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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
Despite all the marvels of modern technology, we seem suddenly to have taken a huge leap backwards in efficiency.
Seeing reports of great hordes of people shuffling about airports and railway stations hopelessly stranded, mountains of luggage waiting to be flung onto trolleys and sent into the wild blue yonder, and transportation left standing idle because there is no staff to run it gives me a shudder and a proper concern that we can’t seem to do anything right anymore.
Certainly, since the early 1970s, air travel has been much affected by the wicked intentions of those who would do us harm. The days when we would walk casually into an airport, board a beautiful airliner and jet off to distant places in style and with nary a wrinkle were spoiled by threats of terrible violence.
Two things started happening at the same time, back then, that forever changed the way we move around the planet. Air travel was marketed for the masses, and aircraft were packed with holidaymakers on package tours to every place imaginable; and terrorists began targeting those very vulnerable carriers and – let’s be blunt – killing thousands of people who had wanted nothing more than to lie on beaches somewhere and sip cheap cocktails.
This century began with one of the worst imaginable acts of wickedness perpetrated by a few against thousands of innocents, putting an end to the simple routines of check-in and security to which we had reluctantly become accustomed over thirty years.
Quite suddenly, we were no longer individuals. We had become numbers, statistics, disagreeable and awkwardly controlled cargo that had to be processed, inspected, vetted, prodded and scanned before we could be herded through glass corridors to waiting jetliners. Not surprisingly, some of us went berserk, said unpleasant things to staff who were only following orders, and sometimes caused interruptions that duly mangled everything in a chain reaction.
Into this steaming and angry melee came even swifter and smarter technology, enabling us to do a lot of our own clicking and processing far in advance of setting foot in the airport terminal. We could even scan our own passports, print our boarding passes and labels for our suitcases, and march right through gates with merely a swipe.
Smart technology was like a breath of fresh air. We were feeling very clever indeed.
In one remarkable example, I recently landed at London Heathrow – one of the world’s busiest airports – and timed my journey from the moment I stood up from my aircraft seat to the moment at which I stepped out of the terminal onto the curb and headed for a train station.
That’s how swift it all was.
I was stunned at the efficiency. So stunned, in fact, that I did it again on a following journey, this time landing at Munich. The same thing happened. I was out of the terminal within minutes of leaving the aircraft.
Here we were. We had finally managed to do things the way we had always pictured. We had found a way to organize ourselves, put the right technology to work, and overcome logistic obstacles while greatly improving security at the same time.
And now, much to our frustration, it’s all come apart at the seams. We’ve lost track of where we were going, become buried in bureaucracy, snarled in a tangled net of ridiculous complications.
Strangely, or perhaps predictably, it’s not the technology that failed us. Most of it, in fact, seems still to be working just fine.
The flaw in the system is us. We are the ones who have problems. We can’t follow simple instructions, can’t pay people what they should earn, can’t decide who should stand where, can’t match our systems with other peoples’, and just can’t deal with the unexpected.
If we worked as efficiently as the systems we designed and simply did what we said we’d do, perhaps we’d finally reach our goal as well as our destination.