13 June 2010

Perils of Passage, Part III

I used to live in an 11-floor apartment building in downtown Moscow.  This apartment complex was built specifically to house Bolshoi Theater's performers.  Some mornings, I was awakened either by the aura of someone practicing his or her opera lyrics, or by my next door neighbor who was a maestro when it came to making the cello sing.  The building was perhaps the richest artistic housing project in the world.
A Russian National Treasure:  Karetny Ryad 5/10
I have witnessed many great performers in Europe and the US.  Bolshoi Theater's best performers eclipse the greatest performers elsewhere.  They are Russia's national assets. I expect more from Russia to protecting national assets.

My apartment complex had one exit door.  There were two elevators and a stairwell, but they led to the same, single exit door on the ground floor.  There was no external, secondary, or emergency exist system.  If there were a fire that consumed the building, my options were either to jump out of my eleventh story windows to splatter on the concrete below or let my ashes flow down gently after the fire had gotten to me.  Disregarding my self-preservation motives, I kept thinking about all that talent housed in the same apartment building.  How could it possibly be the case that Russia's national treasures were put into such a dangerous situation?
Fire, Fire:  Mikhail Baryshnikov Dashing for The Exit
Regrettably, the lack of safety provisions is not just visible in the building meant for some of the most talented performance artists in the world.  It is everywhere in Russia, including showcases to the external world, like the Domodedovo International Airport.  Most foreigners that arrive into Russia via Moscow pass through this airport.  The experience is fine and world-class if the infrastructure is handling one arriving aircraft at a time.  If multiple aircraft arrive at the same time, safety design flaws become painfully apparent.  There are multiple bottlenecks.  Each can imperil human life in case of an emergency.
World-Class Domodedovo:  Not for Big Crowds
The first bottleneck is at the immigration control kiosks.  There are two locations for these kiosks where immigration officers perform their passport and visa control duties.  One is at the same floor as the arriving passengers and the second requires a climb through a tight, cramped stairwell.  Most often, second floor kiosks function, forcing all passengers to go through the tight passage and then select a queue behind any of the passport control desks.  Because there is no flow control that ensures a single long line for all passengers, passengers self-organize into clusters, with each cluster corresponding to a passport control desk.  In case of an emergency, many panicking passengers will rush for the same exit point, crushing some passengers to death.  Get beyond this danger point, and many other perils await you in Russia's best airport.
Passport Control, but No People Flow Control
The second bottleneck is at the luggage carousel.  Carousel 4 is a particular hazard point because the genius that designed it decided to create passenger comfort at the location by placing a row of affixed folding chairs for weary passengers.  The problem is that these chairs make an already narrow passage between the wall and the luggage carousel even narrower.  In fact, the passage is so narrow that one cannot push a luggage cart through this space if someone were to sit on these chairs.  Basically, both the folding chairs and the passage are useless.

The third, and perhaps the most dangerous bottleneck is at the customs.  At this point, many passengers have arrived together, they have picked up their luggage and placed them onto bulky rolling carts, and are attempting to reach their family and kin; but, they must go through one of the two narrow openings and engage with the customs officers first.  I described the clusters of passengers at the multiple passport kiosks and their related danger above.  Imaging the same situation, except this time with more people, fewer exit points, and tens of mobile obstacles by way of bulky luggage carts.  If an event led to passenger panic at this point, potentially hundreds of people would be crushed to death.

The fourth bottleneck is the throngs of illegal taxi drivers and passenger greeters that congregate right outside of customs.  These potential service providers and happy greeters will just add to the crazy confusion in case of a panic-generating event because, as we shall see, there are yet two other exit obstacles that make leaving the airport somewhat of an Olympian feat.

The fifth bottleneck is the narrow staircase or two tiny elevators that connect to a cramped isle that leads passengers to the parking lot.  The bulky luggage carts I mentioned above are mostly waiting for the elevators here.  Each elevator can handle at most two luggage carts at the same time.  It is a happy event if both elevators work.  I have arrived at the airport when neither does; this makes the stairwell essential.  Those stairs are especially "fun" to descend with heavy luggage when they are wet and slick due to ice, snow, or rain (which is most of the time).  Imagine those passengers, their luggage, and their greeters all trying to use the same narrow passage to reach outside in a hurry; this is a disaster waiting to happen.

Finally, there is the great sport of leaving the airport parking lot.  Like most modern facilities, airport parking is a paid service.   Unlike most modern  facilities, there are very few exit points, and the payment system is located right next to these exit points.  As such, on very cold winder days, drivers all jockey to be close to these payment systems to avoid the bitter cold outside.  In the process, they create a massive traffic jam that prevents access both to the payment systems and the airport exit.

It has taken me more than two hours to go through the entire process described above.  My worst time in the San Francisco International Airport - which is probably a busier facility than Domodedovo by a wide margin - has been just over 40 minutes.  In any case, welcome to Moscow.
9 December 2009: A Day to Learn From
On 9 December 2009,  a nightclub fire in Perm, Russia, killed over 150 people; another 160 or so were injured.  This was a sad day.  There was a palpable shock, and shocks sometimes motivate a notion into positive action.  Russia is a land rich in history, heritage, culture, and innovation.  In the grand scheme, Russia's only true treasure are its people.  I should hope that there is some attention being paid to most valuable of resources - and people are protected from unnecessary risk and from bad construction design that seems to be everywhere.
Lost Needlessly and Tragically

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