Dante’s Heathrow – gateway to Britain

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 “” 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 as described in the :

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 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.  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.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

10 thoughts on “Dante’s Heathrow – gateway to Britain”

  1. Perhaps Heathrow could benefit from a “manager of cultural programming,”(!) a la Pearson Airport, as per this article in Saturday’s Globe and Mail (Toronto section):

    “Terminally bored? You won’t be, with digital art”
    ”What is this?” asks Jerry Laehi, furrowing his brow at an arrivals and departures sign at Pearson International Airport. Instead of showing which gate his flight to Vancouver departs from, the times and locations gale around the screen like a tornado of alphabet soup.

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20070714.AIRPORT14/EmailTPStory/

    And welcome back; your (more frequent) posts have been missed.

  2. Thank you Judy – like sleeping in your own bed, it is lovely to be back in my office on the PC. Although tapping on the laptop in the sunshine with a glass of local lagar was a nice change.

    I think if I’d known Heathrow had a cultural programming manager, I might have wondered if I’d landed in the middle of some bizarre modern art installation. Piles of luggage, queues of dead-eyed passengers – Tracey Emin or Damien Hurst? Mind you, most travellers would be happy to see an unmade bed and maybe a picked sheep wouldn’t taste too bad either.

  3. Heathrow is terrible isn’t it. Even the drive in – or tube in, or bus – whichever route you take is absolute hell. It is a sad welcome really, although visiting the US is nearly as bad in my limited experience.

  4. It is also quite interesting that their is a mythology about the glamour of air travel still. One problem is that it is neither exclusive nor routine – so we don’t get the benefit of any feeling of quality nor the ease of most other transportation.

    Rather odd that countries don’t recognise these “touch points” as first impressions to the national brand. Not very Cool Britannia.

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