Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Hell at Pearson

I had the profound misfortune to fly out of Pearson International Airport (Toronto) last week.  As is usual for me, I arrived three hours before my flight, especially because of the new underpants security measures.  This was fine by me because here is what happens at Pearson if you fly to the US: you have your boarding pass (online - the airline has convinced me my doing the agent's work is a benefit to me), you check your bag, and then you head to Immigration/Customs preclearance - there is a hall devoted to US immigration, as this makes arrival in all sorts of obscure airports in the US smoother.  Then you sail through security and BINGO! you are in the gate area, including the Maple Leaf Lounge, for which I was carrying an admission coupon.  (My flight was early so there would be no booze but there would be comfort.)
Well, except...................
It seems that the brilliant folk in charge of the airport had invented a whole new protocol, unannounced.
They had a real problem - the bottleneck is the security area.  Note that I have implicitly mentioned two queues - one at US immigration, one at security (well, actually, three, because checking the bag is an important one).
The queue they decided to throttle was the immigration one.  They did this by admitting us according to scheduled departure time.  And, frustratingly, the security queue gummed up on flights five minutes before mine!  So I stood for almost an hour waiting for admission to the immigration hall, an hour after the flights five minutes before mine had been called.  This was not pretty and people were getting VERY restless, especially as the only information being passed to passengers was via the usual inaudible PA system in the airport.  The poor souls defending the immigration area were trying to inform passengers but were largely inaudible - the irony is that a low-tech megaphone would have made ALL the difference.
In any case, I finally reached my gate at about the planned departure time.  To my astonishment, my flight was under an hour late leaving and arrived essentially on time.  I did not get to enjoy the use of my lounge coupon.
While waiting this hour, I ran into a colleague who had flown a week earlier, with an utterly different, though still underpants-influenced, protocol.  So, so to speak, the airport is still flying by the seat of its pants adapting to the new stupid regulations out of the US TSA, not one of which would have detected Mr. Underpants.
Airline passengers are generally pretty bright and there were some very interesting discussions among us in the cattle call.  As all of us who like to be early for flights noted, we were being punished.  The area outside the immigration hall is decidedly not designed for stacking people up and refusing their entry.
I had noticed in particular in the baggage check-in line that attendants were scanning the line for latecomers - if you were way in the back of the line for a flight coming soon you got advanced past those of us who thought to come early.
So we, not stupid, realized: if we have a flight next week we arrive as late as possible.  I will get bumped to the front of the baggage check-in line, I will sail into immigration, and perhaps even be accelerated through security to get to my gate.
And, as one passenger sagely observed, if everybody responds to this rationally, all hell will break loose.  The dimwits designing these rules of course, as Hayek would have observed, are minimally capable of figuring out how limited their little brains are.
Security, by the way, was decidedly slower, but it certainly did not fill me with confidence.  In fact, at one point three people dressed in the uniforms of the security workers were simply waived right through the metal detectors, with no check; this alone refutes the point of making the rest of us go through with such apparent scrutiny.  A guy standing next to me in line told me of a friend of his who inadvertently managed last week (yes, after Mr Underpants) to take an eight-inch hunting knife through the security check with no problem.  And the only check I got that might have to do with Mr Underpants is that I had to stick my hands in my pockets and rub them up and down and have their explosives wand applied to my hands.  Yeah, right - that will stop it.
Pearson does have the full body scanners but I was not invited; my seatmate on the flight said he was and he had to do some bizarre dance.  There was some odd randomizing software being applied as we entered the security area.  Peronally I see some of the point of randomization but do not buy that it is much of an approach.
But really - the security show remains mostly show and an utter lack of real substance. 
And it is true - this experience broke the back of my willingness to arrive ludicrously early at airports.  Henceforth I look forward to being helped to move past more conscientious people in all the queues.  Sorry, suckers.
And to you idiots who are designing all these systems at Pearson.  Well, you have a monopoly so who is going to fire you for incompetence?  It's as bad as the recent stupid Rogers changes, and driven by exactly the same thing - a near certainty that mistakes cost the perpetrators nothing; they cost only everyone else.
There is other collateral damage; the concessions in the gate area were getting essentially no business as we were all late for our flights and racing to gates.  There could be a very healthy lawsuit there.
And of course the Air Canada lounge got no business - but hey wait!  That's great for Air Canada - all the variable costs drop to zero, and they can think about dropping some fixed costs too.
I wonder how many of these consequences are unintended.  Not as many, surely, as some would pretend.


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