Can Heathrow Cope ?

I was thinking this as I came through Heathrow T5 early this Monday morning. A busy holiday weekend, lots of full (grossly overbooked) intercontinental BA flights arriving early morning. T5 has a problem of being spread over 3 and 4  levels with many “express lifts” that theoretically beat using the long slow elevators, and stairs that can bypass both once there is congestion. Of course it’s all a matter of queuing optimisation – and margins / buffers for queuing capacity.

BAA said immigration waiting times during peak periods at Heathrow were “frequently unacceptable” and it had “called on Border Force to address the problem as a matter of urgency”.

The now separate Border Force said it was “well-prepared… with additional staff available for busy periods”.

They had extra staff, sure enough, but they could just not enforce any queuing segregation – different routes leapfrog each other – before the chaos arrived at the immigration hall – Electronic Passports, UK Passports, EU Passports, Other Passports, Priority Short Flight Connections. In fact they were unwittingly making it worse for priority connection customers, by directing them in routes that had them leapfrogged by others. Partly because the rest of us couldn’t see the chaos ahead, even if we wanted to be community spirited, and partly because they didn’t start (and enforce) the segregation soon enough. Once a crowd loses confidence that those giving directions actually know what they’re doing – the outcome is inevitable – chaos and fraying tempers ignoring the well intentioned authority. Even the frustrated staff were shouting at each other. Good news is the airlines have spotted the problem.

The culture committee’s concerns follow warnings from four airlines – British Airways, bmi, Easyjet and Virgin Atlantic – that passengers could face “severe delay and disruption” during the Olympics.

“While visiting tourists will understand that the Olympics is a busy time, if the wait (at immigration) is in excess of an hour it may deter tourists from returning.

No-one minds being asked to queue, if they believe the queuing is being fairly managed. But no-one is going to be a mug standing watching the crowd pass them by. It’s not the absolute length of the wait – Jeez, I’ve waited over 2 hours at several US immigration lines before now – it’s the fairness in managing the mix of selfish and genuine urgency. Let’s not confuse quality with quantity just because we can count and read the time.

[BTW – this is part of whole series of problems with over-optimised air travel these days, partly created by the fact that we have greater technical (scientistic) means to optimise operations – with no margins for humans or quality – no spare capacity to cope, anywhere. I suspect the state-of-the-art design of T5 is simply another symptom of the problem causing the problem.]

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