Airports have problems but blaming airline bottlenecks just won't do

Experience for the travelling public is getting worse despite airport bosses' promises

Passengers queue inside the departures terminal of Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport in London. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Post-pandemic the airport business is certainly back to rude health but whether or not the traveller is well served is certainly being tested to the limit.

It is early Sunday morning on the way to Greece and the dawn lines of people waiting to check in are well-formed. Occasionally a woman with a clipboard shouts out the number of a flight that will soon take off. Its passengers are allowed to go to the front of the queue and are hurried through, otherwise they would miss the plane.

We’re flying British Airways but we’re not allowed to check in online, not sure why. Not that it would make a difference, because across the hall the numbers dropping their bags off and inching forward are just as great.

Checking in takes us almost an hour. Then comes security. It’s mercifully quicker.

We’re through and can relax and have breakfast, except there is only half an hour left. We have no time to queue again, order and eat anything.

This, having been told to check in two hours before departure. When our gate is shown, it’s 34 – miles away and there’s no travelator. Except there is. For reasons unexplained, there is a 30-metre stretch of travelator, then nothing but corridor. But that 30-metre bit is also shut, with cones and a barrier at each end.

Then I open the Sunday Times and read an interview with Stewart Wingate, the boss of Gatwick. It is timed ahead of planned strikes by 1,000 baggage handlers at the airport, starting at the end of this month.

Wingate wants to convey the message that they are not employed by the airport but by the airlines. “I think in recent years, passengers have started to realise that [the baggage handlers] are under contract to the airlines.”

Presumably, that’s what he would say about the lack of BA desk staff: “Not my problem, guv.”

But it is your problem, Stewart. It’s precisely your problem. Passengers, whatever he likes to believe, don’t distinguish between who employs who. We view the whole process in the round, and it’s dreadful.

Indeed, Wingate himself says as much, when in the next breath he defends Gatwick’s record last year. The airport had to put a cap on flights because of staff shortages. These limits were gradually raised through the summer and, because of its “collegiate approach” with airlines, Wingate said, Gatwick had a “normal amount of cancellations” in the peak season.

He’s having a dig at Heathrow, his rival, which had to tell airlines to stop selling tickets as it could not cope with demand.

Then Wingate says, that for this summer: “We’ve put an awful lot of effort into making sure that the experience is going to be a good one, with a particular focus on getting passengers through security quickly.”

There you have it. That overused word. The “experience”. Stewart, get down there at 5.30am and see for yourself. Take the journey from the moment you arrive, all the way to departure, and ask, is the “experience” good? Use that “collegiality” as you call it, to roast BA, to tell them to stop treating people like commodities. Both of you, cease taking us for granted.

Wingate is on surer ground when talking about improvements to Gatwick’s infrastructure. A new £47 million railway station is due to open later this year, a new multistorey car park is coming soon (car parks contributed 13 per cent of Gatwick’s £777 million sales last year), and he wants to build a second runway. If he receives permission for the latter, the airport’s capacity will increase by 19 per cent by 2030.

This, in a nutshell, is where we are with UK airports. Their chiefs talk constantly about passenger totals. Their proud boast at present is that the industry has bounced back from Covid, that levels are up to 90 per cent pre-pandemic.

They’re only set to rise further. But therein lies the difficulty: the UK’s main airports cannot cope with existing traffic. How will they perform when the outbreak becomes a distant memory and global air travel soars, as it is predicted to?

Wingate, or for that matter his opposite numbers at Heathrow and the rest, hailing additions to their transport connections is one thing; obliging the airlines to step up and concentrate on the ground side part of the journey as opposed to the air side, which they love to regale us with in their advertising, is quite another.

There is no sign of any commensurate improvement at the airport end, not from the traveller’s perspective

The airports are very good at hiking their fees to the airlines – the carriers are always complaining about the extra charges. Likewise, fares continue to climb. But there is no sign of any commensurate improvement at the airport end, not from the traveller’s perspective.

Perish the thought, that the blurring over who is responsible for what, suits them just perfectly. How can BA make proud boasts in its promotions, yet its desks are unmanned and the lines go out of the door? More to the point, how is it allowed to?

And not only BA, but other carriers which do not hire enough staff and are not bothered if their customers must queue for ages. They sell the seats after all.

Why do Wingate and the others – Heathrow is little different – let it happen? Could it be they’re locked in a conspiracy of complacency, intent on making more money, extracting ever greater amounts of revenue, and the passenger, the person at the bottom of the pile, is there to be forgotten.

Taking an hour to get through check-in, shrugging and saying it’s not my fault when the bags take forever to reach the conveyor will not do. UK airports do not seem to realise they are in the service business, not in the robotic processing of tens of millions of passengers.

It’s their decision to outsource. It’s their decision to not man their check-in desks. We, the suffering travelling public, are entitled to a better, what is that word again, “experience”.

Published: July 18, 2023, 11:52 AM