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 362.

    4 Minutes ago
    Slightly off topic, but shouldn't we start measuring weight allowances as (passenger+all hand luggage).? Excess charges should apply for anything over 80kg.

    HOW RIGHT IS THAT! 200kg man with 20kg suitcase = 220kg and OK. 100kg man with 25kg suitcase = 125kg and NOT OK PLUS £50 excess baggage. Total nonsense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 361.

    Going through security would be a lot less stressful if we copied some continental airports (eg Prague) which have the checks at the gate just prior to boarding. This avoids the bottleneck involved when hundreds of people are queuing to get through a handful of screening points, and because the checks are for a specific flight there is no worry that you might get held up further back and miss it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 360.

    Airport security has become a massive industry probably employing millions if you include all the companies selling scanner tech. It is mostly theatre, but it will always increase and never go away. Contrast the lack of security on the Tube, which suffered an actual attack but has remained as it was, to most people's satisfaction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 359.

    I complain about the wait I always have to clear Immigration as an International visitor at Atlanta Airport (average 45 minutes) but of course I have no idea how long Americans have to wait at Gatwick/Heathrow.
    Maybe the Airports should have to publish figures for normal and peak periods every day.
    Then we could have league tables, name and shame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 358.

    Large European airports are abominable compared to newer Asian or small European bases.

    I've often landed in places like Copenhagen, Ljubljana or Prague & flown through customs.

    Meanwhile, new hubs like Singapore & Kansai spend $ creating great experiences. With free movie cinemas, cheap beds, great food, butterfly gardens and a free city tour, I actually enjoy 20 hour stopovers in Singapore!

  • rate this

    Comment number 357.

    If airports are bad experience, then try Ryanair for a change where one is not a passenger but a mug to be scrxxed and most staff last 18 months max! So even their staff realise that they have to vote with their feet as soon as they have an alternative. Airport security rules do need to be updated as most are just annoying. Why not use better modern technologies to ease the "security" checks?

  • Comment number 356.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 355.

    The over-done 'security' is supposed to deter but often fails to keep its own rules. I have to fly frequently on business and often see security staff miss things. I have asked to speak to security managers and discussed this with them. 'We do our best' is the usual answer. If the rules are really necessary 'best' isn't good enough - it means a terrorist could get through. Actually, no-one cares!

  • rate this

    Comment number 354.

    Slightly off topic, but shouldn't we start measuring weight allowances as (passenger+all hand luggage).? Excess charges should apply for anything over 80kg.

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    Recently I have been through Heathrow terminals, Singapore Changi and several Australian airports. I have no problems to report. Sorry. Changi is a wonderful airport with free Wifi and indoor and outdoor smoking areas. Australian airports are also lovely with smoking areas outside. Came back through the automatic gates at immigration on return, no problems or delays. I still love flying!

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    A £10 ticket costs nearer £100. Getting to the airport is usually stressful, moreso if the M25 or other ringroads are involved. Then there's the carpark and finding the right terminal. For a 6.30AM flight traffic is lighter, but getting there 1-2 hrs in advance is pointless as check-in is shut. Then there's check in and a cattle market shunt to Departures. Take-off delayed. Bag astray. Nuff said

  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    Flying from Manchester recently, I had one pot of hair gell. I naively didn't bother with a plastic bag as it was just a single item. OK, a mistake on my part. I then had to pay £1 for an attendant to pass me a plastic bag. This was after it had already been scanned, and did not need to be re-scanned. I simply took the bag and put it in the nearest bin. What a way to irrate your customers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    330. sean__cassidy
    would you rather have no checks and fly for hours in constant fear, or would you rather wait an hour (if your organised) and have peace of mind"

    If you have 'peace of mind' after going through the 'security' checks, then you are being blissfully ignorant...

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    There's much self-righteous shaking of heads when you mention racial/religious/ethnic screening and in many respects rightly so. BUT... are YOU worried about an 80 year old home counties grandmother travelling with two grandchildren being short circuited at security? No, nether am I. Security needs to face some uncomfortable truths.

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    The most frustrating thing is waiting in huge lines in front of various checkpoints that are not staffed, in spite of paying huge ticket prices, air travel taxes and airport fees. It doesn't take a genius to realize that someday terrorists will resort to attacking people waiting in lines, as happened in Athens (1973) and was attempted at Glasgow. Then what? More lines to get into parking lots?

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    The security doesn't bother me, it quite simply takes time to check everyone for a bomb.The thing that riles me to the point of spitting feathers is the disease that afflicts all public transport, the pompous attitude by all involved that you should arrive with a comprehensive understanding of their non intuitive system, airports are full of lost souls frantically asking each other what to do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    Changi airport in Singapore is fantastic, super efficient, non-intrusive and polite. It usually takes maximum of 30 minutes from plane doors opening, to getting in a cab, including luggage collection! So it is possible, but for some reason most other airports don't care at all about the customer experience, or in fact the lasting impression it leaves of the country itself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    Airports have become the home of the petty minded, those people who like to be in charge and delight in making even the smallest infringement of the rules into a major event.
    If you add to that the blatant profiteering of both the airport operators, the airlines and the concession operators and there you have it customer disservice or dissatisfaction at it's very best/worst.

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    One problem is that airport technology lags far behind the times.

    Is checking a 5 year-old photo of me in a paper booklet really the most secure way to check my identity? My Xbox game console can recognise me, so surely we can introduce facial & voice scanning for identification (as one possibility).

    How about some kind of universal scanner which we can enter carrying our luggage with us?

  • Comment number 343.

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


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