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 462.

    Dealing with hot, overcrowded, inefficient, pricey airports filled with surly jobsworths is hellish at the best of times; add small children and it's ten times worse. Doing so if disabled is quite often an affront to basic human dignity, but nothing beats 'flying whilst fat', and the filthy looks, muttered remarks and constant threat of being shamed or forced to buy two tickets that it entails.

  • rate this

    Comment number 461.

    What exactly do they do with all the airport taxes we pay ? Security charges etc etc ? I don't see any reinvestment in services for customers, like immigration officers, nor any new green airport initiatives (except hand dryers that blow your hands off). Looks like another moneyspinner for HMG under the greenwash initiative.

  • rate this

    Comment number 460.

    I can't understand the failure to get a simple logic. Regardless of unexpected plane arrivals, they will know a plane has landed 'as' it lands. That should be 'more' than enough time to wake up the 10 or so poeple to then walk promptly to the border gate. Or don't they have a 'fireman-like' staffing policy? Beggars belief that the passengers can get there first!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 459.

    Used to do many trips but we now want to avoid the airport(LGW).
    Going out is not bad, security has been only about 10mins max and online check in is great .It is coming back that is the worst. Often have to wait up to an hour for baggage and as for immigration, that has got much worse. Iris only took 5 mins, now we can expect 40mins and the biometric gates are so unreliable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 458.

    Has the airport experience become horrible?

    Yes, it has been so for a very long time and it need not be.

    Security is intrusive but I'd rather arrive than not at all.

    Queuing remains a huge issue although last time I few BA it was non-existent at the baggage drop (well done).

    However, some passengers are becoming quite aggressive.

    As for the low-cost airlines - sorry too many add-on charges!

  • rate this

    Comment number 457.

    How right you are smellyferret! It would be easier if proper training was given to security staff, consistancy is good. Some airports make you remove your footware others don't. Some will tell you your clear plastic bag for liquids is too big (then sell you one for £2!!). Of course there is a need for security, but be realistic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 456.

    Only UK Airports, which cannot deal with the numbers of people trying to get in, and who should have a seperate UK from EU queue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 455.

    Horrible, so many. Most european a/pts are OK so long as there's no crisis either end. But try 18 hrs of beggars & flies in Delhi waiting for a plane that never was, despite BA staff telling us it existed. Try Piarco, Trinidad, for 9 hrs because BA ran out of planes, gave us a £7 'dinner' voucher redeemable only at KFC or a KFC clone. JFK - a hell of hostile staff and hrs of Qs in a grubby shed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 454.

    As a journalist travelling frequently I think the nightmare is that security requirements vary dramatically from airport to airport. With multiple destinations I can have items in carry-on bags that are acceptable at airports 1, 2, and 3 but rejected in transit at the fourth.....
    Airlines and airports also have conflicting regulations... what a nightmare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 453.

    Travelling to America last month I had to queue for about an hour at Houston passport control,only 6 booths were open,it's not a issue peculiar to this country.It's not necessarily the queueing that I object to,but the inhuman way that some of the airport employees treat passengers.In a very long queue to get hand luggage checked we were screamed at unnecessarily by a power crazed jobs-worth!

  • rate this

    Comment number 452.

    One day in the near future, One will arrive at the airport where One will be taken to a small room. A probe will be inserted in One's body, all fluids drained and One will be put in a box of ice ready for transport and consequent defrost at the other end. Point is that the 'evils Ones' have got us by the short and curlies as we are all looking over our shoulders in fear. So, yes, they have won!

  • rate this

    Comment number 451.

    Maybe I was lucky yesterday. Less than 30 minutes after first touching down at Heathrow T4 we were waiting for the bus outside to take us home

  • rate this

    Comment number 450.

    For those of us who don't like queues, crowds, artifical lighting, huge noisy buildings with complex layouts and so on, airports always have been and will be a horrible experience. My worst was 11 hours at Frankfurt airport, but I'd guess 11 hours in any building without some private space is a nigtmare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 449.

    395.JoshBeaty "Saw an advert for US tourism this week... Sort out your customs officers first!"
    I've spent the last 7yrs travelling between UK and Boston where I've never been treated with anything but courtesy & professionalism by US immigration staff. Wish I could say the same for ours who routinely speak to my US wife like dirt and once revelled in reducing her to tears after a 10-hr flight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 448.

    Have you packed your bags yourself ? Could anyone have put anything in it ? (How the H**l do I know ? and would happen if I said yes ? Of course someone COULD have ! ) It makes no difference ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law. Why do they ask such stupid questions ? + Anyone know of a flight downed by using a mobile phone ? Al Quaida could save so much trouble by just phoning home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 447.

    The most confusing thing I came across was at Orlando, Florida. I had been quite ill on the flight and had been given a bottle of water to carry off the plane. When I got into the terminal, it was taken off me as I was told I couldnt take liquids on OR OFF planes - even though this was my final destination!

  • rate this

    Comment number 446.

    We first ask the government and Home Secretary why number of immigration officers has been reduced. Since the time David Blunkett was Home secretary, successive Home secretaries increased visa fees, other immigration fees on foreigners. BBC should check how those charges have been increased and how much differences they are. Where all the monies from immigraion services earned has been gone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 445.

    I have travelled in/out of Changi very many times and totall agree with Neil about its super-efficient and smooth operation. Also I have never had to wait more than 10 mins for my bags.

  • rate this

    Comment number 444.

    What actually does happen to the stuff confiscated at airports? I had to hurredly offload baggage to hand luggage & in the rush forgot about the 100ml rule. My brand new very expensive moisturiser was confiscated by an aplogetic woman at security. I offered to give it to her, since i couldn't take it, but she said she wasn't permitted to take it and looked warily around at CCTV cameras.What gives?

  • rate this

    Comment number 443.

    Airports are not that bad...you just need to be prepared. Ensure that you check in online if possible and proceed to baggage drop. As for security, this is generally no more than 15 minutes at most. If you dont want to be ripped off buying water for the flight, take an empty bottle through and refill. Best of all, purchase access to executive lounges (not expensive) you can relax and eat there.


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