Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Latest "London" Luton chaos

The Flying Imam has been busy, well, flying, and had little time for writing. Most of these flights, unfortunately, were not as pilot in command but as passenger in commercial airliners, never particularly glamorous or exciting. My most recent experience at Luton, or "London" Luton, as it likes to call itself, presently undergoing major refurbishment, compels me to break the silence. If "London's third airport" were an indication of what the capital of the UK was like, then it wouldn't even get a mention amongst the top ten capitals of developing countries: as things stand, the experience is infinitely worse than catching a coach at one of the seedy bus stations of old.

Luckily my flight was well before office hours, for normally the roads to that airport are choked so badly that you are at a constant risk of missing your flight. The drop-off point for the airport, called "Priority drop-off" by Luton airport and described as "closest to departures" and "right outside the terminal building" and "super quick", is actually a five to ten minute walk in the (not so) fresh air before you reach the security check for departures, but the price has gone up to a minimum of £2.50 for a maximum of 10 minutes, not exactly "good value" as claimed by the airport. I have flown to many capital cities of Europe where the main airport, not some remote budget airline alternative at a distance of some 50 miles or 2 hours in traffic (UK roads are best characterised by the predominance of brake lights ahead of you), grants drivers up to 10 minutes for free for dropping off passengers right outside the airport doors. So looking at Luton's "good value", rip-off-Britain easily comes to mind.

Going through security offered me a new experience on this occasion. Customarily you have to throw away any drinking water due to its highly explosive nature, empty your bag of laptops and other electronic devices, take off your outer clothing and often your shoes, put them all into various separate trays, an acrobatic juggling act to be accomplished in the air whilst slowly moving along in a lengthy queue of passengers not being provided with even an inch of desktop space to rest their items on before it's their turn, and then try to collect them all again at the other end of the x-ray machines. I have seen many a confused and stressed passenger leaving valuable items behind, from mobile phones to identity cards.

This time, however, there was the body scanner Luton has been blessed with as part of their "upgrade". This is not the backscanner x-ray type which produces a naked silhouette of the passenger but the radio-wave millimetre (revolving door) scanner, which depicts potentially problematic items (such as metal plates implanted in bones) on a stylised stick figure. The scanning process is not particularly fast and therefore contributes to lengthy queues ahead of the scanner - a potential security risk in itself due to the ensuing frustration and confusion -, and it is at the discretion of security staff who is directed through it. For whatever reasons, they issued such an invitation to me, which I declined.

We have been taught and conditioned not to question the wisdom of officials and believe that whatever they ask us to do is either in our own interest or in the interest of safety, however ill-defined. There have been many occasions where I have inadvertently boarded a flight with a pocket knife in my jacket pocket whilst at other times being quizzed about a harmless item in my hand luggage, such as a usb hard drive. So I could quite happily walk through the body scanner and then pick up my jacket complete with pocket knife afterwards. Or, at many airports, I could steal a real metal knife from one of the restaurants or airport lounges. The whole process is more about control and intimidation and pretense. It certainly is neither efficient nor would deter any real die-hard terrorist who, most likely, would have a helping hand from within the system.

In the past, security staff would, at their discretion, do a pad-down search for some passengers, especially if the metal detector frames you walk through were set too sensitively. These vary from airport to airport, some will not even pick up the keys in your pocket, whereas others are set off by the zip closure in your trousers. Now, if you refuse the scanner experience, you are told that you will have to be taken away for a "private search", essentially the very same pad-down procedure, but in an adjacent separate room to which you are escorted so you look like a proper delinquent to other passengers. When staff shout loudly that you will have to undergo a private search, this is probably intended to raise fears in you of being strip-searched to further deter any non-compliance. The other novelty of the arrangement is that you have to counter-sign a sheet on which your name and flight number have been recorded, for monitoring purposes.

The worrying aspect about the modified procedure is, in addition to being a lot more time-consuming, that whilst you are whizzed away and kept confined to be "searched", your belongings remain scattered about in a multitude of trays with no control over what ends up where and with whom. I pointed that concern out to security staff who "reassured" me that theft was rare and in any event would be recorded on camera! Having re-gathered all my things on this occasion I proceeded to the boarding gate.

Luton is home of "EasyJet", a budget airline which has tried hard, and to some extent managed, to present itself as a serious airline rather than a cut-throat rogue, and it was EasyJet I was flying with. I no longer fly Ryanair on principle as, besides the constant hard sell during the flight, it appears to pride itself in being an airline which would probably prefer to run its operations without passengers if at all possible, and the petty-mindedness of some of their underpaid staff I have experienced in the past is hard to describe. Anyway, EasyJet it was.

I have been a passenger of quite a few of their flights over the months and must, regrettably, state that their attempt to compete with the flag carriers has been seriously knocked back, especially by their ground staff and procedures. Maybe they have actively been recruiting former Ryanair staff. This is also not helped by the fact that they have outsourced their once excellent customer service to India and South Africa and you can now encounter operatives who noticeably struggle to comprehend much of what you are calling them about.

So unless you end up being one of the first people in the queue, a boarding agent will approach you and tell you that your hand luggage has to go in the hold because there is not enough place for it in the cabin of the aircraft, to which the logic answer would be that if there isn't enough space to board passengers and their hand luggage, then the plane is not fit to carry that amount of passengers. The reality is that the airline wants to promote the sale of their priority boarding (or rather "priority waiting") tickets and "Easyjet plus" card membership. "Plus" card holders are allowed two items of hand luggage on board and this, naturally, goes at the expense of ordinary passengers who are increasingly asked to put their hand luggage in the hold. My own economic sense in this regard tells me that if faced with the option to either pay a surcharge for a budget airline flight or upgrade to a flag carrier, I would do the latter.

So, two flights out of one, a not so gentle man or not so lady-like boarding agent comes along - mine was called Sarah - and grunts at you that your bag has to go in the hold, sticks a pre-printed laminated card in your face which tells you not to leave any valuables in it, and attaches a barcode label so that you can then leave the bag at the steps of the aircraft and board without. Now the crux is the advice not to put your bag in the hold whilst it contains any valuables, obviously for insurance reasons, because you are now left to contemplate how you are going to carry keys, cash, mobile phones, ipads and various other meaningful items without having been provided with even a plastic bag to put them in. To be fair, the job description of EasyJet boarding staff probably only tells them how to present you with a problem, not  how to offer a solution.
EasyJet: "Absolutely no space left in luggage lockers"

Having already performed the juggling act at security, I was ill-inclined to repeat it and board the aircraft with various gadgets balanced on my head or strapped to my limbs. After all, the whole idea of a luggage case is to neatly hold your valuables  - unless, of course you are in the habit of only wheeling worthless stuff about! So it occurred to me that the most valuable item my luggage now contained was the freshly attached barcode label, for without it I would not be reunited with my belongings after landing, and I decided to discretly remove it on the way to the aircraft. Once that had been accomplished, however, there was little point removing anything else and I proceeded to take my bag on board with me where I found that in spite of staff assurances that there was absolutely no room left, the overhead lockers near me stared at me with unfilled spaces even after I had stowed my trolley bag away.

We have become accustomed to low cost air travel - often made possible by public subsidies to the airlines through local-authority-controlled or regional airports who make most of their money not from flights but from parking - and assume that bad service is part of the package. It is time that more passengers complained about the raw deal they are getting and remind both airports and airlines of the still valid principle that "the customer is king", for if the current trends of blatant disregard for their needs continue, given that the time spend going to and through the airport already by far exceeds the time spent in the air, there comes a point when walking to your destination might prove quicker and less stressful, and that would present airline staff with the unenviable prospect of having to sit in their aircraft on the ground waiting for passengers who no longer want to be harassed every step of the way.

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At 17 February 2016 at 20:59, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Cabin bag issues are not unique to Airlines such as easyJet. Lufthansa, the German "Flag Carrier" are starting a process of putting 180 seats in their Airbus A320 Aircraft. 180 is exactly the same number of seats that easyJet have on the Aircraft they use to TLV.

British Airways have recently refitted slim seats on their Airbus Aircraft to have a more high density layout.

Swiss now also have 180 seats on some of their Airbus A320 Aircraft.

The result is that the bag issues exist on both traditional carriers and the so called 'low cost' carriers.

On a recent flight I took from LHR with BA there were around 25 people queuing in the aisle waiting to offload their bag. The Crew had to follow a lengthy tagging and reconciliation process for each bag. This resulted in a delay of around 30 minutes. If the bags were offloaded at the gate, as they did on your easyJet flight, that would have solved the problem and avoided the delay.

In my experience, the low cost carriers are generally more strict with the baggage at the gate. This means that they avoid the situation of too many bags being in the Cabin by being much more proactive and forceful at the gate. This strict approach at the gate results in the flights not taking heavy delays as the bags have been offloaded and reconciled before reaching the Aircraft Cabin.

Whilst its utterly frustrating to get on the Aircraft and find out there is space, I'd rather the bag situation was managed at gate to avoid creating a delay with so many people in the Cabin without room for their bags.
It's never going to be an exact science when offloading bags at the gate as no two flights are the same so I suspect quite often more bags are offloaded at the gate than are really needed. But this approach will help Airlines maintain their schedules.


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