a combination of factors, we arrived at the shiny new terminal at Sofia airport just 30 minutes before departure on Saturday and BA decided it was impossible to let me board. I appreciate this was cutting it fine, but it should have been possible with a little goodwill on their part.
Anyway, the only option offered was to take the 6.45am flight on Sunday morning instead (that’s 4.45am UK time). Although this meant a final, pleasant evening in Sofia, it also involved a 4.00am start since BA’s instructions were to be at the airport this time two hours ahead of departure – or else. Of course, there was a queue on my arrival at 4.35am – and the plane itself was delayed in leaving and arriving for various reasons to do with slots, gates and other excuses.
We finally deplaned/disembarked at 8.00am UK time. I was teaching image and identity last week, and certainly found Heathrow to be a case study in poor image management. In fact, the impression that came to mind was Dante’s Inferno and the famous phrase:
Wikipedia says that “before entering Hell completely, Dante and his guide see the Opportunists, souls of people who in life did nothing, neither for good nor evil.” Those like me arriving at airports are looking to enjoy opportunities, but do we deserve the punishment:
to eternally pursue a banner, and be pursued by wasps and hornets that continually sting them while maggots and other such insects drink their blood and tears.
I exaggerate, but you feel like you are being punished in walking miles, eternally following signs to the exit, standing in queue after queue to pass through security, faced by stressed staff, fighting to reclaim your baggage all in an increasingly dirty, unpleasant environment.
Outside is no better as chaos ensues with cars, cabs, buses, people and armed police, everywhere. I wait for the bus transfer to the long-stay parking, which then stops at each terminal before dumping me back to walk to my car. Finally, some 90 minutes after landing and a £150 parking fee, I can start the journey home.
Is this really the impression we want to give of Britain; an inferno of chaos and madness? Of course, security concerns are paramount, but how can this lack of order help anyone?
In car production, there is a system of “just in time” where components are organised to arrive ready for the assembly process. The goal is “continuous flow” and reflects Japanese thinking on efficiency. It seems there is much in this approach that could be practised at airports. Not least in seeking to eliminate the wasteful practices as described in the Toyota Production System:
Muda: Any activity that consumes resources without creating value for the customer.
Mura: Unevenness in an operation; for example, an uneven work pace in an operation causing operators to hurry and then wait.
Muri: Overburdening equipment or operators.
All of these are evident in management of people at airports – little value, rushing and waiting, people and equipment at breaking point.
It strikes me that the most efficient method of ensuring security, and effective travel for customers, would be to reverse many of the current processes. Instead of encouraging thousands of people to arrive ever earlier, piled like wasteful components at the side of a car production line, we should consider methods of ensuring passengers arrive “just in time” – where their flow through check-in and security can be smooth and more conducive to maximising the potential to detect any terrorist or other threats.
Is anyone looking at how to devise a system that reduces waste and maximises continuous flow in respect of passenger travel through airports? For example, could we not be given a specified time and place to arrive, where we could wait comfortably until called through individually; entering a process that operates seamlessly?
To take an analogy of clothing, it seems that rather than create an approach to solve a problem (like Gore-Tex to provide a waterproof/breathable fabric), we’ve just added more and more layers of the old way of thinking.
Despite the apparent work to increase investment at Heathrow, this feels like a system on the edge of collapse. BAA appears more focused on revenue from shopping and corporate financing than addressing this crisis in travel.
Surely they can learn cost-effective solutions from other systems which are effective. Britain deserves a better first impression than this.