10 years to "sort out" Denver's baggage IT problems

As they try to sort out the problems at Heathrow’s Terminal Five building, BAA and BA may wish to note that United Air Lines spent more than 10 years trying to make a futuristic computerized luggage-handling system work at Denver airport. Eventually United abandoned the system.

A United spokesman was quoted as saying in 2005:

“It’s never worked up to its potential. “We’ve spent enormous amounts of money over the last decade” to try to make the system work, but only parts of it did. PCs were linked to 4,000 remote-controlled carts which carried baggage from check-in counters to sorting areas and then straight to flights. There were 5.5 miles of conveyors and 17 miles of track. Luggage was supposed to be carried at speeds of up to 24mph – so fast some of it was thrown off the carts.


The airline said in 2005 that it would switch to a cheaper, more conventional manual system by the end of that year. But United had to pay $60m a year under its lease contract for the automated system – a 25-year lease.

In the end the airline found it could save money by avoiding the system and thus cutting the costs of tracing misdirected and damaged luggage. TV news showed film of the carts jamming in the tracks and mutilated bags.

Bruce Webster, principal of a Washington-based consulting company, said there are some lessons large organisations fail to learn. “The first is that the best way to build a large, complex system is to evolve it from a small system that works.” In Denver’s case, designers went for a ‘big bang’ approach.

What Webster said may for some ring alarm bells over the NHS’s National Programme for IT – NPfIT. He added:

“There is an attitude that the project is too big to fail, that ‘we have to make it work now’. He said there was an unwillingness in upper management to believe that things were as bad as they were.

The lessons from Denver were set out by Richard de Neufville, Professor of Civil Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These were some of the things he highlighted in a report “The Baggage System at Denver – Prospects and Lessons” which was published in the 1990s. His conclusions bode ill for BAA and BA at Terminal 5.

There is a “fundamental problem associated with all complex systems of handling baggage, cargo or materials,” he said.

“The fully automated system may never be able to deliver bags consistently within the times and at the capacity originally promised. This difficulty is a consequence of the extreme complexity of its design combined with the variability of the loads… the enormous increase in complexity is the root of the problem. .. in system design as you increase the complexity the difficulties in making the system work increase ‘exponentially’.”

These were some of the specific lessons:

– The system was to be implemented in only 21 months, a schedule which precluded extensive simulation or testing.

– Backup systems will be expensive to install and operate. But they will need to cope with handling peak-time luggage within acceptable times. At Denver there were no meaningful backup systems. Planners provided neither a fleet of tugs and carts that could cope with the amount of luggage expected, nor access roads between check-in and the aircraft.

– Extra equipment was installed, in part to reduce the misdirection of luggage, but this increased costs, slowed down the system and reduced its cost-effectiveness.

– The problems should be checked out in advance by computer simulation – a simulation of every type of bag, over an extended period, under hundreds if not thousands of scenarios.

– Achieving reliable delivery times of the luggage required very high mechanical, hardware and software reliability – not easy to achieve.

My comment:

US author Henry Miller and Kevin McCloud, the presenter of “Grand Designs” on Channel 4. have said much of what it’s necessary to know about handling major projects and programmes.

Miller said: “In this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest.” [the most difficult way being to spend much longer and put more money into the planning and testing]

Kevin McCloud said that one of the lessons from watching people build their dream homes was that three years spent planning and one year building was much cheaper than spending one year planning and three years building.

David Bicknell, a friend and co-author of Crash – learning from the worst computer disasters – writes on Terminal 5’s baggage system failures on his excellent RFID blog.

Links:

Heathrow’s Terminal five hit by more baggage handling problems

David Bicknell’s blog entry on T5’s problems

Computerworld 2005 article on Denver’s baggage problems

Richard de Neufville’s paper on Denver

Terminal 5 – an insider’s view

Terminal 5 chaos costs BA £16m

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