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Friday, January 8, 2010

Ice Nine

by Richard and Aidan


Earlier this week, Rachel was on her way to New Zealand via Heathrow. Here's how the interaction of several systems failed her.

1. Thanks to the latest security scare, it now takes two and a half hours to search all the handbaggage and get all the passengers onto the plane.

2. By which time the plane has frozen, and needs de-icing again. That takes another hour.

3. By which time the pilot and co-pilot have already spent so much time sitting on the plane that they no longer have enough flying hours remaining in this shift to take the plane to its destination. So the flight is cancelled.

4. The passengers are asked to return to the baggage hall, collect their checked-in baggage and start the process all over again. But there are many other flights that have been cancelled for similar reasons, and the baggage hall is already full-to-bursting with unloaded bags and frustrated passengers, so Rachel has to wait several hours before her unloaded bags appear on the carousel.

5. Then she has to queue to get onto the next available flight, and the process starts all over again.

By a happy fluke, the next plane Rachel boarded actually managed to take off, and she was on her way to New Zealand, but not before a last-minute search to find enough qualifying aircrew ...


Why does this kind of mess occur? Anyone can look at the whole system and see what could have been done differently. But each system is operated by a different organization, and there is a lack of trust and overall systems leadership.

As readers of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle will recognize, Ice Nine was the name of a fictional crystal that was capable of bringing the whole world to a complete stand-still. Quite an apt metaphor for failed systems then.

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