Carrying around more than baggage

August 4, 2009

Last week I made another trip across the Atlantic to attend a friend’s wedding in North Carolina.  A lousy flight plan took me from Lyon, through layovers in London and Chicago, to Charlotte.  Along the way, I realized that I need a haircut and hoped to find a barbershop while waiting for connecting flights.  This launched me on a wild goose chase that gave me plenty of time to ponder the inner workings of a major international airport.

My flight from France pulled up to terminal-five of London Heathrow Airport.  At the gate, I asked an airport attendant where in the airport could find a barbershop.  I eschewed typical male pride hoping that by asking for directions I could avoid a lengthy meandering quest through one of the world’s largest airports.  The supposedly knowledgeable staff sent me to terminal three.

For passengers not yet repatriated through customs, a special bus network shuttles between the various terminals.  From the bus you can peer into the maintenance and baggage claim back rooms tucked into the lower levels, typically inaccessible to the public.  A complex system of machinations could be seen to deliver luggage to the proper destination.

As I pulled up to the next terminal, I began to feel that luggage may not be the only thing carefully distributed around the airport.  In fact, the airport is likewise designed to securely and efficiently move passengers between gates, through checkpoints and to different terminals.  Bucking the trend, say in search of a haircut, is to risk falling off the conveyor to your next flight.

At terminal three, I was informed that there was no barber or salon, but terminal one was bound to have what I was looking for.  I again boarded the behind-the-scenes tour and moved on.  Beginning to feel a bit like human luggage, I noticed an important looking door titled “customer engineering.”  That either confirmed by suspicions or indicated a secret lab attempting to create a serum enabling travelers to put up with excessive delays, lost luggage, and wild goose chases for airport services.  By the way, there was no barber at terminal one either.

Returning to my departure terminal un-coiffed and hungry, I sat down for lunch at Yo-sushi.  In keeping with the theme, a la carte sushi dishes were served via conveyor.  The belt snaked around the tables and customers were instructed to take whatever they liked.  Dishes were color coded by price to keep things easy for the wait staff.  Like eager travelers at baggage claim, everyone wanted to be nearest the kitchen.  The best selections rarely made it all the way down the line.

Passing through a modern airport is an engineered experience.  Baggage, food and even passengers are conveyed by various means to their destination.  Efficiency and accuracy are variable, but irregularities in the system, like someone striking out to find a non-existant barber, fare less well than the norm.

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