11 April 2011

Air travel as a study in bad system design

When I started Unhealthful News, I planned to still do a few posts that were outside of that series.  For the first time, on day 101, I have gotten around to doing so.  Here is something that has nothing to do with news and relates to health only metaphorically.

It would be boring and redundant to comment about the obvious complaints being leveled at the airline industry.  What I find more interesting are systems failures that no one bothers to fix.  You can diagnose that something is wrong with a system when people keep making the same mistake or having the same difficulty in using it.  So, for example, when more than 1 person in 5 who stands in the queue for exit passport control at the Beirut airport is then turned away when they get to the front, because they did not fill out a pink card with their name and such, and thus has to fill it out and queue again, something is very wrong.  I only noticed the cards because a colleague had gotten to the front just as we approached the end of the queue informed us.  It would be easy to put up a big sign that makes it clear that the card (which is available in a less-than-obvious place near the approach to the queue) is needed.  Of course, such government operations often delight in making people's lives worse, so it might be intentional; but the airlines, knowing that you need it, could perform a bit of a customer service and give it to you with your boarding cards (probably some do, but not Middle Eastern Airlines).

(All this sets aside complaints about the mere existence of immigration control on the way out of a country, which is disturbing.  One of the great things about the U.S. -- symbolic, if nothing else --  is the established principle that there is absolutely no immigration control on the way out.  You are always free to leave.)

I was tipped over into writing this after watching another queue (I was waiting near it for a while for reasons unrelated to the queue) where a customs official at a major U.S. airport kept shouting at people, often rather abusively, for not noticing that at its end, immediately after taking a 90 degree turn, the queue split.  It was one of those places where you just hand off a customs declaration card, barely stopping, so no one really had a chance to notice there was this split except when someone just in front of them noticed it, because they could not see it until just before they handed off their form and were through.  Somehow it did not occur to the official who spend all day there that the fact that most people did not notice that there was another hand-off station, and thus had to be yelled at every twenty seconds all day long, was a sign that there was something wrong with the system, not the people in the queue.  A sign or a divider rope would have solved the problem.

My other observation is about European airports that post flight gate information based on the mistaken belief that we are at a train station.  To explain:  Trains go to different places, and so the most effective unique identifier at the station is the time of departure.  There is no way to list all the destinations.  However, this is fairly efficient since most of the time at a train station you are looking for one of the relatively small number of trains leaving in the next half hour.  Contrast that with an airport:  What is the most easily-remembered bits of information about your flight?  Where it goes, of course, along with approximately when it is leaving.  And, lo, thanks to the nature of air travel, it is possible to list flights alphabetically by destination city on the monitors because each one lands in only one place, unlike trains.  So American airports list them that way.  But the airports whose designers/managers think they are train stations list the flights by time of departure.  So if you do not remember if your flight is at 9:20 or 9:25 or 9:29 you have to scan through all the flights leaving during that period.  And, for a busy airport, unlike a train station, that might be 10 or 20 flights.  Moreover, since unlike at a train station you are unlikely to be interested in a flight leaving in the next ten minutes (too late for that one), you cannot just look at the top of the list, but have to figure out where in the list of perhaps a few hundred to even start looking.

The Paris airport (CDG) manages to go one worse, sorting the flights first by terminal (the gates are divided into about a half dozen of those) and then by time.  So you have to already know which terminal your flight is leaving from -- quite likely the information you are seeking -- before you can find it, or else you have to scan each list separately, hunting through the times, to find it.  By comparison, if the sorting just used "Philadelphia" -- you would not have trouble remembering it, you would not have to hunt clear through the "P"s because you forget exactly what the name of the city was, and you would quickly see where to look for it ("about 3/4 of the way down; there is S so it is before that; done" -- something our brains can process in a second).  If there was any possible reason for making the listings by time, like there is for trains, this might be reasonable.  But there is not.

I guess we should be thankful that the airport managers do not just list things by gate number or flight number, or tail number of the aircraft -- presumably they are feeding information that seems most useful to them when they sort by terminal and time, overlooking what is useful to us, so it could be worse.  Or the verbally abusive customs agent could have sent people back to the end of the queue as punishment for not noticing the split.

It is nice that Air France added "economy plus" type seating, which lets you have more space and amenities for a few hundred dollars more (perfect if someone else is paying but is not willing to pay the extra thousands(!) for business class).  However, the design of the bulkhead row seats, trays, armrests, etc. is such that spilling your drink is way too easy.  I witnessed an average of one spill every two flight hours, I think (and not even half of them were my doing!).  Surly they must be able to figure out that all the Pepsi they have to wash out of the seats (they choose that over Coke -- a failure of another sort) is a sign that something is wrong.  Indeed, they may well have noticed but have not been able to do anything about it -- after all, unlike the airport management or the immigration officials, they have to pay for part of the cost.

Finally just to make clear I am not picking on the French, you know when you use a magnetic card reader (for a ticket or credit card), you can insert the card four different ways.  Often only one of them works and it is not obvious which, and it causes annoyance and delay.  The Paris subway system uses magnetic tickets, and is set up so that it can read them no matter which of the four ways you insert them.  What a clever solution.


  1. Where is Deming when you need him?

  2. Tim,
    Dead a few decades, sadly. Though he was still around contemporary with the airport-as-train-station problem. Perhaps WalMart could redesign it out for them. Or they could just run a contest on the web to redesign the system and get someone to do it in exchange for a free iPad and an unpaid internship.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.