Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Just a Little Bit of Software History Repeating

I lived in the Denver area at the time Denver International Airport's completely computer automated baggage system was unveiled in 1994. The troubled development of this system was big local news.

The premise of Denver's plan was as big as the West. The distance from a centralized baggage check-in to the farthest gate - about a mile - dictated expansive new thinking, planners said, and technology would make the new airport a marvel. Travelers who arrived for check-in or stepped off a plane would have their bags whisked across the airport with minimal human intervention. The result would be fewer flight delays, less waiting at luggage carousels and big savings in airline labor costs.

Tours that preceded the system's debut led invariably to an airport basement where 26 miles of track, loaded with thousands of small gray carts, sped bags up and down inclines as conveyor belts minutely timed by the computer deposited each bag in its cart at just the right moment.

The baggage system was an abject failure. It had huge problems on opening day, and almost immediately had to be superseded by manual procedures. Things never improved much from there. Denver's automated baggage handling system was scrapped completely by 2005, in favor of traditional manual handling and barcode scanning procedures.

"It wasn't the technology per se, it was a misplaced faith in it," said Richard de Neufville, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor de Neufville said the builders had imagined that their creation would work well even at the busiest boundaries of its capacity. That left no room for the errors and inefficiencies that are inevitable in a complex enterprise.

"The main culprit was hubris," he said.

I was surprised, then, to read essentially the same scenario play out 10 years later in England at Heathrow Airport's new Terminal 5.

Many things did not go according to plan at T5, but at the core of the fiasco is baggage. This is supposed to be a state-of-the-art system, the biggest in Europe with 10 miles of conveyor belts controlled by 140 computers and designed to process 12,000 bags per hour at up to 23 mph. But it had never been tested before in a live terminal. On T5's D-Day many aspects -- human and technological -- simply did not work.

BA say they are confident that a few days bedding-down will sort out the problems. However, T5 is not yet at full capacity, with another 70 long-haul destinations due to move there on 30 April.

I sincerely hope BA can escape from Gilligan's Island, unlike so many hardy travellers before them. Otherwise, all we'll end up with is another sad entry in the long, dismal history of software project failure.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: