It won’t be long before I take to the air again, to Entebbe, Uganda with a stop in Brussels to pick up some Leonidas chocolates for my mum. (That’s what I’ve told her, anyway. In reality the Brussels Airlines flight was cheap and BA unhelpfully canned direct flights in 2015.) I took my first flight in 1970 aged just nine months, though I remember little about it. I’m told my smiling baby face calmed a few nerves. Some flights in the intervening period have been more memorable.
My first long haul flight was in 1992, to the Venezuelan island of Margarita. I don’t remember much about it, if I’m honest, but I think I’d have flown with the now defunct VIASA, the Venezuelan flag carrier, to Porlamar. There, I met an Italian and a few months later jumped on a plane to Turin to visit him. I’d flown short haul a few times as a child, but it was still enough of a novelty to be exciting, particularly when the pilot asked if there were any children on board who would like to visit the cockpit. At 23, I wasn’t going to let a small thing like age stand between me and a treat such as that, so I asked the cabin crew if I could go too. I was allowed, though I had to wait until all the children had been first. That turned out to be serendipitous – by the time I got my turn we were over the Alps.
It was New Year and the Italian’s mother sent me home with a Panettone. Sitting in Turin Airport, I left it as long as possible to say my goodbyes, not realising that there would be no intercom announcements. I was the last to board and did the walk of shame down the aisle towards my seat, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. As I reached my seat, another passenger asked if they might swap with me to be able to join a friend. I agreed, only to find myself on the back row. In those days, smoking was permitted for those seated in the last two rows and I suffered the consequences all the way back to London. It’s hard to imagine a return to a smoke-filled cabin but in those days the dangers of passive smoking were only just being documented.
I’ve never experienced turbulence severe enough to cause injury, and hopefully never will. The closest I’ve come is on a flight into Juliaca, Peru in 1995. The airport lies at about 3800 metres above sea level and serves the nearby tourist town of Puno and Lake Titicaca. I should have expected a bumpy landing – like Chicago, Juliaca is nicknamed the Windy City because of its location, on the blustery Collao Plateau. I was grateful for a seatbelt and even more grateful when the pilot made a successful landing. At least I didn’t vomit. I remember very little of the Nazca Lines which I flew over that same trip with my head in a sick bag. If you’re planning to make the same flight, I have only one piece of advice: don’t down a bottle of Inca Kola before you take off.
In 2005, I visited Luang Prabang in Laos and to reach Hanoi, my next destination, I needed to take a flight with Lao Aviation. The airline had a disastrous safety record. Since 1990 it had reported five serious crashes, most with fatalities. Planes had crashed into airport buildings, clipped trees in fog, come down in dense rainforest or onto mountainous hillsides in heavy rain and even crashed on the runway in strong winds. As we took off from Luang Prabang, the fuselage began to shake alarmingly and smoke started to seep into the cabin. I did wonder whether my luck had run out. But we landed safely in Vietnam and the only casualty was a bottle of rice wine that had smashed in the overhead compartment, leaving a pink sticky mess over all my belongings.
To date, I’ve only missed one flight, excepting those times when a connecting flight’s been late in. At the end of that same trip, I’d finished up in Thailand and arrived at Bangkok airport in what I thought was good time for that evening’s overnight flight back to the UK. Unfortunately my timing left a lot to be desired, and I’d actually arrived 21 hours late rather than 3 hours early. Luckily, a sympathetic check in agent got me on the next flight without charging me extra for my mistake.
Finding check in was more of a problem when I flew back from Ulan Ude in Siberia to Moscow in 2009. Arriving at the airport, I breezed inside to find I couldn’t see a single check in desk. All the signage was in Russian, using the Cyrillic alphabet, but even with a phrase book I couldn’t match the symbols to anything relevant. I’d managed to get all the way across Russia without incident, yet I couldn’t do something as simple as check in for a flight. My attempts at miming and making hand gestures were met with shrugs from bemused passengers and staff. In the end, I noticed someone go through an unmarked white door in an unmarked white wall. It turned out they’d hidden the check in desks. Behind the wall, as if in a parallel universe, check in procedures were happening as normal. To this day, I have no idea why, nor any clue as to what the purpose of the other hall was and why so many people were queuing in it with their bags.
Perhaps the most memorable flight of all was the best flight I’ve taken: the time I flew business class with BA to New York in 2016. The experience is already documented on this blog, so I won’t repeat the story. But much as I enjoyed that flight, I have to admit, it makes for a better tale when things go wrong, doesn’t it?
A few days ago Uttlesford District Council approved plans that would see Stansted grow its passenger numbers to 43 million a year. The news comes hot on the heels of a press release announcing that the airport had just experienced its busiest October ever. 2.5 million passengers used the airport, up almost 9% on the same month in 2017, bringing the annual total to over 27 million. It’s good news for the local economy, with an already buoyant job market fuelled by such growth. Stansted claims that 5000 new jobs would be created by the continued expansion of its facilities. An increase in flights, with some long haul routes now offered, increases choice and offers an alternative to driving over an hour further to Heathrow or Gatwick.
So why am I unhappy?
First, it’s not a case of NIMBY-ism. Though Stansted airport is my nearest, it’s still a forty minute drive away. By the time Stansted’s planes fly over my home, they’re at such an altitude that noise pollution isn’t an issue. I’m not affected by increased traffic, nor am I impacted by any kind of blight on house prices, though I’m sympathetic to those who are.
No, my concerns lie with the airport experience. I travel fairly frequently and time spent at the airport is a necessary evil if I am to do my job. My recent experience of Stansted hasn’t been a positive one, with issues cropping up every time. Parking is the first problem. I remember not so long ago being able to turn up to long term parking without having to pre-book. Clearly that’s not the case anymore, not just at Stansted but elsewhere too, just as you don’t generally have the option to drive up to drop off in front of a terminal free of charge either. But a fair number of my Stansted visits are day stays – and long term parking at Stansted has a minimum three day stay. Mid term is often full, leaving me with a fee of £30 or more to park at short stay. (Living in a small village I don’t have a public transport option.) I appreciate that with increased passengers, rationing spaces by cost is the logical solution. But allowing this day tripper to use the long term parking would reduce my parking cost by a third.
Inside the terminal, it’s common for the space to be excessively crowded. Once, this Norman Foster designed building was a pleasure to transit. Now, with the security gates shifted from the back of the terminal to the side, it has become a veritable obstacle course. The queues first thing in the morning usually reach the gates, and sometimes extend beyond them. Security staff seem less friendly than in other airports and occasionally rude. Management, to be fair, do listen but there does seem to be a need for training. My luggage “fails” at a disproportionately high rate compared to other airports. I have no idea why. It’s not like I pack differently for those journeys. On one occasion, a staff member moved my coat to cover my iPad, necessitating a manual check “because your items were stacked on top of each other”. On another, I was told that my wheelie case required an additional check because it had been placed “at the wrong side of the bin” – I wasn’t aware there was a wrong side of the bin and neither was the manager I spoke to afterwards.
Security eventually navigated, the queues funnel through the duty free and shopping area. The space is narrow and littered with passengers and bags. The main holding area is also rammed, partly because gates aren’t announced until late on. Stansted have tried to tackle this, not by clearing out the clutter, but by closing the airport overnight in an attempt to foil travellers who plan to sleep stretched out across several seats. A long term programme of investment to the time of £600m and significant expansion is underway. The sooner that has an impact the better. Right now I feel more stressed waiting for my Ryanair flight to be called than with the boarding process. Yes, you did read that right – Ryanair’s part has generally been the best part of the whole process. If that doesn’t jinx December’s flight, I don’t know what will.
So forgive me if I’m not dancing with delight at the news Stansted is going to get even busier. If by some miracle, Ken O’Toole, Stansted’s CEO, happens to read this, then please think carefully about how you plan for all these additional visitors. The good news is that your airport surely can’t get any worse.
That is the question that has provoked a storm of impassioned comments this week after the Telegraph announced that British Airways was introducing 35 new planes on its short haul routes with non-reclining seats. Here’s the original article:
The ensuing headlines screamed that BA was fast turning into a low-cost carrier, but that’s not what people have been arguing about. A survey by Skyscanner in 2013 claimed that 91% were in favour of banning reclining seats on short haul flights:
Reclining seats on long haul planes are a boon, particularly on overnighters. Economy class is cramped, and let’s face it, we’d all happily upgrade if funds permitted. But for many of us, the choice is to fly economy or not fly at all, so we fold up our legs and get on with it. It’s one of the few times when I wish I was young again. The ability of millennials to tuck themselves up and nod off to sleep for eight straight hours is something I now struggle to achieve in a full sized double, let alone a tiny aeroplane seat.
But that whole cramped arrangement gets a whole lot worse when someone in front reclines their seat into the space in front of my knees. I’m not especially tall, but I do have long legs, so a battering to the kneecaps is a real possibility. I pity 6 footers. I read this week that one man was left with bleeding knees after someone reclined without warning. It’s all very well saying that you have the right to use the space – after all, you’ve paid for that seat, recline and all – but if someone is going to get hurt in the process, surely there’s room for some give and take?
In the States, planes have even been forced to divert over legroom wars. This report from the Telegraph written in 2014 refers to the Knee Defender, a product that’s still on sale, as the trigger for an air rage incident that necessitated an unscheduled landing.
Surely it’s better to put up with a bit of discomfort than to have your travel plans severely disrupted – and even face charges? It’s a shared space; there has to be a bit of give and take. I don’t expect someone to turn round and ask my permission to recline, but but I do appreciate it when they do so slowly so I have chance to grab my drink and rearrange my legs first. Likewise, while it’s perfectly OK in my book to recline on a long haul flight, I don’t expect to be eating my meal with no space for a tray table and so always ask the flight attendant to have a word with the person in front if they haven’t yet reclined.
But on short haul flights, is it really even necessary to have the facility to recline? Perhaps I’ve been conditioned after years of flying with Ryanair, but I just don’t even think about it on a short flight. I’m hopping over to Amsterdam this month and there’ll barely be enough time to sit down, let alone recline. Even on the longest short haul flights of around four hours, it’s not really a hardship to sit up straight. If I’m stiff, I can walk around the cabin to stretch my legs. However, for those hubbing through Heathrow, they’ve already come off one flight and don’t need the discomfort of a cramped second leg.
So this news isn’t a deal breaker for my relationship with BA. And of course, no one’s forcing anyone to fly BA. You can choose not to do so and opt for a different carrier. That said, you probably won’t find yourself sat next to me on BA any time soon, not least on one of their short haul routes. It’s not the cull on free food or even the IT disasters that have left passengers stranded. No, it’s price. The budgets are still usually cheaper, even more so for me when I factor in the additional cost of getting to Heathrow over Stansted.
But for those banging on about reclining seats, well, I think it’s the shape of things to come. Airlines have been forced to change to stay in business. The rise and continued popularity of the low cost carriers prove that people are happy to unpackage their fares and pay only for what they need. I think BA’s making a smart decision to ditch the reclining seats and make room for additional paying passengers. But will you be one of them?
Today’s news has been full of horror stories of British travellers caught up in excessive queues at some of Europe’s busiest airports. If you haven’t seen it, try this article from the BBC:
Sadly, though changes in legislation have worsened the situation, it’s nothing new. Miss your flight, and you’ll find the airline and the airport pass the blame back and forth, leaving you frustrated and potentially out of pocket. So what can you do?
Take out a decent insurance policy
Many travel insurance policies will cover you for missed departures, but check the small print in case there are any exclusions. Also check the amount covered – and work out whether this is going to be sufficient to cover a night in a hotel and the cost of a replacement flight.
Get to the airport early – and don’t wait for your gate number to be displayed
Queues for security are going to be lengthy in peak summer season, so you should be aiming to get to the airport in plenty of the time regardless. But once you’re through security, you need to go through passport control too. In some airports, this can be tucked away in a quiet wing of the airport serving just a few gates.
If your gate isn’t displayed early, by the time you start to line up, you may have cut it too fine. I almost missed a flight from Malaga to London a couple of years ago for this very reason – so don’t risk having to be very un-British and queue jump like I did. And if I pushed in front of you and you’re reading this, I’m very sorry – and hope you made your flight too!
My advice is to go through passport control even if your gate isn’t displayed on the boards – if there are multiple passport controls, in my experience the border control officials will redirect you. Just look suitably apologetic as I did and make sure you head off in the right direction.
Consider booking a package
If you book a package holiday with an operator with has its own fleet of planes, such as Thomson (other operators are available!), then the same company is responsible for getting you from the hotel to the airport and from the airport to Britain. At the very least this is going to reduce the buck-passing.
Have you any tales to tell? I’d love to hear your experiences.