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Tales from (eastern) Europe: Airports

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Paul Mason | 09:27 UK time, Monday, 23 March 2009

Eurocrash graphicI'm writing this in Prague airport, on my way to Bratislava. I've seen a fair few East European airports on this trip and in their own way they tell the story of where this crisis is going.

Riga, Latvia: clean, decent retail/cafe choices. Very long unloading times: it felt like they had one guy back and forth. This is a shame because the Latvian airline AirBaltic is pretty good, and reports booming business off the back of a) everbody else's collapse and b) the move to a hub model, meaning you can go from London to Almaty via Riga.

Kiev Borispol, Ukraine: Aaargh. I mean Aaaaaaargh. The arrivals is swarming with taxi touts who would give their counterparts in Lagos, Nigeria a severe lesson in persistence. In fact, in comparison to Nigeria's much maligned airport (which has been reformed by handing it over to a private contractor) Kiev is really third world. Nobody could change me any sterling and nobody wanted to take local currency. This is a sure sign that your local currency is going down the tubes. In addition we had "carnet hell": a carnet is what news crews have to carry itemising every last lightbulb. Fellow journalists when I say the phrase "please wait here, it will all have to be typed out by hand" you may flinch now. Three hours later my producer emerged into the arrivals hall with a truckload of TV equipment and, oh, about a battallion size crowd of taxi drivers all too willing to help him.

Kiev, in general, is no joke. As you'll see tomorrow night, the country's on the brink of bankruptcy but the airport is a symbol of why rescuing it is going to be difficult. In my experience national airports that are a total shambles, with unrestrained touting are generally a symptom of a system of widespread graft and corruption. A senior businessman in Kiev has been painting grim off the record pictures of layer upon layer of graft.

Another sure sign of social malaise is large numbers of shaven headed men in black coats with radio earpieces. Such men are everywhere in Ukraine where there is wealth.

Prague: Having got here via Ukrainian 737 which seemed to have gaffer tape holding the cabin togther, Prague is its old self. It's just about to be privatised, which kind of sums up the Czech republic government's attitude to the credit crunch: fast forward to market solutions.

Somebody in their market zeal has decided there should be multiple branches of KFC, Pilsner Urquell pubs and dutyfree shops but no McDo or Burgerking so our team are a little mortified, not wanting to hit the Pilsner Urquell at breakfast time (I am surrounded by Czechs who have no such reticence).

Watch my Slovakia film here:

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Anyway, the gist of all this is as follows: there is, as the departed Hungarian PM said this month, a danger of a new "iron curtain" in Europe; with the east divided between the saved and the damned. Czech and Slovak Republics look to be on the right side of the line - so its not just a Eurozone thing. Latvia is teetering between the two, despite its nice airport, and Ukraine more or less defines the problem of being unloved and unsaveable.

That's why I've found so many Ukrainian people I talked to determined to "survive on our own". They're heavily cynical about their polticians but they will duck and dive their way through. I can't see the taxi-driver numbers falling at Borispol any time soon.


  • Comment number 1.

    I had carnet hell many years ago back in the days of film.

    Unlike you Paul, it was as we were leaving the country and I found myself sat in an airport room surrounded by loads of 'nice' men with guns talking to me in a language I did not understand whilst I desperately tried to hold onto cans of film that they wanted to x-ray.

    The crew were elsewhere, the plane was minutes from leaving and everytime they moved the cans of film near the x-ray scanner I stood up only to see their hands move towards their holsters. I think, in the end, they decided that I was a gibbering idiot and were glad to be rid of me. I made it up the steps of the airplane just before they closed the door.

    Maybe you should do a story on who owns the KFC franchises in Eastern Europe?

  • Comment number 2.

    "carnet hell"

    "truckload of TV equipment"

    Do the BBC have any Red camera's plus a few light Steadicam's?

  • Comment number 3.

    Id go for some hand held Steadicam's :

  • Comment number 4.


    Your previous post reminded me of the quote attributed to Muhammed Ali at the time of his "Rumble in the Jungle":

    "Kinshasa must be a great city - I've never seen so many Mercedes Benz automobiles".

    I never quite got the measure of the Ukraine. Apart from the "heavies" you mention, there were also what I called the "Pyjama Men" - armed security guards in military fatigues.

    Enjoy yourself in Prague - and don't neglect the dark beers.

  • Comment number 5.


    Bratislava is a lovely little city. Enjoy!


  • Comment number 6.

    I was in Borispol airport two weeks ago, changing to an internal flight.

    It took nearly an hour to get through passport control. Others in the queue thought it was deliberately slowed down so you would use the "express" channel - only $80 a go! The most unfriendly welcome I have ever received. It took so long they stopped the baggage carousels before we got through.

    A country of haves and have nots, where excessive wealth is displayed by a few - stretch mercs with a chauffeur, whilst others are on the breadline. And definately agree on the shaved head security men, they are everywhere, acting like they own the place.

    I have experience of many eastern European countries since the late seventies, and the Ukraine was the worst I have seen. Even rural Russia looks better

  • Comment number 7.

    about to go down the market route, the freedom of enterprise, the economic league answer to eveything...the poor deluded fools, someone should warn them but they wouldn't listen anyway, if I can recall they all liked Thatcher...

  • Comment number 8.

    I don't know why you lot are all complaining about the Eastern European countries - our beloved leaders have welcomed, or want to welcome, them into the friendly family of the European Union no matter what those countries views are on stupid little things such as democracy, law & order, equality for all, elimination of poverty, etc.

    If our glorious leaders think that allowing such countries into the EU, and hence allowing anyone from those countries to travel freely in and work anywhere else in the EU, is right then what right have we to question them.

    Don't you realise that there is a housing and car slump now in the UK? We need more of these Eastern Europeans in our country buying up our multi-million pound houses and driving around in expensive German-made cars. Come on now, it should be one of the things that makes you proud to be British!

    The Ukaine was once considered the bread basket of the Soviet Union. Hitler wanted it not just for 'living space' but also because of this very reason - food. In the end, the never-ending plains combined with the extremes of seasons was a major factor in bringing about the destruction of Nazi Germany. Let's us hope that the economic trials of the Ukraine do not bring about a similar collapse here in the West.

    I wonder what happens if you walk into a KFC in Kiev and ask for a zinger?

    Btw, that link to the read camera and what is being shot on it is very interesting. Thanks for posting.

  • Comment number 9.

    Nos8 -
    "Btw, that link to the read camera and what is being shot on it is very interesting. Thanks for posting."

    Yes interesting - The Informant, Crossing The Line and Manure did cross my mind, but come now
    Paul is a class act .

  • Comment number 10.

    #8 "our beloved leaders have welcomed, or want to welcome, them into the friendly family of the European Union no matter what those countries views are on stupid little things such as democracy, law & order..."

    Not Ukraine they haven't (and won't with very good reason) - even though it has been trying to knock at the door of the EU for a dozen years at least. The Bush administration was rather miffed about that I seem to recall.

    Same goes for Georgia.

  • Comment number 11.

    In my relatively sleepy town in the Scottish Highlands I was introduced to my first taste of New Labour's Come-All-Ye, Uncontrolled Immigration Policy on Saturday. A battered car load of Latvian ne'er do wells being arrested and handcuffed on the High Street.

    This scene would have been utterly unthinkable when I purchased my home here in 1984; in those days, headline news was "Man Falls Off Bike in Forteath Street".

    Why exactly do we have this uncontrolled immigration policy anyway? Since we now have somewhere between 6 and 9 million households on some sort of state benefit or other (a chunky part of Gordon Brown's Client State), couldn't we manage on our own if we got more of Britain's finest off their backsides and into work? Private sector work, that is.

    What a mess eh? How on earth does the Labour Party get away this sort of ocean-going failure every time they get a shot at the controls?

    At least Gordon Brown has masterminded the mother-of-all busts; the biggest God Almighty bust in British history (he doesn't mess about, does he?). So, maybe the Pseudo-Socialists-cum-Third-Way-Which-Way-Is-Up-Please Party will be seen off for good this time? Don't hold your breath, though; we Brits are gluttons for punishment.

    See you on the streets before the G20.

  • Comment number 12.

    That is all true about the taxi drivers in Kiev Borispol airport and that it is completly outdated.

    But I would not agree that it is a good mirrorr of the situation in the country.

    You are saying In my experience national airports that are a total shambles, with unrestrained touting are generally a symptom of a system of widespread graft and corruption.

    Why would you expect that public money have to go into nice airports, while there are more serious problems to be solved. Or do you believe that shiny airports of Almaty and Tashkent illustrates high rate of transperency in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan?

    Did not you enjoy the fact that you do not need visa and registration? Have idea of three days registration rule in Russia. I guess you have it sorted by the hotels you stop at, but once you travel on your own and staying with friends...

    I guess this is a metter of impression. I just hered from Norvegian guy who said Kiev airport was a marvelous experience - got out of the airport in 10 minutes from the plane stop.

    From another hand, when I first flew in to London (was it Gatwik) a while ago, I was shocked by the fact of special exit for Irish. I do not know if it is better than crowd of taxidrivers on exit...

  • Comment number 13.

    re the cameras. Actually I have been experimenting with cameras lately. On this trip we are using my cameraman's traditional 14kg TV camera which shoots straight to hard drive; that's why we can edit on the road. Then we are using a SOny Z1 type camera to get into tricky places. But I am also using my Sony HDR-TG3 which is tiny. It has many drawbacks: no sound input; no earphone socket - but one massive advantage. It shoots HD and people react to you as if you are a human being, not a journalist. I shot a lot of my Wigan Pier film on this. As for the Red cameras - they look genuinely whizzy. When I make my first feature film I will be sure to have a go on one! Cheers from Bratislava. Paul

  • Comment number 14.

    as stocks climb the 'slope of hope' there is still a long way to go before even considering this phase stage of the crunch is over e.g another 1000pts on the dow. We are still in a relentless downtrend.

    Bond markets have nearly a one way inflation bet on while corporate bank bond spreads keep widening saying there are still surprises out there in financial bank land.

    and it all might grind to a halt with the end of quarter profit taking.

    having said that march tends to be the month for launching year long trends and there are billions on the sidelines eager to be invested and earning some money while others are just praying to get back to breakeven so they can sell.

    so like in the movies the submarine in a death dive whose depth indicators gone beyond the red zone and because of the water pressure the rivets have begun to pop and water flood in the white faced crew begin to see the submarine is beginning to level out. Stopping the dive is one thing. Getting back to the surface another.

  • Comment number 15.


    "truckload of TV equipment" ... hmm - why?

    This is a BBC Resources problem that you describe. Your employer is unwilling to use the quite sufficient, so called amateur, HD cameras - and ok you'll need a sound engineer with a mike or so, but Ill bet you have cameras that require gorillas to cart them about when if you could persuade the cameramen to use them something far far smaller would work as well - you are after all not making a feature film. (I recall the days of TV producers insisting on needing the feel of film - thank god these days are gone and creativity is not bound-up by overpriced excessive technology.

    Yes I too would shoot 35mm (or 70mm ahh those were the days) if anyone would pay for the stock - Super 16 does not quite cut the mustard does it (not enough sprocket holes for stability in the gate or telecine!) I love video, SD or HD and 2K too in the right place - with the right script, talent and budget!

    Do your travel with Gaffers and Best-Boys and a shed load of lights when a folding two sided reflector will do to reduce the shadow under your chin?

    It is not how pretty it is. It is the content that matters - be it human interest or economic news - a good script overcomes almost everything!

    It is a fairly good expression of what a TV company, or indeed film studio, is about when it is described as a warehouse of partially depreciated out-of-date iron that the accountants (and unions) insist must continue to be used even though there are better and less expensive ways of doing things.

    Get a life, and a pocket sized HD camera and radio mike and become a journalist again and forego the Winnebago! (and do your own make-up!)

  • Comment number 16.

    ah, the joys of Prague airport, home to one of the most expensive standard meal deals in European airports - ropey gulas and a pint for 35 euros.

    You're right, Paul, about the PPP-ing of Prague. A light railway link connecting the Prague airport with the city centre is being proposed for the PPP treatment – and it goes by the name of AirCon. They like a bit of naked honesty in their names, do the PPP platoons that are fast spreading eastwards from their disgrace in the west. There's now a Europe-wide initiative to push PPPs going under the delicious name of "C.R.E.A.M. Europe".

    The Slovaks - and others - are getting cagey about them now in crisis times, the Slovak Spectator recently reporting that: “The Transport Ministry has prepared an alternative plan for highway construction in Slovakia, financed directly from state coffers, in case of a failure of three PPP projects which are currently being tendered”.

    My organisation has a recent study out called "Never mind the balance sheet – the dangers posed by public-private partnerships in central and eastern Europe", available at: [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 17.

    I feel such sorrow for you and the team...At the assortment of airports....With all of the luggage....

    ~Dennis Junior~

  • Comment number 18.


    Somebody in their market zeal has decided there should be multiple branches of KFC, Pilsner Urquell pubs and dutyfree shops but no McDo or Burgerking so our team are a little mortified, not wanting to hit the Pilsner Urquell at breakfast time (I am surrounded by Czechs who have no such reticence).

    I am proud of you for the restraining yourself in the Pilsner at Breakfast time....

    *Having some many branches of KFC's is not all of a good idea*

    ~Dennis Junior~

  • Comment number 19.

    Airports do indeed reflect the state of nation.

    On your return, perhaps you can give a state of the British nation report on Heathrow.

    My observations... Terminal 3, no warmth of welcome, bad service, overcrowded, outdated, lots of litter, expensive, in need of a coat of paint and i think ... Spanish owned.

  • Comment number 20.

  • Comment number 21.

    hi Paul

    Saw your report on Latvia last week, which was a bit scary, though the people seemed very sensible and hard-working, which maybe gives some reason for hope on their behalf.

    I agree that airport's give an interesting insight into things. Any ideas on what the economic problems in the Ukraine might mean for W Europe's gas supplies next winter?

    Seems like the LNPG terminal at Milford Haven might be a good hedge after all, so long as it doesn't blow up........

    I currently have a couple of Lithuanian chaps here (in N. London) doing some decorating and they tell me there is still a good 2nd-hand car expor market from UK to Lithuania, where they apparently can sell for double or triple the price, so some entrepreneurial activities seem to continue

  • Comment number 22.

    By a strange coincidence, I found my schedule did not have room for breakfast this morning and faced a choice between KFC and Pilsner. It was no contest. Cheers!

  • Comment number 23.

    19. moorlandwoman wrote:

    "On your return, perhaps you can give a state of the British nation report on Heathrow."

    Your post reminded me of the last time I changed planes at Heathrow. I was flying from Dublin to Mumbai. The first "hiccup" occurred well before we flew. On trying to book a through ticket with British Airways, the only connecting flight from Dublin we were offered was scheduled to land 45 minutes before the Mumbai flight was due to leave. No chance of making that. So I booked two separate journeys: DUB-LHR, and LHR-BOM.

    OK, fast forward to the journey and, as expected, the flight from Dublin was late arriving. Good job we didn't take the flight suggested by BA.

    Irish flights arrive in T1 Domestic. From the arrival gates used for Irish flights, it is not possible to access the flight connection centre. So we had to go out to the main T1 concourse. We couldn't get out LHR-BOM biarding cards in Dublin, so tried asking at the BA desks in TA (this was before T5 opened). Couldn't get them there either, as our flight left from T4. Therefore we could not access the flight connection centre to transfer to T4.

    So we had to use the Heathrow Express to transfer. Except HEX wasn't working, so we were provided with vouchers for a free Underground connection to T4. For those who don't know LHR, the Underground does not run directly from T1 to T4. It's on a loop, and it is necessary to travel away from LHR, to Hatton Cross, get off the train there, and then catch one going back to LHR T1.

    The above transfer took longer than the journey from leaving our house in Dublin to arriving in Heathrow. If this isn't just a huge scam between BA, BAA and the LHR cab drivers to drum up unnecessary fares transferring people between terminals, what is? Who needs taxi touts when the airport and its biggest user run such a scheme on behalf of the cabs to begin with?

    I've no doubt Kiev airport is awful. Show me an aiport that isn't these days (Changi in Singapore is the only one I can think of). However, for anyone representing the state-controlled broadcasting corporation in Britain to criticise anyone's airport when the UK has the ultimate failed third world transport hub of its own is truly laughable.

  • Comment number 24.

    Auckland airport is wonderful, you even get warmly greeted by a member of staff rather than grunted and growled at, Hong Kong excellent too, both reflected well run countries.

    On the other hand Heathrow and L.A. were truly appalling.
    In fact so bad was LA we said never ever again.
    We waited in line for hours by orders of Bush to be fingerprinted and eye scanned in the middle of the night... and we were only supposed to be in the transit lounge, our luggage never came of our New Zealand bound plane.

  • Comment number 25.

    oh what a refreshing change this blog is.

    While we are comparing airports and what they say about the state of a nation, my personal favourite is Fortaleza airport in north east Brazil.

    First we were entertained by all the Americans being seperated off to be fingerprinted in a long line while everyone else went straight through (got to love the Brazillians)

    Next in-between immigration and customs we were entertained by a dancing man dressed as a chicken and a troupe of scantily clad dancing girls offering tourists leaflets, note they all looked like they were genuinely enjoying doing this, not like it was demeaning or embarresing...

    Consequently it lifted everyones mood while waiting for customs and the girls ran out of leaflets pretty quick...Can you imagine trying to pull off the same trick using a dancing troupe from Clapham at Heathrow?

    Customs were efficient and friendly (unless you were american) but serious (unless you were American). The airport quite small but modern, architectually ambitious, very clean and airy.

    There were a few taxi touts but they knew where the line of courteousness lay, you were not mobbed, politely asked more than you would like but it was ok.

    What do I draw from all this in terms of how an airport reflects a society?

    Well lets put it this way, I married a Brazillian who lives close to Fortalezza.


  • Comment number 26.

    I agree, totally refreshing and gives you a gut insight - beats listening to Mervyn King and his unconventional unconventionals, his conventional unconventionals and his conventional conventionals ...

  • Comment number 27.

    Just saw your Eurocrash piece with Ukraine, Latvia and Slovakia. Excellent work.

  • Comment number 28.

    By the way, where is your accent from?

  • Comment number 29.

    It's extremely sad that Slovaks look at themselves from the point of view of the West. If Slovakia (or Czechoslovakia) was a "forgotten country near Russia" it was because Western European ignorance, as other countries in the region, like Poland, Hungary etc. knew of Slovakia all along and very well. Slovaks, Ukrainians, Poles etc. don't need to "become Europeans" - they have always been them and it's only because of the Iron Courtain, put up by both Soviet Union and the West, that the region was obscured from the vision of the people who have assumed the position of opinionmakers. The countries that are today lumped together as Eastern Europe are as varied as any other ones. It's just that for too long the self-proclaimed West was unwilling to spare a serious thought for them. And what is worse, "Eastern Europeans" with time adopted the same inaccurate view of themselves. History is just not fair.

  • Comment number 30.

    Wonderful post. Thank you for putting your thoughts so precisely. [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 31.

    Wonderful post. Thank you for putting your thoughts so precisely. [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]


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