“More information please!” – a genuinely tough problem

When something isn’t as we think it should be, there’s an almost irresistable temptation to grab what looks like an easy solution and complain bitterly that those responsible are too stupid to do it.

Generally speaking (and there are exceptions) people aren’t stupid, and especially when a problem crops up time and again in different organisations, it’s worth asking the question of whether it’s perhaps a little more complicated than that.

Let’s take a look at one of today’s big stories – the plight of travellers trapped at Heathrow Airport, sleeping on the floor like, we’re told, some sort of refugee camp (the sort of refugee camp with Starbucks and duty free).

The complaint is that people aren’t being told anything. Not enough information – they’re being left in the dark.

The first thing to say is that it’s a perfectly sensible complaint. Not receiving information raises stress and leaves people feeling less in control, more frustrated and angrier. And it’s not as if Heathrow doesn’t have mechanisms to communicate with passengers.

On top of that, it’s hardly a new problem. Remember the Eurostar problems last year? Why can’t they learn, we reasonably ask.

But look at it from the other side. Providing information is fine when it’s predictable and reasonably accurate, but these situations are uncertain. No-one knows when the next flights will be leaving Heathrow. The airport and airlines will be trying different things to sort out the problems, but with so many variables and unknowns, giving an estimate on when the flights will be leaving will often be guesswork.

So what information could be provided?

A running commentary on what the problems are and what’s being done could be provided, and that might not be a bad idea. One problem is that it would raise false expectations, as some plans inevitably didn’t come off or other problems cropped up. Plus gathering that information and passing it on takes extra time and resources, which might result in longer delays. Honest information might say “We’re doing this and we’re hoping to have a plane ready to fly in an hour”, followed by an update 30 minutes later “It isn’t working, at least six hours to the next flight”.

If your aim is to make people feel informed and less stressed, lying to them is probably the most successful strategy – carefully managing a stream of information that may or may not relate to reality but gives the impression of clear and steady progress being made towards an achievable goal. But we’re not too keen on being lied to, and it would only work so many times.

Or minimal information could be provided as is the case now.

My point here is not that the lack of information being provided is necessarily the best option – I don’t know whether it is or not.

This is a wider point about difficult problems.

They’re generally not difficult to spot, and – if we want to solve them – they need more serious examination and perhaps fewer knee-jerk responses.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Allen 20th Dec '10 - 4:52pm

    Providing free web access to those whose flights have been cancelled would be one simple way to reduce stress and help people help themselves.

  • It is about information and the quality of that information. I don’t know how anyone can excuse that people are kept on air-craft for over five hours with little or no information. We know that the public don’t like to be kept in the dark, and their anger at not being informed can be greater than the anger directed at the situation they are in. We also know that local and national government and agencies, have drastically reduced their Comms budgets. So I can only see an ever increasing band of angry people demanding information. The information that allows them to make informed choices.

  • Steve Travis 20th Dec '10 - 5:34pm

    Well, as someone who was at Gare du Nord yesterday waiting to get onto a Eurostar in a seriously long queue (and who only managed it due to the act of a good samaritan) my comments would be:

    – what adds to stress levels is the perception that some people are being treated unfarily (ie by queue jumping) which seemed to be happening
    – there were not enough staff to martial that queue, which was not properly organised (unlike the one at St Pancras I noted this morning)
    – some sort of recognition that children are unable to withstand the same conditions (ie standing up, no toilet, food or drink) that adults can
    – some sort of earlier announcement to send people away or some sort of queueing system (eg even the simple idea handing out numbered chits as people arrive so that these numbers can be called to get on the next service

    Most people understand that disruption can happen. People should also be trusted with the truth.

  • Keith Browning 20th Dec '10 - 5:35pm

    Surely not too difficult to man the Airline desks for 24hours and keep updating info every 15 minutes.

    According to reports the airlines just working ‘normal’ business hours – bizarre !

  • Information has been given for days before the weather changed again to wintery conditions, prior to that we saw northern England and Scotland come to a standstill, roads, rail and air… and yet we are told that the weather is going to return and affect all of the UK.

    So understanding this we have people who struggle to airports to get away on holiday, now I can understand those visiting this country and then getting stuck at the airports trying to get home, the airlines and air port authorities should do more to make them as comfortable as possible.

    But after saying that…

    I have seen people moaning about lack of information etc, and blaming airlines and airport authorities for not looking after them and their children etc… The information could and should have been given, cancelled until further notice, but no! That would not be enough.
    I find it incredible that anyone would risk their family, for the sake of a holiday, and then blame the authorities for not looking after them… they should have phoned or got the information from the Media, that there were very few flights leaving, if any.

    It is called being responsible, but in today’s society there is too much greed and selfishness, but it is not just airlines and air ports… the only mail carrier to continue delivering mail and parcels… Royal mail (and the government want to privatise them) the others are all delivering late or not at all, and their way of dealing with the public is to have a telephone message directing people to use mail or E-mail… smiles, big business and they cannot deal with public enquires, what does this tell you?

  • you want to talk communication:
    I’m due to fly tomorrow evening. BA site says my flight is cancelled yet it also let me check-in (AFTER another part of it listed it as cancelled), my booking indicates no problem and I have yet to receive an email or text to inform me of the cancellation (or even of any problem..)
    I happened to have also a booking on a Eurostar tomorrow morning (change of plans so double-booked) so I’m going to try that instead (at least they just sent me an email to warn of delays).

  • oh and trying to talk to someone on the phone was impossible (engaged or disconnecting) and now they’re closed, at their normal time, so impossible to try to rebook anything.

  • Keith Browning 20th Dec '10 - 10:11pm

    Probably the people on the help line in St Lucia or Delhi dont understand the word ‘snow’.!!

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