Has the airport experience become horrible?

From top left: Cancellation board, luggage reclaim, sign, luggage reclaim, passengers in queue

Rarely a week passes without passport queue woes in the UK or tales of overzealous security staff in the US. So has going through an airport become a horrible experience?

Airports were once an exciting window to the world.

But with immigration services staff in the UK set to strike and passengers said to have waited for up to three hours for passport checks at Heathrow last week, for some the romance is over.

Across the Atlantic, the American airport experience has also been generating ire.

In April, a man stripped off in protest of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at Portland Airport and the father of a three-year-old boy was so enraged his son was patted down by an airport screener in Chicago in 2010 he posted a video of the incident on YouTube.

Boy going through security No-one escapes the security check

The rules have changed since then, but earlier this year the TSA had to apologise to two women in their 80s after acknowledging agents violated procedures.

There are entire blogs dedicated to a whole array of airport gripes.

Common complaints include confusing signs, chaotic carousel crowding, rampant profiteering, having to remove shoes at security, lack of free wi-fi and lack of information on delays and cancellations.

So has going through an airport really become so terrible it has taken the thrill out of travelling - and if so how did it happen?

Mark Biwwa, 25, an online marketing professional from Malta who has written a blog on the subject, says it is the sheer lack of logic that gets his back up.

"It's things like not being able to take coffee through certain points, but then being able to buy one shortly after. Or magic numbers, like 100ml of liquid, that nobody knows who decides the threshold of," he says.

Women putting bags in overhead lockers Some now only travel with hand luggage

Biwwa, who flies about once a month, says even though he loves travelling, he now dreads going to airports.

"I can feel myself getting more tense and irritable around airports, because I know I'm going to get hassled, or told to stick to some ridiculous rules.

"Standing in the line at a security queue reminds me of a slaughterhouse line - it's that kind of atmosphere, where everyone has submitted to being sheep following directives," he says.

Everybody knows that the inconvenience of airport security has been inspired by a very real threat since 9/11. The latest alleged plot was to detonate an "underwear bomb", in an echo of the 2009 plot.

But there are those who feel everything is not being done in as smooth and sympathetic a manner as it could be.

'World's worst airports'

  • New York JFK Airport Terminal 3
  • Manila Airport Terminal 1
  • Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport Terminal B/C
  • Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta International Airport
  • Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport, Terminal 3

Source: Travel website Frommer

Aviation expert Chris Yates says it is important to differentiate between the immigration delays that have developed in the UK over recent weeks - which he says is primarily a staffing issue - and the much longer-term public perception problem with what he calls the "theatre of security".

"By necessity security has got an awful lot worse over the last 10 years, as controls had to be enhanced after 9/11. But whether the controls put in place in a rush were the best ones, and developed in mind of the public experience - I doubt it," he says.

But Yates argues that instead of "virtually stripping people naked" by taking off their coats, belts and shoes in the security hall, much more automated, technologically advanced ways of screening should be put in place.

These might include putting an explosive-residue and narcotics screening device into a terminal building's front door.

Psychology of travel


Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather UK, says the age-old saying "first impressions count" speaks volumes.

"It's called primacy - when you encounter someone, you create positive or negative frames by which to judge them, and this applies to a country too.

"So if lengthy passport queues is your first experience, the whole visit will be tinged with negative bias. Plus for every 10 minutes people have to wait, a disproportionate amount of time would have to be spent encouraging them it is a great place to do business or go on holiday.

"In psychology the last impression has a disproportionate effect on memory too, so if security is bad, that will also stick. It is also worth saying effects of minor irritants, even at a subconscious level, are much bigger than people think or acknowledge," he says.

"We need a clean sheet of paper - and to develop the security process in a much more sensible way," he says.

People also feel a sense of injustice when they get caught out by the restrictions, says Bob Atkinson, a travel expert from travelsupermarket.com.

"With the liquid thing, if people get it wrong, they feel annoyed because they've paid for something and lost it. Or if they decide to pay to check in their hand luggage, it can be a £50 charge at the airport - it becomes a hassle and people think why can't it be easy again," he says.

But it's not all about security.

Atkinson argues budget airlines - with their strict policies on baggage size, weight and check-in times - have also been responsible for a shift in attitude and behavioural patterns.

He says the unreserved seating policy that Ryanair and Easyjet operate also often causes frustration.

"You can get to the gate and everyone is sat down, but it takes one person to move and get up, and everyone is up like a flash. I saw that happen in Athens and passengers stood there for 45 minutes - the plane hadn't even arrived yet," he says.

Of course, there are many senses in which the airports themselves are nicer.

The row over border checks

Airport check-in queues
  • Brodie Clark, then head of UK Border Force, suspended in November over decision to relax passport checks - he later resigned
  • Home Secretary Theresa May told MPs he'd "authorised the wider relaxation of border controls without ministerial sanction"
  • Vine Report in Feb warned relaxation of controls led to "unacceptable" breach in UK's defences against terrorists and criminals
  • Home secretary ordered overhaul of UK Border Agency - all passengers now face rigorous checks at passport control
  • But there are fewer staff to carry out the checks - leaked figures reveal about 880 officers (10%) have been cut since 2010

BAA says passenger experience at Heathrow has dramatically improved in the past five years, with 70% of passengers now rating it as very good or excellent, compared with 40% in 2006. It says Terminal 5 is consistently rated as one of the best airports in Europe, while plane punctuality and baggage performance have also improved and the average security queue stands at about two or three minutes.

There's loads more to do in airports than there used to be. But the very act of making them like glitzy shopping centres has put a long run of shops and restaurants between you and the departure gate.

The Independent's travel editor Simon Calder argues most airport stress is generally proportionate to the number of people using them at the same time.

"Therefore the Western and Northern Isles of Scotland are blissful, and Heathrow isn't. But it's also a question of attitude and investment: Gatwick South and Heathrow T5 are great facilities now - far better, for example, than the Eurostar rail terminal in Paris, which is an uncomfortable, ill-managed shambles," he says.

Calder says despite all the dissatisfaction, it is important to bear in mind this is the "golden age of flying".

"It certainly isn't glamorous, but goodness it's effective - transporting you safely and economically around Europe and the world, opening up horizons that previous generations can only dream of," he says.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    I’m speaking from experience – I’ve taken coach trips of this length before and prefer them to a three hour flight with all that it entails.Part of this is due to a fear of crowds, part of it is that I like to take my netbook, do some writing and actually experience the journey. Door to door, flying takes from early morning to late at night with far more hassle anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    With the revelation that US security personnel have intercepted an 'underwear' bomb, it is not a great leap of imagination before flying in one's own clothes will be prohibited. All passengers will be required to change into an approved flight suit, without any other clothing and probably at an exorbitant cost, before boarding an aircraft.? You laugh I see. Never was a truer word spoken in jest!

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    What makes it so unpleasant is the attitude of the security and staff who are generally jobsworth , faceless and lacking in almost all known social skills.

    Employ more people to ease the queues rather than spend all the budget on fancy overpriced shops and glitzy makeovers.

    Security is unfortunately a necessity but that doesn't give airports the right to de-humanise all and sundry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    "The reason everyone tries to rush ahead at the gates is because the airlines do not regulate hand luggage properly."

    I wholly agree. It's not carry on baggage if it needs wheels because you can't physically carry it. The fastest queues were when they banned all carry on (or drag-on) baggage a few years ago.
    Now I think about it, there really weren't any queues then!

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    Airport security measures help the terrorists aims by disrupting travel. This is not helped by the stupidity of some measures. I remember when the government decided that 25% of passengers should have to remove their shoes. Heathrow had 4 queues and had everyone in one queue removing their shoes. Mr Shoe bomber was really going to pick that queue!

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    I travel several times a month and I think the most irritating thing is the inconsistency between terminals eg T5 and T3 at LHR are worlds apart. Also items that go through security in one airport or terminal are suddenly an issue at another. Shoes are OK in one terminal, but not OK in another. Underwire bras ditto.

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    While going through security a couple of years ago in San Francisco a man in front of us who obviously did not speak english or understand what was going on, just kept on walking after he'd set off the metal detectors. All of a sudden we heard 'FREEZE' as three security guards got out their guns and pinned the man to the floor. I think everyone in the viscinity froze so as not to get shot. Scary!

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    The security procedures are completely disproportionate to the risk, as well as being mostly ineffectual.

    Hi-jackers can no longer access the cockpit, the security services have much better intelligence and surveillance meaning very few terrorists make it near an airport without the OK of the authorities, even those that do now have to deal with much more alert staff and passengers post-9/11.

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    I completely hate airports. It is a racket designed to get you in as early as possible so you spend more money. The queues are manufactured to justify this three hour wait.

    Well Mr BAA and others, no matter how long you keep me waiting, I never spend a penny in your grotesquely overpriced concessions. I bring my own water and my own sarnies.

  • Comment number 273.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    Recalling waits prior to 9/11 and exploding underpants exceeding 15 hours I wonder if it was ever any different

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    Ghastly, and they seem intent on making Eurostar just the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    Why do people wear belts? Why don't they just buy trousers that fit them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    As a frequent flyer, min: once/month, I can honestly state airport security isn't that bad. Common sense goes a long way:
    Pack everything you don't need into luggage (incl sharp objects).
    Less clothing=faster security clearance, sometimes I even forgo a belt.
    If travelling with only a carryon, no sharp objects, nothing flammable (lighters are OK), make sure your containers are less than 100 mL.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    Having the income and/or airmiles to now travel Business class on all long haul flights, I can report that the experience can be pleasant.
    When boarding a BA flight home from San Francisco last month we were directed via the back door of the Business Lounge into a short corridor that led to the door of the plane.
    Now that is a pleasant experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    I think people feel they are being ripped off for instance in lanzarote you can buy mineral water for 1.06 euros for 5 litres before security but of course you cant take it through after security the same water costs 1.65 for half a litre a price rise of 642% and that is on top of the indigity and embarrasment of the security checks

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    Most people don't need to fly,in the same way that they don't need cars ,if they are to be honest with themselves. So,if you're stuck in an airport queue or a traffic jam,no sympathy from me I'm afraid,

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    Like everyone else I've had bad experiences but a couple of years ago travelling through customs in America one of the officials looked at my passport and noticed it was my birthday - he wished me a happy birthday with a nice smile. Just a small thing but they are not all bad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    Try Iraklion in Crete.

    We British had to stand in queues outside to either side of the entrance while the French, Russian & Germans went straight in. Not funny after an hour in 26 degrees.
    Then we were hit by fake excess luggage weight fees as a scam that tour reps had warned us about as orchestrated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    I suppose Hearthrow sums up the state of the UK! WRECKED! As one couple said to me: our flight was cancelled, and we have been dumped in terminal 5 for two days, being feb on bread and water. even now, we do not know if we are booked on the next flight today we are just going to the termial to find out.


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