Superfast or superslow? A tale of three airports

Departing soon? Passengers at Stockholm Arlanda airport – and yes, that long line of people is the queue for security  (Simon Calder)
Departing soon? Passengers at Stockholm Arlanda airport – and yes, that long line of people is the queue for security (Simon Calder)

My working week began, unusually, at the exit gates from the Heathrow Express at London Paddington station. The reason: the current UK Border Force strike at Heathrow airport had begun. The airport authorities had politely declined my request to report from the scene on how the walkout by passport control staff was affecting inbound passengers. The next best thing: asking those travellers who had taken the fast route to central London about their border experience.

Try as I might, I could not find anyone who had encountered any significant queue.

“Super fast”, reported a gentleman who had just arrived from Dallas before he hurtled off for his meeting. Angie, a Delta passenger from Boston, told me: “It was kind of ridiculously easy – no people in front of me. I put my passport down [for the eGate], it beeped and I was through.”

Some passengers, particularly those from the many countries ineligible to use the eGates, may have faced longer waits. But at that very moment, travellers from Stansted and Birmingham airports were missing flights because of long queues.

Alice and her husband had arrived at Stansted at 6.30am for an 8.55am departure to Alicante. They had even booked fast-track security. But a power failure slowed security and they missed their flight by minutes. A Stansted spokesperson said: “We apologise to passengers for the inconvenience and disruption to their journeys.”

In these unwelcome circumstances, airlines will typically rebook passengers who miss flights through no fault of their own free of charge – but with planes typically sold above 90 per cent capacity, finding empty seats becomes a problem.

When passenger flows slow to a trickle, airlines face a thankless choice. Do they dispatch flights on time, knowing that dozens of passengers will be left behind – or wait for the breathless travellers to join them, but jeopardise flights later in the day?

At Birmingham airport, Tom reported: “We’re now on a plane 10 minutes past departure time, waiting for 80 more passengers stuck in queues.” The flight departed almost an hour late, but for those latecomers it was a relief.

A spokesperson for the West Midlands airport told me: “We encountered a technical issue with our security lanes, which compounded the peak departure schedule and hindered our operation. We sincerely apologise to our customers for the level of service that they received – this is not what we aim to deliver.”

Oddly, my security experience last time I flew out of Birmingham was a wonder. I live in London, but typically use the West Midlands airport when fares or timings are particularly appealing (I shall fly later this month from Birmingham to Beauvais in northern France).

Rail connections are normally good, but that October morning something went awry and I arrived much later than expected at Birmingham International station. With less than 30 minutes before departure, I had to ask the whole queue for forgiveness as I weaved my way to the front. I made it with a minute to spare, and the Ryanair pilot sped us to Corfu half an hour ahead of schedule.

Asking politely would probably not have done Alice any good: when things get really gummed up, it is every passenger for themself.

Queue-jumping is far from ideal: anyone who reaches the front without doing their time delays everyone who turned up punctually and its waiting behind. But sometimes you have little choice. At Stockholm’s Arlanda airport last summer, on a fairly ordinary Friday afternoon, the queue for security snaked halfway down the long check-in area. The rail link from the centre of the Swedish capital was broken, so I had to travel by road – arriving an hour before a domestic flight. Only by chivvying officials was I let through the “tensa barrier” to circumvent the snake, and made the plane.

Yet passengers can help each other. Too much hand luggage passing through the scanners is non-compliant with the current rules on “liquids, aerosols and gels” (LAGs) or contains “personal electronic devices” (PEDs) that are bigger than a smartphone. (Aviation loves a three-letter acronym.)

I was shocked to learn from Birmingham that 15 per cent of hand luggage has to be “pulled” from the conveyor belt, and inspected by hand, slowing everything down. On a typical 180-seat departure, according to that figure, 27 bags will need to be inspected – demanding the attention of officers who would much rather be speeding you to your departure gate and destination.

The much-despised liquids regulations have been in force for 18 years. While some airports have installed new scanners that allow much larger LAGs through, and permit PEDs to remain in bags, most do not – and will not be fully kitted out for another year. Travellers: pay attention, and everyone will benefit.