Snow, airlines, and balance

Heathrow Airport is snowed in

Heathrow, and most other airports, are brittle systems.

London’s Heathrow Airport – suffering only a few centimetres of snowfall – is largely shut down.  Thousands of stranded passengers may end up spending Christmas in one of the least Christmas-y places there is. Dozens of other airports are carrying huge backlogs because of the cascade effect. The rippling of delays and cancellations is wreaking havoc all over the place.  This is a great example of an unbalanced system that has forsaken effectiveness of efficiency.

We Canadians shouldn’t laugh.  While 10 cm of snow is not much more than a “light dusting” of the white stuff for us, it’s wreaking havoc in Europe, where they just haven’t the infrastructure to deal with snow in such quantities.

Anyways, it’s not the snow itself that interests me.

Instead, I’m more interested in how the on-going problems at Heathrow are rippling outwards to many other airports, including Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

The global airline schedule is a very finely tuned system consisting of thousands of elements, each reacting dynamically and very fast to an assortment of disturbances.  Driven by a constant pressure to minimize disruptions, which equate to lost revenues, the global airline system constantly seeks increased efficiency. To find those efficiencies, the system has optimized its performance to an ever narrower range of circumstances.

For instance, less fuel is stored at airports to order to save space and storage costs; this is possible because there are very strict constraints on the rates at which fuel shipments arrive at the airport.  These constraints work because other systems – those in charge of producing and delivering the fuel – have themselves become more efficient.  This manifests as ever-smaller variations in the rate of delivery of the fuel.  Because the fuel supply is more “reliable,” the airport can streamline its operation.

But when something does go wrong with the fuel delivery system, there isn’t sufficient “slack” in the airport system to accommodate the disruption.  And the airport runs out of fuel.

The same kind of thing has happened due to the snowstorm.  De-icing equipment is insufficient, supplies for stranded travellers are insufficient, snow removal is insufficient,….

What’s worse, every other airport has streamlined its behaviour in the same way.  And the airports are all deeply interconnected.  So none of them are able to handle the disruptions that result at any one of them. The result is a cascade effect just like what we’re seeing.

The real problem here is that the global airport system has forsaken effectiveness for efficiency. Effectiveness is what you can do; efficiency is how well you can do it.  There is a balance between the two, such that you cannot have both.  The more effective you are, the more you must accommodate extraordinary circumstances.  This requires flexibility.  Highly flexible systems tend to be inefficient.  Similarly, the more efficient you are, the more optimized you must become with respect to your current situation – you have to give up flexibility.

Systems that are either highly effective (at the expense of efficiency) or highly efficient (at the expense of effectiveness) do not survive well.  Inefficient systems simply cannot survive; ineffective systems run well until circumstance changes too fast for the system to react, at which point they shatter.

The global airport system is too efficient.  This also makes it insufficiently effective to adapt to the admittedly exceptional circumstance of the recent snowstorms in England.  The system is brittle, and the snowstorm was more than it could bear.

And let’s be frank. There’s more at stake here than just some people not being home for Christmas.  Hotels and resorts will suffer financially, possibly resulting in laid-off workers.  Accidents are bound to happen as a result of the confusion at Heathrow and elsewhere.  It would be interesting to calculate the total cost of all traffic accidents, falls, and violent acts arising from the collapse of the airport system.  Jamming so many people into such an enclosed space at Heathrow is bound to lead to a flurry of colds, viruses, influenzas and, possibly, worse afflictions.  What about the carbon footprint of all the taxis, cars, and trucks stuck in traffic as a result of the snowstorm?  What about the sick people who cannot get to hospital because the roads are congested with traffic from the airport?

And all this can extend to the other airport systems that are collapsing in response to Heathrow’s situation.
While it might seem like a minor inconvenience, the chaos at Heathrow is (or at least could be) a very serious situation.

The way to fix this problem is to let the airport system become more effective. But this will lower efficiency. So it becomes a simple choice – can we not live with a bit more inefficiency in how our airports work so that weird circumstances don’t grind the global airport system into a slushy mess?

I hope we can.


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