Thursday, 28 May 2009

If Carlsberg Made Airports

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the UK's regional airports used to market themselves as being havens of calm efficiency; worlds away from the frenetic hustle of the major hubs, and the intelligent start-point for all your air travel needs. Indeed, if a certain brewer had designed the perfect terminal, it would probably have come up with Newcastle Airport in roughly its 1994 incarnation.



The new Metro light rail link had recently opened, the councourses had been extended and British Airways would gladly launch you in the direction of Heathrow and more than half a dozen other destinations. The Princess Royal cut a ribbon and passenger numbers rocketed.

Roll forward 15 years and the Metro goes from strength to strength, not least because it's easy to spend more on parking at the airport than flying from it. Not that a cab or even a familial lift are convenient alternatives either, as vehicular traffic has been pushed further and further from the terminal building in light of real or perceived security concerns.

Inside, directly-employed check-in staff have given way to multi-tasking, third-party contractors who know less about the airlines' policies that the passengers do, and who rarely lift their eyes above their desks lest they be forced to make eye-contact with their already-weary customers.

No wonder so many of them have been replaced by serried-ranks of boarding pass-spitting daleks, whose only purpose is to validate, validate.

A lucky few, travelling with hand baggage only and clutching a home-printed boarding pass, might be able to by-pass the automatons of the ground floor, human or robot, and proceed straight to security above.

If they happen to posess a shiny card for one or two of the airport's visiting airlines, or if they've paid a supplement (that's probably cost more than the road tax on the car for the days that it will languish far from the highway) on top of the standard car park tariff, then they may even be able to take the outside lane of 'Fast Track' towards the scanners and arches ahead.

It won't much matter if they do, though, still less if said passenger happens to have dropped thousands of pounds instead for a First or Business Class ticket which begins with a domestic or short haul flight from Newcastle. No, the shiny card holder will find themselves embarrassingly obliged to push in at the front of the snaking queue which the luck-free, cardless First Class co-flyer will have languished in the line with the Malia and Magalluf mobs.

At least the Fast Tracker will have been spared staring at two of the most bizarre pieces of airport public information yet seen, however.

The first, a departures board above the tensa-barrier tedium which flashes insistently with the ever-diminishing amount of, wait for it, shopping time the hapless queuers have left before their flight (hopefully) pushes back. So there they all stand, desperate to evacuate their wallets, gagging to get through the liquids check, panicked by the disappearing minutes of retail opportunity - and then someone, somewhere, part of the management structure that installs the screen and builds the shops, decides that it would be a grand plan to save a couple of quid and only have one scanner and one arch open for the Friday evening of a Bank Holiday weekend.

Never mind, the frustrated flyers can forget about the security shambles and dream of their final destination; perhaps one of those referred to on the second wholly ludicrous sign in the area, which helpfully and insistently takes up almost the whole of one wall.

The creator of this cretinous sign is none-other than the airport's most high-profile recent airline operator, Emirates. Their daily service to Dubai was launched with a fanfare of publicity in 2007 and the carrier's colours even grace the airport's new control tower. So now, in backlit super-sized technicolour, they invite the immobile throngs before them to fly from Newcastle with them to 'over 100 destinations worldwide.'

Now, call me an old cynic, but according to their network map, and apart from Newcastle, Emirates fly from Dubai to Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, Heathrow and Gatwick in the UK. None of these five destinations strike me as ones that I would immediately think of approaching from the North East by way of the Middle East. Indeed, it would seem something of a detour to reach any of Emirates' 15 other European destinations by way of the Persian Gulf. Come to think of it, Moscow would be a bit of a dog's leg too. Would it not also be fair to say that the airline's six North and South American destinations could probably be reached a touch more directly than with a UAE connection? As could the nine North African airports that they serve.

In fact, of the actual 101 airports that Emirates' website shows service to, one is Newcastle itself and therefore hardly a destination. It's therefore actually exactly 100, not over 100 destinations from Newcastle. Of those, more than a third would only be aimed at from Tyneside, via Dubai, by the most perverse of aeroholics.

Meanwhile, timid little BA utterly fails to ensure that its premium passengers can avoid this laughable advert, nor point out to anyone there-present that they currently serve over 150 destinations from London, all of which bar Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester might reasonably, sensibly and logically be connected to from one of their Heathrow-bound Airbii.

Logic, marketing and aviation operations are not, it constantly appears, closely acquainted.

Ah well, once through the anguish that is belts, jackets and shoes off, laptops and liquids out, and the frantic scrabble to recollect everything and re-robe concluded, it's something of a worry then to often find that the highly-trained crews charged with piloting their multi-million pound birds through featureless skies, and then planting them safely on narrow strips of unsigned asphalt, are now wandering aimlessly around the departure lounge in a vain and fruitless attempt to locate their departure gates.

For again, in a stunning display of amoeba-challenging intelligence, the airport has seen fit to build a duty free shop right slap-bang across the main thoroughfare to those inconvenient appendages to 21st century airports: the aircraft. Not content with constructing this emporium in such a way that it snares the unwary traveller, the architects have excelled themselves in making it such a barrier that it looks as though there is nothing whatsoever on the other side - certainly not the other half of the airport or the route by which to board an aeroplane.

Thus it's of no great surprise that the luckless crews find themselves circling the area before this retail disaster, nor that the airport's PA system constantly crackles with insistent cries for poor passengers to proceed immediately to the gates they can't find, to board the aircraft that they'd long since forgotten was the reason for mortgaging their house to park their car, in a space that turned out to be a four-day camel ride from the terminal building, all those long hours ago before they faced the Daleks and were forced to consider travelling to Manchester via Jumeirah.

And they say that the romance of air travel has been lost...

2 comments:

Kyle said...

I followed your link from the BAEC forum on FlyerTalk.

I used to like NCL - the public could walk to the roof and watch the planes take off or watch from large windows inside should the Lakes District have not caught all the rain from the Atlantic.

One can only do that now from ground level from a grotty dining area looking through a corridor and its window to BA's gate.

The layout on the upper floor after security is diabolical and reminds me of LTN too much and entirely agree with the ridiculous shopping arrangement - I'm not sure which is better, that or having a store employee grab people off the street and force them to shop.

Nice blog, you certainly have a way with words :)

Stez

Continentalclub said...

Thanks for the comments, Stez - much appreciated.

I've some sad news to impart however. That last real viewpoint of the apron from ground level that you mention has also recently been banished; obliterated by stud walls fencing in a flybe lounge.

The best you can hope for now is a spot about a third of the way down the ramp to the Metro station, where you can glimpse the tail of a BA Airbus just peeking out from the side of the administration block.

It's no springboard for developing a passion for adventure, excitement and new experiences amongst today's children...

No way to inspire future generations, as we were with the sight, from rooftop viewing terraces, of all those folks disappearing inside the Comets, Viscounts and 727s of not so long ago; watching them take to the skies and dwindle to tiny dots en route to places that we could barely imagine.

What a loss.

In better news though, at least the route network from NCL has rarely been more comprehensive.