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Heathrow_T5-wikimedia.jpgAnyone who flies with any regularity watched with apprehension the catastrophic failure of British Airways' computer systems over the end-of-May holiday weekend, which saw an estimated 75,000 travelers stranded at Heathrow and many others stuck, probably less miserably, in various other places in the world. The most likely outcome of the eventual investigation into what went wrong is that there were many factors, mostly not flattering to the airline despite its chair's defense. For stranded travelers, the more immediate problem was the apparent lack of any plan for dealing with such a total shutdown. You have to ask: if the airport and BA staff have no plan for dealing with a day's worth of backed-up passengers - for getting them information, water, food, and an orderly exit - how do they intend to cope with more urgent and dangerous situations like a fire, or a tornado?

Britain is famous for "muddling through" disasters of various scales, and for analog-era catastrophes that worked well enough because attacks tended to be localized and scale slowly. It's poorly suited for the digital era, when systems don't fail gracefully a bit at a time but crash catastrophically at high speed at global scale. Passengers are the cogs in such systems and, with the exception of a small percentage, are fungible, easily replaced because so many people either want or need to fly. Wherever distance and lack of alternatives means the airline industry as a whole - though not necessarily any one particular airline - lacks competition, increasingly crappy treatment has been the norm for a long time. A hidden factor: Bloomberg pointed out a couple of months ago that airlines make more money by selling the miles customers accrue by using their affiliated credit cards than they do selling seats.

Most of the time, things are different for the small percentage. - that is, the minority of people for whom flying is a routine. They know which comforts to arrange for themselves, they know the layouts of their most-used airports, and they generally have help from airlines who recognize that while it's easy to replace the once-a-year vacation flyer it's a lot more expensive to replace the 100,000 mile-a-year business class executive. Particularly if, as in many parts of Europe, that executive can shrug and take the train instead, though to do this you have at least to be able to exit the airport.

The point here, however, is much more about resilience. In the early days of automating airlines and airports, when the legacy systems were still in place and, crucially, staff still remembered how to use them, system failures could be managed by returning to older methods. Today, that option is gone, especially, one presumes, for Terminal 5, the newest of Heathrow's terminals, which is all electronic gates and automated transport (surrounding the inevitable giant shopping mall). We can expect many more messes like this as the Internet of Things takes shape, partly because eternally optimistic technology companies never like to admit something might go wrong with their products and help you think how to recover, and partly because all those "smart" things will add unfathomably multi-dimensional new dependencies that will be hard to understand. Think for the want of a nail writ in weird little gizmos that provide the smallest possible increment of convenience.


Thumbnail image for 640px-Theresa_May_-_Home_Secretary_and_minister_for_women_and_equality.jpgThe big hope with respect to the UK's general election results is that there might be at least a brief respite from the rhetoric demanding yet more surveillance powers (small wonder Guardian columnist John Crace writes about the Maybot). A rational response to the Westminster and London Bridge attacks might have looked something like: The ink is barely dry on the Investigatory Powers Act; we must study what went wrong; learn how best to deploy the new powers; and give them time to bed in. Instead, we got yet more demands for increased intrusions: direct access to cloud data; new demands to break encryption; and more regulation of the internet, though no one suggests banning white vans or closing London's bridges to motorized traffic. More to the point, both attacks, like others before them, were followed by the news that the attackers were known to the security services, which failed to act on the intelligence they had. In testimony he gave Parliament when it was considering the Investigatory Powers Act, NSA whistleblower William Binney warned that inundating analysts with data was counterproductive and would cost lives.

I know it's hard for politicians, particularly mid-campaign, not to immediately reach for a "something" we "must do". But why can't the something be, just once, fixing the actual things that went wrong rather than continuing to demand the same things over and over expecting different results?

Illustrations: Heathrow Terminal 5 (Fingalo Christian Bickel) in happier times; Theresa May.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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