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 322.

    Well I have to say, I've never had a problem with Lee Van Cleef.

    It's just like most things. They want to extract as much money as they can from you but don't want to do anything for it. Even unto the extent of extending a little common courtesy. I get sick of being referred to as "guys" or addressed as "mate" by security person or even customs or police officer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    We all accept security, but...
    Why does everything else have to be such a rip-off?
    Why can't they put information screens where you can see them from a seated position?

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    I was pleasantly surprised with Heathrow terminal 5 - my flight emptied straight away and the last 3 times I have used the airport my baggage has got to the band within the 5 minutes it has taken me to reach it. However ....... checking in at an airport is a horrific experience in my opinion. Endless queues at security check, queues at the check-in desk and to few staff to cope!

  • rate this

    Comment number 319.

    It's perfectly sensible to say that you can't take a coffee through security but you can buy one as soon as you're through. A cup of coffee could be used to smuggle items through security -- it can't go through the x-ray machine as it would spill. However, coffee itself isn't dangerous so you can buy it on the other side.

  • rate this

    Comment number 318.

    I've stopped going to the USA because of the surly and inefficient airport security staff. When you think how polite most Americans are, these guys must be specially chosen! My favourite airports are Heathrow (staggering, I used to hate it) and Brisbane. At both these airports, food is good, transport easy, staff polite, efficient and humorous, and security usually painless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    We used to go on an annual family holiday to the USA (usually Florida), but haven't been for a few years.

    The delays, taxes and "security" have made it unbearable. The "security" measures are particularly annoying. Billions of dollars spent and no indication that we are any safer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    I certainly wouldn't use Heathrow again. Hopeless if you are old or disabled. At Terminal 5 you can get help on the way out, but I have always had to wait over an hour for wheelchair help when I arrive. And that was grudging.. Other countries do so much better in this respect particularly the US and Turkey.

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    Why do people always complain about waiting for two hours, you can always spend an hour relaxing with a coffee or a drink or some food at Heathrow, even if it costs £10 or £15 pounds, which is not much these days.

    I would rather wait more than 3 hours to be assured that every single safely check has been done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    I always travel First Class which makes the whole experince all the more tolerable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    All the security checks may be entirely sensible and justified, but the whole experience can be made a lot less unpleasant if the security staff treat people in a pleasant and respectful manner. Some of the friendliest security staff I've met were TSA agents, but maybe I caught them on a good day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    I fly regularly, both domestically and internationally and I tend to find that most of the stress is caused by irate fellow-passengers. Taking your boots off to go through security is a smooth procedure; waiting for the person in front to finish battling with security staff about it is just tiresome and time consuming. Everyone knows the rules, can't they just accept them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    i travel a bit for work, my company have had so many staff have poor airline experiences they decided to talk with their cash and stopped us using ryan air, who have to be the worst airline i have ever flown, after being met with dried in feaces over the toilet walls the airsteward told me , its a budget airline...what do u expect ! i'd pay double than fly with them again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    Oh absolutely. Last month my wife and me (and our baby daughter) took my mother in law to LHR T1 for her eleven hour flight home. Once through an extended passage passing no less than six armed police , we emerged to find the check-in and a security gate all in a grey steel shell - no place to sit together, no tea/coffee shop, nowhere to say our goodbyes - awful, unwelcoming, depressing, shocking!

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    It certainly isn't all about security or we'd all be in big trouble. The thing that infuriates me most is trying to get through security while the operators are standing gossiping about what they did last night with one ignoring the x-ray monitor and the other allowing trays to pile up bringing the whole thing to a standstill.

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    Illogical security and hours of walking brings to common parlance substitutions like Deathrow, Charles deHell and an unprintable one for Schiphol. My 'local', Glasgow, has instituted a security check that takes passengers all the way to one side of the building for the security check, making them walk all the way back for the gates through the other unbearable - tawdry hawking of overpriced wares.

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    The liquid thing is idiotic. I’m diabetic and have my emergency lucozade confiscated in the name of national security. The stupid part is, I can take the empty bottle through and several 100ml bottles if I wish, so there’s no security gain. In fact, now I can store the smaller bottles in my pockets so they’re not scanned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 306.

    I can just about accept the long queues at immigration and checkin. What gets my back up is a certain group of people consider themselves above queues. They go to the front, push in, and if you protest they snarl at you and push in anyway. Security do nothing. Who are they ? They wear long black coats and black hats. And don't call me racist, please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 305.

    We are pensioners and we avoid air travel when we can. No seating or toilet facilities are provided for older people or pregnant women who must stand for long periods in the many queues. We do not need assistance or wheelchairs - just a place to sit down. At least the dentist provides seats in his waiting room. The whole experience is ghastly beyond words.

  • rate this

    Comment number 304.

    Has the airport experience become horrible? Yes, along with many things. Often, what used to be pleasurable or a bit of fun more often than now isn't. E.g, pubs, driving, nightclubs, t.v., radio, swmming pools, football matches, cross channel ferries etc, etc.. But airports are the worst.

  • rate this

    Comment number 303.

    Was it ever a "great" experience at an airport?
    I like flying, but it is far easier to move around Europe by train or car than go through the hassle of airports! I admit my travel is never urgent, but trains can be a great way to meet the local population, and in a car you have the freedom to deviate your route and your schedule!
    Leave flying to 'business' travellers.


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