OPINION: Have I just been through the worst airport in the UK?
PUBLISHED: 17:15 31 October 2019 | UPDATED: 17:15 31 October 2019
Nick Conrad says we need to do better at how we welcome passengers to the UK. Especially after his experience at Luton airport
If you believe first impressions count, then maybe we need to look again at how we welcome people into the UK? Recently on trips through UK airports I've been left rather underwhelmed by how we greet guests and home-comers.
Most of us understandably don't enjoy returning home from an excellent holiday. The pain of ending my break last week was somewhat exacerbated by the lukewarm welcome afforded to those travelling through Luton Airport.
It really is about time we look at ways to 'warm up' the experience. Travellers' moods weren't heightened by returning from the delightful Mediterranean heat to the overcast skies of Bedfordshire. I can live with freezing upon disembarkation - after all the cool air was refreshing after a sweaty fortnight. It's what happened next which irked me.
Cramped into a long corridor we joined a seemingly endless queue of travellers who had just arrived. Wearily juggling three children and cabin baggage we gently enquired as to whether the airport operated an 'assistance scheme' for family groups. The harassed single member of staff who was facing the ire of irritated travellers shrugged and moved on to the next complainant. Anyone travelling with children over 12 could enjoy the new(ish) ID scanner service, sadly with toddlers that was not an option.
The slow walk to the UK Border Force passport hall felt like a funeral procession. With pushchairs placed in the aircraft hold, parents were left juggling bags and infants in the slow moving crowd. In several airports I've travelled through, temporary pushchairs and wheelchairs rest weary legs or sleeping heads. These returnable aids are a godsend for harassed parents and the disabled.
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We turned the final corner and a sense of euphoria swept across us. We could see the large sign saying 'Passports.' As a frequent traveller I knew this sense of joy would be short lived. On entering the main hall, the shambles continued as the long procession turned into a throng. Some of those who were 'frustrated' had escalated quickly through the emotional gears to an irate state. 'The worst airport in the UK' and 'utter incompetence' exclaimed heated customers. Those around me tutted in disbelief - the airport knows exactly the number and ages of those coming through arrivals so why the long queues?
Last week was half-term, partly explaining the crowds. But the fact that only half the passport desks were manned was baffling. I must credit the warm, friendly and apologetic Border Force staff who in no way should be criticised.
A few minutes later, whilst standing at baggage reclaim, the irritation quickly dissipated. I confess the experience wasn't wholly unacceptable, but airports need to do more to understand this experience from the traveller's perspective. This kind of environment gives rise to tension and the priority must be protecting staff facing abuse from passengers. It is imperative that border personnel have the time they need to carry out checks on who is coming into our country without the pressures I witnessed on Saturday.
Was this a one off? The journey out wasn't much better. Long queues at security snaked around crowd control tape. The staff managed to lose my shoes and belt in the melee.
"Juggling children whilst attempting to not drop your trousers is quite an art! Relaxing it was not. We travel frequently from London for work and pleasure and each time I'm reminded of my preference for regional airports - like Norwich!
Frankly what I witnessed on Saturday at one of the UK's biggest airports was somewhat embarrassing.
A warm welcome into Britain is even more vital post Brexit demonstrating we are open for business. It's not impossible to marry up the duty of protecting our borders with the good PR from a warm welcome.