Who’s to blame?

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.

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.
Terminal 5 arrivals
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.

BBC news - UK airports hit by flight delays

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.

Heathrow photograph by Diamond Geezer, licensed under creative commons

The post Who’s to blame? appeared first on Public Strategist.


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Profile Photo Dale M. Posthumus

In most situations like this UK air control problem, I believe efforts should first and foremost be focused on finding out what is wrong and fixing it, working to decrease the likelihood of it happening again, then look at why it happened and what needs to be done to assure the process/work is done correctly in the future. “Blame”, IMHO, is for when somebody did something wrong when it was relatively clear there were better options worth choosing. “Villian” should only apply when harm is caused or ignored. I agree that more information could have been provided, although full disclosure, in this situation, would probably not be necessary or desired.

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Profile Photo Stefan Czerniawski

Dale – Thanks for your comment. We don’t disagree, and I am not actually looking for somebody to blame. What interested me about this event was that the complexity of the overall system not only obscured where the underlying problem had arisen, but specifically made that underlying problem seem an unlikely cause. The problem for the flight I was meeting was that it had successfully landed, but then experienced a very long delay before it reached a gate. At first it seems implausible that that could have been caused by an air traffic control glitch, since the plane was already on the ground – but it was (because planes were not taking off, so gates were not being freed).

So regardless of whether trying to find somebody to blame is good idea – and I tend to agree with you on that – it’s a nice (and actually pretty simple) example of why complex systems can be hard to fix. That really matters when we get to more difficultissues, as my recent blog post on government blunders illustrates. The real danger is that lots of energy goes into fixing symptoms rather than causes.

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Profile Photo William Thomas

Stefan – Ten years ago I traveled by air a lot for work, and had similar experiences. For whatever reason, the flight would reach its destination early – usually 10-15 minutes, occasionally up to 30 minutes. When the pilot announced our early arrival the cabin cheered. But then, more often than not, we’d sit on the tarmac waiting for the gate. Almost always the gate was unable to accommodate an early arrival. Either there was another aircraft at the assigned gate, or the gate personnel were unavailable, or the system simply could not handle an anomaly in the schedule. Each time I noticed that for the people on the plane, arriving early was worse than arriving on time – perhaps because the joyous expectations crumbled as the minutes ticked by sitting and waiting. It seems like the separate parts of the equation – flight travel time, landing runway availability, gate availability, and who knows what else – cannot deal with changes within other components. Like you say, it’s a complex system, and one change can throw everything else out of sync. What this means for the savvy traveler is curbing your enthusiasm for an early arrival!

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