«by Hannah Knox Damian O’Doherty Theo Vurdubakis Chris Westrup EBK Working Paper 2005/20 Enacting Airports: Space, Movement and Modes of Ordering ...»
Like aeroplanes, passenger luggage is variously labelled and coded through information systems that are used to monitor and regulate traffic flow. The baggage system is a complex series of conveyor belts which channels bags from the check-in desk to the trolleys which then transport them to the planes. Check-in staff place the bag, identifiable through a bar coded luggage tag, upon a conveyor belt, which then feeds it through a series of security checks and automated x-ray scanners. If the bag is deemed safe, it continues along the conveyor belt during which time it is repeatedly scanned by laser barcode readers in order to identify its location. Ultimately the bag will be dropped into a ‘bucket’ that will ‘know’, on the basis of the laser readings, which flight the bag is destined for. At the correct moment the bucket will tip the bag down a final conveyor belt where it is picked up by a baggage handler who will again ‘read’ it using a bar code scanner before placing it upon the trolley. If the bag does not pass the first x-ray, the conveyor belt drops it through to another level where it is fed through to a CT scanner that conducts a cross sectional analysis of the bag in question. This scanner is programmed to analyse the cross section and decide whether the bag is safe or not.
The whole baggage system is monitored by a person called the ‘flow controller’.
Sitting in an office deep in the bowels of the terminal, the flow controller observes a VDU monitor that details the diagrammatic representation of the whole conveyor belt system. He is able to see if a bag has got stuck or gone missing, for the system scans the bags at defined stages. If the bag does not get scanned then the diagrammatic representation of that section of the system turns red to alert the flow controller that there is a problem. He will then radio one of the baggage handlers, whose job it is to sit by the belt and wait for such calls. The handler will then scramble over the conveyor belt to dislodge, or relocate the missing bag. One of the main causes of blockage are check-in desk staff, often working for sub-contractors, who during busy periods attempt to deal with queues, time pressures and passenger impatience by forcing bags down the conveyor belt before the system instructs the staff that further bags may be processed. Each bag on the baggage system occupies a particular slot on the conveyor belt and check-in staff have to wait until there is an available slot before they can send luggage on its way. Sometimes, during busy periods, as queues mount up in the check-in hall, check-in staff take matters into their own hands and, rather than wait for clearance, they physically force the bags into a slot already occupied by another piece of luggage. Despite being explicitly instructed not to do this, check-in staff often choose to ignore these instructions in order to respond to immediate pressures. This is much to the ongoing consternation of the flow controller whose diagram ends up flashing red indicating repeated blockages and stoppages. These red lines might be thought of as a representation or digital trace of the flow or ‘translation’ of frustration from people to conveyor belts and then, via information systems, on to different people, reflecting a series of translations that turns subjects to objects and then back into (different) subjects.
We were invited to view the baggage system at a quiet time of day when there were few bags travelling the system, but the flow controller described to us the height of the summer when the dots on the system that represent each of the bags make the screen ‘look like a snowstorm’. During this time, the threat of collapse into disorder is
heightened. ‘Snowstorms’ are strange phenomena signifying the return of the mass:
the prospective degeneration of flow into disorderly flux. As such, ‘snowstorms’ prompt intense concentration and attentiveness amongst flow controllers and other system operators called upon to restore orderly flow. Like the CSAs and air traffic controllers in the radar room, the flow controllers must maintain a constant vigilance, aware that at any moment a snowstorm may break out, which instructs them to begin manually searching and scrambling over bags and conveyor belts in order to remove blockages and disruptions.
The effort to construct flow through the investment in various information and communication technologies of calculation and inscription can be seen to stimulate ‘overflow’, evident in the scrambling gymnastics of the flow controller or the frenetic activities of the customer service agents. Inefficient disordering is not simply eliminated by ICTs; rather, it is displaced to find expression and form in other areas and dimensions of organization, which in turn gives rise to further efforts to recover flow and re-organize physical space and its passengers with ever greater efficiency and rationality. Moreover, with the expansion of information and media teletechnologies comes a general ‘intensification’ of matter and potentiality: here matter is broken down through an increasingly forensic inspection of its constituent parts;
rendered ‘useful’, put to work, and activated in new ways; and variously re-assembled and hybridised to form novel, heterogeneous phenomena that is precarious and volatile by virtue of its complex, miscegenated assembly. In addition, with the expansion and advance of the virtual into the mundane real, the distension of ‘space’ into the static, Euclidean geometries of ‘place’ (see Rajchman, 1998; Massumi, 2002:177-207), comes a general dematerialisation, a plasticity of form, and the loss of familiar organizational co-ordinates. Abstract and remote systems of control gives rise to new possibilities and new fears, which in the context of airports has been explored by writers like Ballard (1997) and Calvino (1979), artists such as Martha Rosler (1998), and contemporary architects like Rem Koolhaas. Overflow is made more acute by the confusion and volatility of phenomena that emerges out of this intensification of matter consequent upon the encroachment of the virtual into the real (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994), represented in the airport by developments in digital and simulation technologies.
‘Snowstorms’ can be seen as products of a certain symbiosis and creative interface between operator and technology, the real and the virtual. A snowstorm is, then, a hybrid phenomenon identified and labelled by human operators whose creative designation brings forth and adumbrates potential crisis as the system finds definition and understanding in terms of new limits. It also has agency like capacities of its own, much of which is unknown and yet to be discovered and therefore, in some ways, unreliable. Modes of ordering in the form of new technologies of representation (Cooper, 1992) alter the way space is perceived in the airport, but it also changes the way airport staff relate to and understand space. What was once understood as a restricted or confined space becomes more voluminous and capacious as new technologies teach subjects the possibility of a new spatial organization and awareness (Heidegger, 1962). However, as one boundary gets transgressed others are made apparent in their absent-presence, a penumbral movement which must always lie coiled in the background of organization generating phenomena that intrudes and interrupts smooth flow and its elusive quest.
Digital Oracles: TOBIAS, FAITH, and ‘Smart’ Buildings The creation of digital space as a means of mastering physical place is widely recognised to be changing the nature of organization and the ways in which it is practically accomplished through social relations (Negroponte, 1995; Thrift, 1996;
Kittler, 1999), a phenomena we can begin to observe in the management and processing of people through the airport. In what we might call an ideal and well organized world of the future, every journey will commence in the virtual realm with each passenger visiting the airport website. The website can pre-arrange travel and flow in ways that are designed to both enhance the visitor ‘experience’ – spending money, of course, as they go – whilst improving a smooth and seamless movement through space. The website is designed to provide diverse information for different audiences, as well as enabling prior booking of car-parking; it also includes a facility to allow passengers to buy duty free before arriving at the airport, and a similar arrangement that enables the purchase of foreign currency. Designed around the principles of increasing the number of passengers and altering the movement of passengers and their allocations of time within the airport, the website seeks to increase passenger spending whilst facilitating flow.
Once the passenger arrives at the airport they are immediately confronted with numerous means of flow-subjectification and management. Signage, for example, silently directs the passenger, who is almost divested of all need to think, through space (see also Lloyd 2003). As we have seen, customer service agents are also mobilised to assist the passenger in flowing through the airport. CSAs are assisted by a number of IT tools that have been designed to facilitate this process of managing flow as passengers, bags, and aircraft ceaselessly move through the airport to be variously brought together and separated at various junctures. The most important of these tools is an information system called TOBIAS which is described by managers, (with allusions to HAL, the computer in the Kubrick film 2001), as ‘the heartbeat of the airport - it kind of drives everything’. Flight schedules, departure and arrival times and gates, fuelling and catering information, passenger lists, the billing of airlines, and statistics on service levels are all either fed into or generated by TOBIAS. When
TOBIAS stops, the airport flows do continue as one of the IS managers explains:
‘there is a certain momentum to the operation that sort of keeps going’ but, inevitably, it then ‘starts to slow, and the trouble is, because we are so reliant on it, manual backups in a lot of those systems don’t exist... Yeah we revert to it in terms of telling passengers where to go and we can literately revert to something as crude as a white board.’ TOBIAS is by and large dependable and reliable, but people, bags, and planes all have to be constantly linked and re-affirmed within technologically mediated representations. Slippages between representations and objects have to be repaired and central to this mediation is the role of the CSAs. Matter out of place emerges when information provided at the check-in desk, for example, is not consistent with TOBIAS, which is sometimes caused by software translation incompatibilities between airline information systems and the software controlled update procedures of TOBIAS. Once again we can see that latent in the system the always-already possibility that displaced immobility will return, this time in the form of undecidability between sources of information. CSAs need to be prepared to assemble an army of display boards and improvise with symbols and artefacts, even distributing refreshments and cups of tea during times of prolonged distress. As witnessed at Heathrow during a recent unofficial stoppage by BA staff in response to industrial relations problems in a catering subcontractor, airports are complex media of extended global webs of dependency and co-dependency, which always means that flow can quickly turn into forms of overflow and flux.
New technologies provide additional ways of reinforcing this management of bodies through space. However, passengers are often pulled in a number of often contradictory directions. The individual is sometimes customer and sometimes passenger and is encouraged to move through the airport space in specific ways designed to satisfy a variety of different groups with very different interests. Airlines are concerned with the extent to which passengers’ experiences reflect favourably upon their service, whilst also aiming to reduce the cost of processing each passenger.
To this effect, automated check-in facilities have been recently introduced which speeds up the check-in process and reduces queues whilst making further economies on the number of check-in staff employees. On the other hand, airport management(s) have to take a more ‘global’ or ‘macro’ view of space and its configurations. The introduction of automated check-in desks may speed up check-in but increased efficient flow in one place creates overflow in others, producing long queues at passport control or security, requiring downstream remedial action in the spatial layout of the airport. This can also have knock-on effects for retail outlets who have a vested interest in the length of waiting time that passengers can expect. Indeed, in some sense, retailers want delays. This provides further evidence of the transition from flow into what we have been calling ‘overflow’, a phase change by which what had been deferred and displaced – disorganization, mass, and opacity – return.
The displaced ‘others’ of ‘flow’ and organization are not aberrations or occurrences which can be easily fixed or ordered out of existence simply by more stratification, segmentation and emplacement. These overflows return in surprising and unpredictable ways – here in the form of gathering crowds and ‘blockages’ that will provoke frustration and confusion, storing up tension that may discharge in any number of ways. An undercurrent of disorder and panic is never too far away (Kroker and Cook, 1986; Burrell, 1997), a symptom of contemporary organization that is perhaps captured in the airport photographs of Martha Rosler (1998), but also manifest as trace in the ‘psychological space’ of recent airport architecture with its warped spaces and twisted, contorted geometries (Vidler, 2001). The discovery of these dark and often repressed dimensions in organization means that ‘speed’ and ‘flow’ are somewhat limited as ways of thinking about space and time in organization and certainly intervention designed to alter and manipulate spatial arrangements according to their narrow criteria is likely to be dangerous and liable to backfire.