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I ended the last newsletter by suggesting that we needed to make things less fragile, but without giving any concrete suggestions for how we might accomplish that.
Unfortunately reducing fragility is neither easy, quick, nor straightforward. It is an exceptionally complicated endeavor. Fragilities only become obvious after they’ve caused something to break, before then they’re easy to overlook. Also many things we’ve come to value, like efficiency and low cost, work to increase fragility. So it’s an uphill struggle.
Considering both the non-obvious and counterintuitive nature of the problem, the first step in eliminating fragility is to identify it. Unfortunately I’ve just had an experience with a fragile system which broke spectacularly, so let’s start there.
I took a big trip to Ireland in July. (I returned just a few days ago.) After arriving in Dublin, I went through customs, and headed to baggage claim. Once there I was greeted by a discouraging sight. There were bags everywhere. Not only were there bags on the carousel (which was to be expected) there were small piles of bags all around them. Beyond that there was a veritable sea of bags (I’d estimate at least a thousand) arranged behind some rope on one side of the room. It was apparent that something about the baggage handling process had broken.
I got a small taste of that breakage. The display showed the wrong carousel, my bag was on carousel 3, not 6. So when there was an overhead announcement about a “wee mixup” I headed over there and luckily my bag was waiting for me. The rest of my family, who arrived a few days after me, got a large taste of that breakage.
I connected in Atlanta, they connected in Schiphol (Amsterdam). You probably haven’t been following the baggage chaos as closely as we have, but Schiphol has been having serious problems with baggage. At one point, KLM stopped allowing checked luggage altogether. When the flight from SLC to Amsterdam got in late, they made the connection to Dublin, but their baggage didn’t.
In the past when your luggage missed a connection there was an 85% chance it would be delivered within 36 hours. It took eight days for their luggage to be delivered and that was only after the manager of the delivery company took it upon himself to spend a couple of hours finding it in the sea of bags I mentioned earlier.
This is one of the hallmarks of fragility, small disruptions can lead to huge catastrophes.
More technically the system is non-linear. In this case the problems at Schiphol appear to be due to staffing shortages, directly due to a shortage of baggage handlers, and indirectly because a shortage of pilots is causing flights to be delayed. I couldn’t find statistics on Schiphol baggage handlers, but the number of pilots is down only 4% from its pre-pandemic peak. That was all it took to cause the delays and cancellations you’ve been hearing about.
I’m guessing the percentage decrease among baggage handlers is also surprisingly low, but let’s assume they have been hit even harder and that there’s been a 25% reduction in their numbers. This does not mean that 25% more baggage gets lost or it takes 25% longer to deliver. It means the amount of lost luggage increases a thousandfold, and you may never get your bags.
As I mentioned, my family got lucky. I sat next to a couple on the flight home whose luggage never showed up in the 10 days they were there. They told me that just recently the airlines have set up warehouses for lost luggage in Dublin where people can actually look through the luggage. (Previously all the luggage was behind security.) They visited the one for Delta/KLM and said there were probably five thousand bags in just that warehouse. (After seeing the picture they took I agreed.) While they were there they talked to people who’d been waiting for their bags for over a month.
This is what fragility looks like in the modern world: complicated systems where minor problems on the backend lead to total disasters on the front end. And the problem is, there are always going to be minor problems, which will lead to more and more disasters. Let’s just hope that when those disasters happen, you’re not in the middle of your vacation to Ireland.
The picture at the top of the newsletter is Kilmacduagh Monastery, or at least the ruins thereof. The tower is the largest pre-modern structure in Ireland. And it’s still standing. That’s the kind of robustness we should be looking for. If you think what I’m doing is helping with that, or if you just like the picture, consider donating.