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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  • Comment number 742.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 741.

    658 All your comment shows is you have not bothered to read the information available on the subject .
    Across Europe all security is precisely the same, I travel a lot. Only a certain percentage of shoes are required to be screened, some airports do it in different ways, by days, lines, hours etc. The idea it is random so any shoe bomber has not idea when and thus cannot plan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 740.

    Re: 100ml liquids.
    Returning to the UK I had about 5ml of makeup remover in a 120ml container. Australian security made me dispose of it. The ruling is no CONTAINERS larger than 100ml - praps you can only make a bomb in 101ml+ containers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 739.

    I was stopped inside Gatwick airport by UK Border Security looking for cash. One officer told me that anything over £1,000 was subject to legal controls. Blatant lie. They simply didn't like me because I was not willing to roll over and accept whatever they wanted to do. Things are unpleasant enough without nasty people working in 'security'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 738.

    I understand that being an airport security personnel is probably not the most pleasant job and likely very taxing - but if over 50% of my ticket cost is for airport fees associated with the increased security protocols - I think that there needs to be a more customer friendly approach. After all, I'm paying for this 'service'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 737.

    Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airport is fantastic if you have a HK ID card. Immigration is a thumb print scan and takes less than 30 seconds.

    However as a British passport holder going to the UK, immigration is hell!

  • rate this

    Comment number 736.

    I have been travelling by air regularly for 20 years. In that time the experience has deteriorated year by year. Airports vary a lot and volume of traffic is a factor. But the way people,are treated is not just about traffic pressure. British airports are among the worst in the world. The attitude of staff is often officious and inconsiderate. I avoid air travel now whenever possible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 735.

    Has the airport experience become horrible?

    No, it was always horrible. And there's not a whole lot you can do about it, except grin and bear it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 734.

    Due to health issues, I can no longer afford the insurance costs to fly - what a wonderful feeling it is, knowing I will never experience the hell of an airport ever again! You know, I don't miss the Mediterranean one little bit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 733.

    Term 5 ..very nice..except security. My wife was verbally abused by one young man and then his "supervisor" for requesting that he wear gloves when handling our young daughter's underwear. She was refused private screening and warned that we would be unable to fly if she did not "change her attitude". My objection was met with threats of the police! A telling final impression of the pre Olympic UK

  • rate this

    Comment number 732.

    Well gone are the days when you were waved aboard. They even do intimate examinations of 85 year old European women. Perversion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 731.

    The departure boards are rarely in view of the seats. There are no large clocks. Food provision is poor and overpriced. Drinking water prices are a racket. Add to that the tories sacking passport checking staff (rather than closing tax loopholes) so 3 people look after a roomful of EU arrivals in the hot sticky arrivals...

  • rate this

    Comment number 730.

    It is common knowledge among frequent travellers that Heathrow is a nightmare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 729.

    For all of you who say these checks are necessary and are not an inconvenience let me ask you something. Have you every thought about blowing a plane up? No, of course not, so why should you be inconvenienced? For the odd one or two that have, you should be arrested. Don't tell me they have no idea who is who, they know but it's alright to insult the innocent, they have no axe to grind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 728.

    I just want to dissent from popular opinion, since when I travel, I'm there in plenty of time and manage my hand-luggage in order to fly through security with no real hassle, enjoying a coffee break and a newspaper and letting whatever delays may happen happen before takeoff. Better organisation means you make the whole experience pretty relaxing. Although God help you if you're flying with kids

  • rate this

    Comment number 727.

    Never had a problem. Arriving in New York City three months after 9/11 took 30 minutes AND a plane had just crashed in Queens. I think the issue seems to be UK airports (big surprise there - not!).

  • rate this

    Comment number 726.

    Well, I have to say, Eurostar seems like nirvana compared to this horrendous stress.

  • rate this

    Comment number 725.

    But Yates argues that instead of "virtually stripping people naked" by taking off their coats, belts and shoes in the security hall,

    That's hardly "stripping people naked"...

  • rate this

    Comment number 724.

    Airports are airports, they are not made to be comfortable or easy for the passenger. Heathrow is dire for waiting and slow passenger control. Gatwick is better. Sydney and San Francisco have to be my favourites. Sydney arrivals and through customs in 5 minutes flat, straight out into arrivals lounge where coffee waited. SF, connecting flight wait, but heck of a view! Heathrow is old and it shows.

  • rate this

    Comment number 723.

    There are a lot of "This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules." posted here. It dosent take a genius to work out what they said.


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