Straight line—the shortest distance between two points

June 1, 2002
User friendliness might be the next competitive issue for laser suppliers
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User friendliness might be the next competitive issue for laser suppliers

Seated in the Northwest Airlines Worldclub located just above the main entrance to Detroit's new McNamarra terminal, one wonders who designs these buildings. Tall windows in the club provide a view of harried passengers clearing security, many hobbling as they try to slip into their shoes that were just rechecked. At Detroit security is one floor above ticketing, which forces passengers to go up in order to go down. I thought Charles de Gaulle in Paris was the only airport with that quirk.

At Northwest's one-mile-long terminal, after clearing security you are faced with a decsion you really didn't want to have to make. Because it's a linear terminal and you entered at the middle, you must decide, having found your gate number on the monitors, whether to walk or take the Express Tram. There are 49 gates in each direction and the tram makes a round trip every 10 minutes, so you have about a five-minute wait to go to the only stop, north or south, and hope it's close to the gate you want.

Or you can gamble and walk toward your gate using several moving in-line walkways. Having just missed the tram heading in your direction you can actually walk all the way to one end before it makes a return trip. Of course you arrive at the gate out of breath, sweaty and in ill humor. But remember, you could have waited and taken the tram.

What is it with these terminal designers? Did they get a degree practicing at Hartsfield in Atlanta, the first of the linear terminals, and then move on to get a Masters at Denver's International, which for a time held the linearity record? Some must have received a PhD at Munich where the new terminal emulates both except it gives you a choice of levels for arrival and departures.

Anyway, watching the passengers trying to make a departure gate decision in Detroit has become something of a game for club members. A group was placing bets on what decision, walk or ride depending on gate location, certain passengers would make. They noted a lot of watch checking, perusal of the shuttle monitor display and head scratching.

Don't misunderstand; if you've ever flown out of the old terminal you have an idea of what purgatory must be: narrow, low ceiling, dark, crowded and dirty. Some passengers suffering from claustrophobia are said to have gone bonkers in concourse C. I have spent too much time in more than 125 terminals worldwide, and in my opinion the old Detroit complex ranked at the bottom.

So the new edifice is welcome even though it was obviously designed to make it easy to park, load and unload jets, rather than to be passenger friendly.

At a laser industry meeting a couple of years ago attendees—many from the system supplier sector—were lectured by a speaker who impressed with his description of the importance of user-friendly laser systems in Japan. The term he used was "baka-chon," which he said meant idiot proof.

He amplified on this theme by advising that the Japanese users would like the systems they purchase to be operated with one button. The attending suppliers collectively rolled their eyes, placing this comment in the category of "yeah right."

Later, at a social event, the talk turned to the one-button idea. Before the evening ended, many suppliers had begun to think that user-friendliness might be the next competitive issue they would face. We are impressed that many suppliers have chosen to invest in product innovation during the short-lived recession, positioning themselves for the recovery. We can hope that they are not linearly inclined, but customer friendly. And to future terminal designers we say baka chon.

David A. Belforte
[email protected]

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