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.


More on This Story

In today's Magazine


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 302.

    The comments about water remind me of a flight from Dublin to Galway where Aer Arran apologised because the toilets were out of order. As compensation they did offer us free tea and coffee!

  • rate this

    Comment number 301.

    I remember in the US and Europe in the 19170's when air travel was fun! As much as I like flying, I rarely experience a trip without either a long delay, bags which do not arrive or some other snafu.
    I was one of the first passengers to arrive at T5, Heathrow the day it opened and experienced the calm and chaos. When I did leave, 14 hours later, it was without luggage, which arrived 14 days later.

  • rate this

    Comment number 300.

    Most airports are not that bad. Heathrow T5 has to be one of the best. I've never waited longer than about 5 mins to get through security. If you're organised, and know what to expect then its fine. Its those idiots who get to the front and then act as though they dont know that they can NOT carry liquids over 100 ml honestly, have they been living under a rock for the last 11 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 299.

    Will you all please get a grip or do you want to have options such as the no security , let's fly without any checks and see what happens airline !.

    And don't blame the staff - it's not jobs worth, it's called being dilligent - Just accept that modern flying comes with these added hold-up's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 298.

    It’s multiple things really, but the airport experience is a massive part of it. If airports were a little less horrific the crowds would bother me less, so it’s not one single thing. The queuing and rude staff are probably the worst bit though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 297.

    We really do take travel for granted.
    The reason for a two hour checking in period is for our safety.
    Freedom is never gauranteed unless we ensure our saftety and protection.
    Is a security check an inconvenience or a peace of mind?
    Happy tavelling this summer.
    With or without the odd delay..

  • rate this

    Comment number 296.

    Most of my flights are now for getting somewhere new on holiday. If the airport experience outweighed the joys of arriving at your destination and then relaxing for 10 days or so, then I might agree that it is not worth flying at all.
    Looking back, even Economy flights to the USA were quite pleasant in the 70s; mass travel inevitably changed that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 295.

    Do people just fly so they can drone on about how terrible the airport experience is?

  • rate this

    Comment number 294.

    I totally agree, airports ARE a nightmare, but this year we're going to France by car. It's a long drive we live in Cheshire, but I'm sick to death of the whole experience especially if you travel with Rypoffair and the case is a milligram overweight or a centimetre too big you will be fined an amount completely disproportionate to the offence. Avoid Ryanair whenever possible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 293.

    I don't care about all the fancy architecture of Terminal 5, I just want to get between the front door and the aircraft in one smooth movement. Why do I need to go on transfer buses and trains? Was it built too small? The flight is often the shortest part of the experience !!! Security? What a joke !!! Guilty until you can prove yourself innocent and even then....

  • rate this

    Comment number 292.

    I spent twelve years working all over the world. I flew on everage, thirty-five trips per year.I hated it then , and still hate it now. Fortunately now , I only have to endure the annual holiday abroad once a year. I would gladly never set foot in an airport ever again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 291.

    Honestly, if you just follow the rules and use common sense the security measures are fine. I fly quite regularly and was once stopped in the US for having explosive residue on my hands (No idea how), I just did as I was asked and everything went fine. I have nothing to hide so I have no problem with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 290.

    I just love watching the cheapo people catching a Easyjet or Ryanair flight. Cramming new posh fancy itmes into one tiny bag, or thrwing it away 'cos it don't fit. And standing for sometimes hours just because one person is in the queu for a seat. I laugh every time - i'd never save money to get that kind of treatment. They get what they pay for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 289.

    Having organised my life to avoid stress, I find airport transits the most stressful thing that I ever have to do.

    Part of my career has been risk asessment in transport (mainly rail & marine). I endorse the view that airport procedures are totally disproportionate to the risk.

    So I learned to fly. The light a/c international airport experience is totally different, a pleasure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 288.

    It's not always awful, but it usuallly is! Rome airport was so awful last month that I've vowed never, ever to use it again! Go there to find out how NOT to organise check-in and security.

  • rate this

    Comment number 287.

    It's funny, in Rome on the way back passengers for British bound flights had to queue along with American and Israel bound passengers for more intensive security checks.

    That's when you know British foreign policy hasn't been great recently.

  • rate this

    Comment number 286.

    @ 282. Capella2009

    Fair enough, I thought your view was just to avoid the airport. Personally, I much prefer to fly but if you prefer the coach then good for you, the world would be boring if we were all the same.

  • Comment number 285.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 284.

    The whole experience of air travel is a form of torture From the rip-off airports (where you have to be 3 hours before your plane departs) to being squashed a metal tube with a load of strangers for a hours on end and the nightmare of baggage carousels, customs and immigration. It is a necessary evil to get around the planet but airport operators seem determined to make it as miserable as possible

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    Aaaaahhh, look at these poor people, not enjoying their airport experience...
    Perhaps while they are queuing they can reflect on how their cheap holiday is ruining our planet, or perhaps a thought for the people who leave nearby and suffer from the noise...


Page 23 of 38



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.