Books: A Point of View: Terminal Terminal |
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Terminal Terminal : on Heathrow airport’s Terminal 5

(S03E05, broadcast 4th April 2008)

" I’m on the plane... the PLANE"
— phones on planes

Early last week a body called Ofcom okayed the use of mobile telephones on airliners at any height above three thousand metres. Ofcom said it was up to the airlines to deal with any possible problems, perhaps through setting aside special ‘quiet zones’ on the airliner. As I read these assurances with due alarm, it struck me that such problems might well emanate from those of us who had previously lived in the hope that the whole airliner might be a quiet zone before we climbed aboard. Already we can hardly bear to travel on trains, owing to the prevalence of the kind of mobile telephone user, usually male, who proves his virility by talking at the top of his voice for the whole journey, a subject on which I may have touched in previous broadcasts, so let me apologize for saying it again: not a request you will often hear from a mobile-phone user.

On trains, some of us who do not use mobile phones have already gone vainly berserk in the effort to shame those who do into shutting up for a few minutes. Now, thanks to Ofcom, we would be entering a whole new realm of irritation where we would be hardly able to bear travelling on planes, and on a train you can get off at the next station and walk. On a plane you’ll be getting off at Dubai with your hands locked around a mobile-phone user’s throat. But someone in the telecom industry was quick to reassure us that passengers on aircraft would be more likely to send texts or e-mails than talk on mobiles. He said, and I quote, ‘Social norms, as well as excessive background noise, may dissuade most people from making phone calls in crowded planes.’

But I have already met Social Norm, and I know all too well that Social Norm never dissuades anyone from making mobile-phone calls. Social Norm is the one making the mobile-phone calls. The excessive background noise, on any form of transport, is made by a score of Social Norms shouting their thick heads off, and all it does is make them shout louder. I also invite you to note the abyss of misunderstanding that lay behind the telecom industry spokesman’s contention that ‘most people’ would be dissuaded from making mobile-phone calls on crowded planes.

But surely unless everybody can be dissuaded, then it would take only one mobile-phone user to turn a long-distance flight into a journey through Purgatory. The thought of making my next business trip to Australia in the company of Social Norm and his mobile phone, not to mention his vociferous wife Social Norma and her mobile phone, was enough to make me wish that the whole business of flying could be brought to an end. It seemed too much to hope for. But then Terminal 5 happened.

Terminal 5 happened at Heathrow, where so many irritating things happen. Terminal 5 was meant to solve them. Still boiling about the lost bag that wrecked your holiday? Relax. Terminal 5 would have the most advanced bag-handling process known to science. Your bags would get through the terminal faster than you did. Passengers would be dumbstruck by an unprecedented level of efficiency, fully in keeping with the staggering beauty of a building which Lord Rogers had designed to express the full lyricism of air travel. All these things were announced before the building opened. A spokesperson for BA, or it could have been BAA, said, ‘We want to give fliers an experience they’ll remember.’ A spokesperson for BAA, or it could have been BA, said that the new terminal would ‘put the fun back into flying’. And they both got their wish, although not quite in the way they might have hoped.

Thousands of passengers got an experience they’ll remember. Before the first night of the memorable experience was over, the beautiful ceiling designed by Lord Rogers had revealed its purpose: to entertain people who were lying on the floor, looking up at it. There was a shortage of chairs or benches, because why would they be needed, in a building that had been constructed for the effortless through-flow of multitudes moving almost as fast as their bags? But it was not only a memorable experience, like mumps, it was also terrific fun. The fun had definitely been put back into flying, or, in this case, not flying.

The most fun generated by the not-flying was had by those of us at home, who were watching the show on television or listening to it on the radio. It’s the most fun I, personally, have ever had since the night the Millennium Dome opened, when the Director General of the BBC, who had been invited to the launch party of the biggest British marvel since the last marvel, turned up in order to pop his cork about being admitted late, whereas those of us who were actually watching or listening to the BBC were safe at home, sobbing with laughter and hugging each other while we passed the crisps. Whether or not we should enjoy such bungles is a question easily settled. If we’re in them, we hate them, and if we aren’t, we love them. Already too afraid of meeting Social Norm on any plane I might happen to catch, I was deep in a soft couch and ideally placed to relish the Terminal 5 spectacle, first of all in the broadcast media and then later on in the newspapers, where the headline act was about to appear.

I won’t name her, because she is only twenty-nine years old, and when all this blows over there is still time for her to start a new career in some less-demanding field. But on the weekend in question, the weekend when things went terminal at Terminal 5, she held the position of BAA’s Head of People and Change. The word ‘change’ bulks large in management speak, a tongue in which nobody ever asks what is being changed to what, but only whether or not change is happening, change being a good thing in itself, or else how could somebody be Head of Change, not to mention of People? The Head of Change and People said, with all the confident wisdom of her twenty-nine years, ‘Our policy has been to create the context for change, then to apply changes within that context.’

Well, since that could mean anything it probably means something, and by now, after decades of people in management talking tripe, it is too late to expect that what someone in management says will happen will have any relation to what actually happens, even if it happens as it was supposed to, which in this case it didn’t. We can only presume that at least a few of the people who speak this kind of high-flown abstract poetry have some awareness of the prose reality that lies beneath, and that the Head of People and Change will take her lessons with her when she moves smoothly on to her next position as a planning officer in atomic waste disposal, preparatory to her elevation to the peerage.

Can Britain still do what the French call le grand projet, the big project? But of course it can. Britain does almost the whole of Formula One, for example, one of the biggest big projects in the world. It’s a matter of management, but that means real management, not management speak, which is a different thing: can-say instead of can-do. I’d be surprised if the standard of British planning didn’t go up after this: it could hardly go down. All the planes will fly again, bearing the voice of Social Norm to every corner of the world, and I’ll be glad enough to catch one next time I want to go somewhere. I’m going deaf anyway, and very soon Social Norm will be just a moving mouth.

And Britain should give itself credit for being hampered by civilized limitations. The people around Heathrow who protest at every new expansion of the airport would probably be outnumbered by the people who would protest if the airport went somewhere else. When the French planned their high-speed rail system, the arguments went on for years about how much land should be subject to compulsory purchase, but eventually the builders got their way. In Britain it would be harder, and finally there’s something to be said for a country where anachronism still has a value. After all, what’s so great about the opposite?

To the assembled minds of Ofcom, it seems obvious that the airlines should move with the times, and let mobile phones onto the planes, thus to remove one of the last vestiges of silence. But Ofcom doesn’t rule the country yet. Neither does the Queen, really, but at least she’s allowed to be old-fashioned. President Sarkozy and his ultra-chic wife looked pretty impressed with that when they sat down to dine at Windsor. No doubt the First Usher of the Mobile Telephone was lurking somewhere nearby, but they never saw him. They might have been lucky not to.

When they arrived in Britain for their state visit, the French royal couple landed at Heathrow. They were fortunate that they didn’t arrive at Terminal 5 on the weekend, in which event Carla’s suitcases might have been arriving in Windsor about now, and she would have had to do the whole visit in one frock. She would have looked fabulous even in jeans, but there are more important things than glamour. There are more important things than efficiency, although it’s seldom wise to say that you’re going to set new standards of know-how and then prove that you haven’t got a clue. But Carla knows all about that. When the Duke of Edinburgh asked her how she could change outfits so often without losing track, she said, ‘My policy is to create a context for change, then to apply changes within that context.’ But she said it in a whisper, and hardly anybody heard it except him.


When I wrote and recorded this broadcast I had not yet realized that it would be transmitted only once, instead of twice. It went out in the usual Friday night slot but the Sunday morning slot was cancelled because it was Easter Sunday. Thus I lost two million out of three million listeners, and was no better pleased than Adolf Hitler would have been if told that the speech scheduled for tomorrow night in the Sportspalast had been relocated to a kindergarten. I didn’t precisely hit the roof, but I did a lot of skulking in dark corners. When I calmed down I realized that I had become spoiled. But I had better reasons for wishing that more people had heard me on this topic. As well as being a wonderfully amusing snafu in itself, the Terminal 5 debacle was a prime example of a peculiarly modern phenomenon. In days of old, the function of PR was to cover up the cock-up. Now, PR was causing the cock-up.

Nothing had really gone wrong with the new terminal except its marketing. Not very much later on, in what was really a surprisingly short time, Terminal 5 was working well. But almost no stories were written about that, and there was not a single television programme. One consequence of the modern vastness of the media is built-in vacuity: since the supply of talent is by miles overstretched, there are few journalists who can make any kind of story out of things going well, so there is no voice for normality, and everything is described in term of challenge, crisis and time running out, even the manufacture of a Persian rug. But a hack can improve with time, if he watches his own behaviour. When I was younger I might not have spared the feelings of the young lady carrying the title of Head of People and Change. It’s not so much that you get nicer with age. It’s that you begin to realize that common courtesy is your actual subject. If civilization is what a commentator is talking about, he should try to embody it in his style. It isn’t easy, though, because history is made in the heat of the moment, and by the time it cools down there are fewer people to listen. Hence the tendency to go on banging away at a topic in the hope of keeping it alive. Terminal 5 cooperated long enough to spill over into my next broadcast.