Every summer, airports and everyone connected with air travel decide to inflict as much misery as possible on customers – and no one is prepared to take the blame
Every August, the same scenario is played out in airports all over Europe – weary travellers queue to be processed by immigration officials, having spent the previous hour or so patiently inching forward to check in, only to spend even more time idling in queues on the runway as air traffic controllers impose their annual restrictions.
As sure as the sun rises, every summer will throw up pompous commentators claiming that this annual holiday nightmare is “self-inflicted” because we are “addicted to travel”. Along with other well-documented modern addictions to phones, work, booze, eating and reality television shows, it’s now a crime to want to go somewhere in the summer to escape crap weather and the same old faces at work.
I’m guilty as charged: a committed traveller who loves nothing more than planning a journey, picking somewhere to stay, buying maps – I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about the next one. Of course, along with excitement and anticipation will come disappointment.
Your hotel room might not be as good as the next one on TripAdvisor, the shower might be a feeble trickle, you might get a view of the car park and not a lake. The walk you planned was diverted because farmers locked the gates. The beach will be packed, with no spare sunbeds, and you forgot to book the simple restaurant overlooking the sea at least a week in advance, like the locals.
But these are minor niggles – what really annoys me is the patronising assumption that travel is somehow bad for the planet: that we are suffering from (as Simon Jenkins in The Guardian put it this week) “a restless urge to get away all the time”.
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He wondered why people regard a holiday at home as a sign of failure. According to him, we are “hypermobile”, as if wanderlust is an actual disease. People travel in the summer to broaden their experiences, and also to get away from the reality of routine and daily life. It’s when families can be together and do simple things in the sun. Sadly, everyone involved in making that a reality conspires to make it as vile a process as possible.
To prevent airport congestion, governments can’t order people to be happy staying close to home. Every summer, airports and everyone connected with air travel decide to inflict as much misery as possible on customers – and no one is prepared to take the blame, certainly not at governmental or policy-making level.
This year is typical: British Airways’ cabin crew have decided to strike and their IT systems failed again this week (the seventh time this year), causing check-in chaos. Air traffic control (Nats) is in meltdown, short-staffed and unable to cope.
A report by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), published this week, found that high levels of sickness, unplanned retirements, and staff reluctant to work overtime all contributed to the disarray. Factor in poor industrial relations and the result is inevitable, with delays 14 times higher in the first part of last year compared to 2015.
All over Europe, stricter immigration controls (following terrorist attacks in major cities) mean that during the August rush, passengers are being warned it might take four hours to go through passport control. In Barcelona, where border checks have been privatised, security workers plan to strike indefinitely.
As the new rules came into force in April, airports should have recruited more staff. You might think that there would be better working conditions and pay, so that jobs in air traffic control and security were more attractive. The same head-in-the-sand approach might apply to BA – who seem to be turning into an airline only interested in first class, or the most cramped economy seats where you have to pay through the nose for a snack.
Passengers are paying for a service which, at every level, seems to be as exploitative and miserly as possible. Airports bombard customers with duty-free, make them walk miles to sit in airless nasty lounges without any facilities, and generally treat the people paying for their services as a complete inconvenience unless they are at the front of the plane, in which case fawning and revolting obsequiousness is the order of the day.
For some unknown reason, the British Government is committing billions of pounds in public money to building a truncated high-speed train service, taking miniscule amounts of time off journeys between a handful of cities for businessmen, when most of their work can be transacted via a screen already and certainly will be in the future.
Holidaymakers and commuters are the same people – and both are treated shamefully by a government reluctant to oversee travel strategy and hold operators to account in a meaningful way.
And when we finally “leave” the EU, can anyone be sure that taking a summer holiday and travelling from one country to another for a cheap glass of wine and a spot on a sandy beach in the sun will be easier? I very much doubt it.