The mile-long queues at airports shame Britain's travel industry

JANET STREET-PORTER: The mile-long queues at airports shame Britain’s travel industry and expose – once again – how weary passengers are being taken for fools

Airports would function so much better if they did not have to deal with that annoying thing called PASSENGERS.

So would trains for that matter.

The scenes of the kilometre long queues at Birmingham airport this week shame the travel industry. The 5.45am queue outside Manchester airport. The chaos at Leeds which caused a woman to miss not one, but two flights as she patiently queued.

Thousands of flights have been cancelled over the past month. Airports are understaffed. Intercity trains are still being cancelled without any warning.

Who is to blame?

Travel has stopped being a joyful pleasure and become an experience designed to test our patience and physical strength to the limit. And we’re paying plenty to be treated shabbily.

Those shuffling careworn folk at dawn outside British airports are valued customers being treated appallingly – mugs who have paid millions of pounds for a service (a holiday flight) which will probably be a thoroughly unpleasant experience.

For almost two years during the pandemic- as passengers plummeted to 1950’s levels – transport bosses whined and whinged about going out of business, begging for government bailouts.

BIRMINGHAM: Huge queues formed outside Birmingham airport as early as 5:45 on Tuesday

MANCHESTER: Queues also formed at Manchester airport on Monday (pictured)

STANSTEAD: Travellers flying from London’s Stanstead airport took to Twitter to express their dissatisfaction on Tuesday

Then, when we were allowed to travel again, confusing and complicated restrictions imposed by the government (and to be fair, by popular destinations like Spain and Italy) didn’t exactly bring passengers back in a hurry.

The travel industry finally had their prayers answered last February when Boris decided to throw caution to the winds and declare there was no need to isolate any more and pre-flight testing for most countries came to an end in time for the Easter holidays.

Starved of foreign travel, Brits booked millions of flights, desperate to get away from the horrible in-fighting in Whitehall, Partygate, Beergate, soaring energy and food prices and a plethora of lies and waffle from our elected leaders.

A few days of mindlessly loafing on a lounger was what we needed. 

And then…

Airport bosses seemed astonished that hundreds of thousands of passengers would be using their facilities. Yes, people who would need to check in, and pass through security.

Flights would have to be operated by pilots and staffed by crew members.

Baggage would need to be loaded and unloaded in acceptable time frames.

Easter is always busy, so it wasn’t unexpected that airports all over the UK would be throbbing with activity for the first time in two years.

Sadly, they did not rise to the challenge.

During Covid, airlines laid off thousands of highly trained, expert staff who had passed security vetting procedures and safety protocols- from pilots to cabin crew.

Airports got rid of baggage handlers, and huge numbers of operating staff who had been vetted and passed all the necessary safeguards.

Now there was a desperate scramble to recruit them back.

Many core workers didn’t want to know because they’d found other employment or didn’t fancy getting up at 3am for a measly salary under £11 an hour.

The result?

The current chaos. Queues that shame our travel industry. Passengers treated worse than cattle.

At Easter, British Airways and Ryanair cancelled over 1,000 flights, claiming staff shortages along with covid.

On the day before I flew to Australia, Heathrow was in chaos as hundreds of flights were cancelled without notice and families were pouring into every hotel in the area.

There were similar scenes at Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds, 30-hour delays for take-offs, 2 hour waits at passport control.

Now, over five weeks later, passengers are still being forced to queue for up to two hours on popular travel days. Being told to get to the airport at least three hours before their flight departs. In some cases, 5 hours is recommended.

BRISTOL: Holidaymakers and commuters flying from Bristol airport experience lengthy queues early Tuesday morning

Queues are shown snaking through Birmingham airport on Tuesday morning

Passengers queue in Manchester airport’s departures hall on Monday

How can a family with small children manage? Are they truly expected to patiently shuffle forwards in a queue for two hours to board a flight which they have paid for- knowing they will not get a refund if they don’t manage to get through security in time?

I was so worried about missing my fight to Melbourne, I booked a room at the airport the night before, adding another unnecessary cost to my trip.

Airport bosses have reacted in a variety of ways. The boss of Manchester airport- Karen Smart, resigned. It emerged she was paid £2.5 million in 2021, a £500,000 rise on 2020 – at a time when the airport wasn’t operating anywhere near capacity.

Now, interim Managing Director Ian Costigan says he is ‘focused on bringing in extra resources we need to continue operating our full fight schedule’. 

Unions say that drivers are only being offered £13,000 a year and security ‘ambassadors’ (whatever that means) are being recruited at £10,53 an hour, which doesn’t sound very enticing for one of the most challenging jobs going, with 3am starts and night shifts.

The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates there will be over 200,000 unfilled jobs in the industry in 2022. So, the problem is not going to disappear overnight.

Passengers queue at the departures terminal to get through security at Manchester Airport

Manchester airport’s departure hall is shown on April 30, with queues of passengers filling the large room

The travel industry bosses have sleepwalked out of covid and into a catastrophe. Nick Barton, the boss of Birmingham airport, reckons the crisis will last several weeks, blaming the length of time (12 weeks) it takes to recruit and train staff. He whimpered ‘it’s still the legacy of the industry being turned back on by the government removal of the rules in mid-February’. 

I think he’s trying to complain that the travel industry got what they were begging for- the ending of restrictions and freedom to leave the UK by plane for a holiday!

He seemed aggrieved that 14,000 people had booked to fly out of his airport on one day at dawn. A day when some passengers were told to get there FIVE HOURS before take-off.

People book the flights that are on offer. Passengers don’t write the timetables. Most budget airlines offer the best deals early in the morning and late at night, with few other flights at more palatable times.

At Manchester airport, 550 staff have started since January, with another 500 going through vetting and security training. That’s hardly going to solve matters in time for the summer holidays.

Travellers are told not to check in luggage. Not to arrive too early. Carry water so we don’t collapse in the queue. But not drink too much so we need to go to the loo and lose our place.

Is the root of all these woes the new WFH culture? Getting a passport will now take up to ten weeks as civil servants struggle to meet a huge surge in demand following two years when we couldn’t go anywhere, and no one bothered to renew their old passport.

Has travel ever seemed more grim? And why do we put up with being treated so badly? Anyone might think the airlines are doing us a favour by taking our money and giving us very little in return.

We regularly complain about poor service in shops and restaurants, but when it comes to air travel, we’re long-suffering mugs.     

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