«by Hannah Knox Damian O’Doherty Theo Vurdubakis Chris Westrup EBK Working Paper 2005/20 Enacting Airports: Space, Movement and Modes of Ordering ...»
At Fulchester we find an expanding array of information and communications technologies deployed to solve the problem of ordering. Computer-mediated organization holds the promise that discordant demands made by different ‘orderings’ can be harmonised, that the organizational Humpty-Dumpty can, so to speak, be finally put together. ICTs are complicit, however, not only in the production of visions and possibilities of order and stability, but also in rendering them precarious and fragile – by destabilising information, identities, processes and procedures. We want to explore how these proliferating digital and ICT solutions to the problems of flow within airports are challenging accepted modes of inhabiting spaces while posing new questions concerning the limits and character of identity and organization. As we argue below, the organization of ‘flow’ is always in danger of ‘overflow’, of disintegration into confusion and flux, where people and objects become unstuck from the smooth operation of representations and get lost in the intransigent opacity of the ‘mass’.
Geometries of Fragmentation: Service Level Agreements and Customer Service Agents Fulchester airport is made up of many, often competing spaces, all enacting different modes of ordering. It is composed of an ebb and flow of spacings that are being shaped, pushed and pulled by a multitude of socio-technical agencies and actants2.
Many different institutions and legal, regulatory agencies, including the military and the police, the IATA (International Air Transport Association) and the various domestic and international airline companies take an interest in the development and evolution of space in the geographical site that is the airport. Airline deregulation, intensified global competition, and the decentralisation of large, formerly integrated bureaucratic organizations (Colling, 1995) has led to a multiplication of spatial delimitations that complicates the lines of connection which are then required to (re)assemble all the parts into collective organization. Airlines now have contracts with a range of different companies who provide ticketing and check-in services, baggage handling, cleaning and catering, and aircraft engineering and maintenance.
Even the stewards serving drinks on the flight may be employed by a sub-contractor.
From check-in to arrival the customer might not meet an employee of the airline with whom they have ostensibly travelled.
To deal with this fragmentation, relationships between airports, airlines and service providers are managed through service level agreements (SLAs) which attempt to make clear the divisions of responsibility in order to reduce the complexity and contradiction of competing interests. Airlines will have service level agreements with the airport to justify landing fees charged by the airport, as the airport will have SLAs with retailers and franchise outlets. In other words SLAs seek to smooth out striations into a space of free flow. These SLAs, as one system administrator put it, ‘basically just drives your organization to a standard based organization’. In these spaces of flows, congestion provides evidence of the failure of mobility through space, potentially leading to chaotic disorganization and systemic breakdown that impacts beyond the boundaries of the airport often concluding with financial compensation for those affected and monetary penalties for those at fault. Flows, it appears, constantly need confining, enumerating and checking, otherwise the spectre of flux threatens to break through in the form of financial penalties.
In practice, techniques of demarcating responsibility between different companies are often difficult to establish and maintain. SLAs are not visible to the passengers and in the contingency of everyday transport – of delays and cancellations – the carefully organized lines of responsibility become difficult to sustain. Passengers do not necessarily understand the demarcations and finer details of the various roles performed by airline flight attendants, airport employees, and baggage handling staff, and the intricacies of their contract arrangements in which management and organization is instructed by the procedural dictation of remote information systems, appears
and irrelevant. The customer service agents who staff the various help and information desks are central to the translation and reconciliation of these abstractions in the day to day practice of flow management. The first line in a list of ‘principle accountabilities’ detailed in the job description for customer services advisors (CSA) reads: ‘Ensure terminal operations including passenger and baggage flows are maintained and meet or exceed the specified standards.’ The job description goes on to itemise the more specific responsibilities and accountabilities of the CSA and explains the specific instances in which these broad duties may have to be performed, including the need to ‘react positively to customer requirements and problem situations’ and to ‘input flight information and passenger instructions via the airport systems, including TOBIAS3, onto display screens and make Tannoy announcements in order to ensure that passengers move through the terminals in a safe and efficient manner’.
Times of crisis push these descriptions to their limits as CSAs are forced to reconcile their responsibilities to passengers with their inability to influence other organizations operating within the airport. ‘Last Friday night, in Terminal 2, Angela had about 14 flight arrivals about 10 o’clock …’. Patrick, one of the airport terminal management staff, is telling a story about a ‘third party’ baggage handling company contracted by one airline that illustrates this problem. ‘Customers were waiting for 3 hours to get their bags back’, he continues, ‘we were inundated with complaints... telephone calls from the chief executive … all these sorts of things … and our staff were getting lynched’. Patrick concludes by informing us that ‘We ended up lashing out about seven hundred quid on refreshments just to keep them happy’, but as he explains ‘we don’t have any influence over [the baggage company]’ because ‘we’re not paying for their services’.
In order to generate and retain a seamless flow of passengers through space, customer services advisors find themselves having to subsume and embody the friction of boundary disputes into their own jobs, deflecting tension and blockages away from the traveller experience and onto their work load. Attempting to maintain a seamless flow by displacing the complex fractures of organizational boundaries compromises the ability of airport staff to regulate the boundaries of their own job roles. The boundaries and limits of staff responsibilities are somewhat vague and open-ended and their jobs demand invention, initiative and improvisation. The job of the CSA is characterised by constant interruptions, re-directions and demands as he or she is contacted by radio, text, or tannoy. CSAs are periodically stopped in the concourse by lost or confused passengers and they are routinely called upon to move obstructive vehicles or mend broken escalators in order to keep the airport and its passengers moving. Hence, maintaining customer flow requires an ‘overflow’ of responsibility for CSAs in responding to the inevitability of contingency, obstacles, inertia and disturbance. They can be seen wandering around the airport in their blue uniforms, rushing here and there, sometimes solo and on occasion collectively in teams. Order is co-implicated with disorder, and flow with inundation; the role of the customer service agent might therefore be interpreted as an obligatory point of passage between flood and order. Their talk is constantly about being prepared for the unexpected, they tell us that ‘anything might happen next’ (cf.: Deleuze, 1989) and of events that can rapidly escalate and trigger off a series of repercussions cascading over boundaries and spatial demarcations to overwhelm management and organization. The sense of an imminent disorder stimulates a state of being alert and receptive amongst the CSAs, but also forming a ‘nervous system’ of vigilance and agitation (Taussig, 1992).
Multiple Codings: Passengers, Luggage, Aeroplanes The airport increasingly now deals with the problem of capacity and flow through the use of information systems and technologies that monitor, model and map space and movement. Modelling and software technologies are used to plan the future needs of the airport by digitally simulating the flow of passengers. In the area of airport planning, for example, modelling technologies project various scenarios in order to help predict the spatial effects of passenger flow around the airport. Passenger flow gets constituted, re-presented and manipulated in virtual environments that are constrained by parameters laid down by industry standards which are translated into ‘system’ limitations. Peaks and troughs of passenger throughput are traced and followed to establish a more detailed representation of patterns of flow and distribution, a process that helps identify congestion areas and hot spots. Such systems have the effect of objectifying the imagined passenger and thereby reducing the unpredictability of subjectivity in order to represent the possibility of organization as an ideal of flow. The confused passenger has to be re-presented as a predictable element by airport planners who have to forecast changes in passenger movement.
It is a matter of considerable indifference for these managers of flow whether information systems and technology are dealing with people or inanimate objects. We can follow the flow of airport traffic in the form of passengers or in the form of aeroplanes and bags as they are variously broken down, made ready for their diverse itineraries, transported and later re-assembled in other times and spaces. Like the airports that took on the form of the aeroplane, we might well consider if it is any wonder that people in their passage and transport begin to resemble and behave like baggage, which in turn all begin to resemble matter in flight? However, the multiplicity of information systems in use in airport organization constitute objects and subjects in many different ways, which poses problems of identification and consistency that requires skilful acts of mediation and translation. Moreover, as we follow these object-subjects in their journeys we discover an increasingly intensive use of space which exacerbates those conditions of possibility where ‘anything might happen next’. The unpredictability of subjectivity returns then, despite the promise of information technologies, but in surprising and novel forms, combining subject and object, matter and spirit, the animate and inanimate, the artificial and real, in compacts whose lineaments and tensions are intricate and complex extending as they do across vast networks of assembly and maintenance.
Aeroplanes are inscribed with multiple identification codes and processed and regulated through different communication media by Air Traffic and Ground Control.
The flight number used by passengers (‘BA2032 to London’, for example) is only one form of classification that is supplemented by other codes used by air traffic control.
In circumstances of ‘flight shares’, yet a third identification number – referring to the partner airline – may be in use as well. Computer controlled docking information systems also use identification codes that carry information about wing span and the length of the fuselage, which is critical in the allocation of correct boarding gates with sufficient space and clearance for the various respective aircraft. As information systems multiply they become increasingly sensitive to accurate data coding.
Conflicting information or errors in translation can often result in dramatic effects. A recent event at Fulchester illustrates the catastrophic potential built into the media of these heterogeneous information systems that share overlapping jurisdiction and responsibility. Information relayed from ground traffic controllers to air traffic control prompted air traffic to advise the pilot of a Boeing 767 to proceed along taxiway Juliet and to then turn right towards Runway 2. In this case, relying on air traffic control, the pilot believed there must be sufficient wingspan clearance between his plane and the next one further advanced down the taxiway so that he could make his manoeuvre.
However, as the pilot turned right off the taxiway his left hand wing crashed through the tail of the stationary plane and only narrowly missed its vital fuel tanks. Although there were no fatalities in this incident, over 80 passengers were taken to hospital, some with severe neck and whiplash injuries. Contrary to visual ‘evidence’, the pilot maintained his trust in air traffic control instructions which suggests that the automatic and routine deference to procedural instructions and abstract information systems management can override common-sense and the old tactile skills of the human sensorium. With multiple identification codes triggering different instructions and actions it could even be said that planes are schizophrenic objects (both virtual and real), and at times, it seems, they simply don’t know how to behave correctly.