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From Where I Sit: Why Is Air Travel Like Facility Management?

Written by Retired Columnist. Posted in Columnists, Interiors, Magazine, Retired Columnists, Topics

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Published on February 08, 2006 with No Comments

By Tim Springer
Published in the February 2006 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

Recent excursions for business purposes have convinced me that our transportation system is fundamentally broken. My fellow road warriors and I have suffered the slings and arrows of business travel for decades. We’ve tolerated shrinking knee room and vanishing overhead storage. Worst of all, the current security screening procedures bring to mind Rodney Dangerfield’s classic refrain, “I don’t get no respect!”

But what does all of this have to do with facilities management, you may wonder? In a word, everything!

I don’t envy those who hold responsibility for airports, but I also don’t think they (or the organizations they serve) fully comprehend or embrace the fact they are in the customer service business. On the best of days, airports have become necessary evils or places to get through with the least amount of hassle. On the many days that aren’t perfect, airports resemble a special circle of hell more like something out of Dante’s Inferno.

So donning my curmudgeonly mantle, I pose the following questions and observations about business travel as they relate to facilities planning and product selection:

  • Why do so many airports cover their floors with carpeting? Most people walking through airports are dragging some sort of wheeled bag behind them. Wouldn’t it be better for wheeled luggage—not to mention maintenance—to opt for hard surface flooring like terrazzo?
  • Why aren’t there express lanes for people who actually want to walk on moving walkways? Sure, they label them expecting people to stand on the right and pass on the left, but these paths are called walkways, not “standways.” The distinction (as well as the explanation of usage) is evidently beyond a portion of the traveling public.
  • Speaking of moving walkways, why does it always seem like maintenance and repairs are scheduled for prime time? If the goal is to move people quickly toward the gates, shouldn’t regular maintenance be scheduled during times of lowest congestion?
  • Why are almost all gate area seats arranged in straight rows that have been fixed together and provide no accommodation for bags, coats, and the other items commonly associated with travel? Are we afraid someone will steal the chairs? If conversation is a goal, research shows seats placed at 90° are best.
  • The U.S. population is getting bigger and fatter and broader. So why are airport seats (not to mention airline seats) getting smaller and thinner and narrower?
  • How many airports never experience cancelled flights or flight delays? Given the frequency and duration of delays, why aren’t there better accommodations for people who spend hours, sometimes all night, waiting at the airport? (By the way, folding cots don’t count!)
  • New and redesigned airports include restaurants and shops. Their customers are travelers pulling or carrying luggage, bags, coats, and other detritus of travel. Why are the aisles so narrow and the tables and chairs so small that they seem to penalize travelers, all of whom need a place to put their stuff?
  • Have you ever picked up a rental car at night in a poorly lit parking area? Isn’t it fun to try and guess which button, knob, or lever controls what? How about some decent, safe outdoor lighting?
  • Waiting in lines is common to all airports these days, yet airports don’t seem to get it—nor do they care. Why not take a page from those companies that truly understand how to manage crowds and queues? Disney does a tremendous job of providing environmental cues that entertain and engage people while they wait.
  • Speaking of waiting, how hard would it be to create a holding area for people picking up arrivals? Instead, many airports force drivers to waste gasoline and time (possibly causing accidents) by circling the ramp areas. If limos and cabs can have areas like this, why not set aside a waiting area designated for family and friends? 

It seems to me as both a frequent traveler, facilities professional, and interested observer that some of the solutions in use at airports in the U.S. not only negate many of the original design features, but they also actually capitalize on certain facilities characteristics to maximize the hassle factor.

Think back again on those people awaiting others arriving on flights. Few airports provide space for people to meet these passengers. Without a clearly designed and demarcated area, those awaiting arrivals mill about just outside the security zone. In most airports, this results in a bottleneck where the crowd of those waiting blocks the egress of those trying to exit the gate area or airport.

So should we expect people to change their behavior and not come to wait on the arrival of colleagues, friends, and loved ones? Or should we recognize, support, and encourage this natural behavior by designing and providing appropriate areas where people can wait comfortably without blocking the path of those who typically need to get out of the airport and on to a business appointment?

Some of these criticisms may seem unfair. It’s true that nearly all the airports in use today were designed and built prior to the increased security demands following 9/11. Consequently we have not seen what can be done when an airport starts with a blank piece of paper and is designed from the beginning to accommodate the new world of travel.

I would hope that those responsible for facilities that serve business travelers would address some of these issues. I think they are obvious and universal—but then again it could just be me.

Springer ispresident and founder of Geneva, IL-based HERO, inc. andfrequently writes and speaks on a wide variety of issues affectingorganizations, work, and workplaces. For past columns from Springer, go to From Where I Sit and for future musings from Springer, visit his Web site.

About Retired Columnist

This expert formerly served as regular contributor to Today’s Facility Manager magazine. His vast knowledge of the facility management profession continues to provide a rich resource for facility managers by way of this online archive.

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