The winds were strong across the Atlantic this morning. The plane I was due to meet at Heathrow was due at 7.50 but expected about 40 minutes sooner. So an earlier start than planned got me to Terminal 5 at 7.45, which with a bit of luck would be about right to meet somebody working their way through corridors and passport control. But luck, it seemed was in short supply. The flight had landed at 7.16, but didn’t make it to a gate until 8.06. How better to fill the time than with a little gentle twitter snark.
Meeting flight at Heathrow. Fifty minutes from plane landing to reaching the gate. Impressively unimpressive.
— Stefan Czerniawski (@pubstrat) December 7, 2013
At the time, it wasn’t at all clear quite who was being so unimpressive. British Airways, perhaps, or maybe Heathrow Airport, perhaps some anonymous sub-contractor doing something obscure but essential.
Certainly there wasn’t any information being offered about what was actually going on (but that’s another issue for another time).
As it fairly quickly turned out, this was a small part of a much bigger problem, which later this morning had become the lead item on the BBC news site, pushing even Nelson Mandela to second place.
The fault, it turns out, is not with either the airline or the airport but with the air traffic control system, which was somehow unable to make the transition from night to day this morning (a problem we can all have some sympathy with). So here is a new villain in the shape of NATS. Or their IT system. Or their telephony supplier. Or perhaps a system fix without quite enough regression testing. Or who knows what.
And that’s really the point of this post. We live in a world of complex, interdependent systems. We interact with service providers, and form our judgements about them on the basis of what they do and how well they keep us informed. It would be nice not to have to know or care that they depend on others to get things right as we depend on them, but the reality is of course that they do. Somewhere there may be a villain in this story, but it’s almost certainly not the people in airports who are probably getting the sharp end of the blame.
As ever, and as in other contexts, if you want to change a system, you have to understand it first.