I am traveling this week, and hence am experiencing the delays, inconvenience, and frustration associated with “modern” air transportation. In the midst of my consternation, I recalled an article I wrote several years ago on the subject, when I was still living in New Jersey. I am reproducing that article here in the hope that it gives you a bit of inspiration, as it does me.
An Inspiring Performance
I recently returned from a trip to California. After arriving at Newark Airport, I got off the plane and began the long trek through the concourse back to baggage claim. Along the way, I noticed that the “moving sidewalk” wasn’t moving, and that one of the escalators wasn’t escalating. This is such a typical occurrence at Newark that I always make a mental note of it. I’m at the point where I would be surprised if I could actually get from the gate to baggage claim without witnessing some sort of major equipment malfunction. Each time something like this happens, I recall an experience I had several years ago at Narita Airport in Japan.
Narita is a huge international airport located outside of Tokyo, and it is one of the world’s busiest. I wouldn’t say that it is particularly beautiful or modern, but it operates with a cool and reassuring efficiency. I never saw a single piece of malfunctioning equipment at Narita. Every time I arrived there, my bags would get to baggage claim before I did. It’s a very impressive place.
On this occasion, I had finished my business in Tokyo and was headed back home. I checked my bags, passed through security and got on the moving sidewalk to get out to my departure gate. As I walked along the conveyor, a Japanese fellow bumped me as he ran past. He was carrying a briefcase that had metal protectors on the corners, and was wearing what looked like a blue leisure suit. I assumed he was a businessman in a big hurry to get to his plane.
I arrived at the departure gate with time to spare, so I decided to locate and use the toilet before getting on the plane. As I entered the men’s room, I noticed the fellow in the blue leisure suit standing at a urinal. His briefcase was on the cabinet next to one of the sinks, open. “That’s odd,” I thought. Then I noticed that the blue leisure suit guy wasn’t using the urinal, he was fixing it. His briefcase wasn’t a briefcase, it was a tool kit. His leisure suit wasn’t a leisure suit, it was a crisp, clean work suit. The urinal wasn’t the ordinary kind – it was the more complex type that would automatically detect when you stepped away and trigger a flush. It seemed that the detector wasn’t working properly, and the guy in the blue suit was working intently, and rapidly, to remedy the situation.
As I realized what I was witnessing, I was amazed. A few minutes earlier, this guy almost knocked me over on his way to the departure area, to repair a urinal! Then I had an “aha” moment – this was why I never saw any malfunctioning equipment at Narita Airport. The guy in the blue suit was personifying something I heard Dr. Martin Luther King said years earlier: “If you are going to be a street sweeper, be the best street sweeper you can be.” I was impressed, and I was inspired. If that guy could be so conscientious about fixing a urinal, I could be at least as conscientious in my own work.
I think about that guy at Narita every time I return to Newark Airport, when the moving sidewalk isn’t moving, and the escalator isn’t escalating.