Category Archives: Travel

In praise of small airports

Thanksgiving 2018 – we travel to Tucson, AZ for a week of sunshine in the South West. Flying out of O’Hare is about what you’d expect the weekend before Thanksgiving – busy, mainly with recreational travelers. That means many, many more “service animals” than you’d see on a more typical business travel day.

Upon landing in Tucson the first impression of the airport is that it’s small – the taxi from landing to the gate is short. Upon deplaning the impression continues – is there simply no one else here on a Saturday afternoon? Everywhere seems deserted, the only cluster of activity being around the only operating baggage carousel.

Bags collected we start the walk to the car hire center, which is onsite within the airport grounds. Other than being clean, flat, and nicely decorated, the walk is reminiscent of Aberdeen. We’re quickly introduced to a Ocotillo growing in an outdoor space between the main terminal and the garage.

Hertz Gold customers bypass the (utterly empty) main rental hall and walk through to the parking area, and a dedicated kiosk. We’re the only customers visible anywhere and, as might be expected, we’re quickly walking to find the car, keys in hand. Complimentary bottles of water were welcome, thank you.

We load up the bags, install the GPS, find something not obnoxious on the radio, and prepare to hit the road. It takes a moment for it to sink in – there’s no exit procedure, we’re suddenly just driving on the public road – I can’t remember the last time that happened!

The return journey a week later was much the same, in reverse. Security was quick, uneventful, though the departures area was much busier than when we arrived. Our flight was delayed an hour by winter storms (elsewhere, needless to say) and so we had extra time to sit and read. While busy it wasn’t hectic, and felt relaxed by comparison with O’Hare, on almost any day.

A tale of two terminals

It’s well known that I’m no fan of Heathrow Terminal 5; the arrivals experience and flight transfer process seems unnecessarily awful, especially the security screening experience.

On my most recent business trip to the UK I flew United in and out of Terminal 2, and it was a much more relaxed experience. Certainly there’s a good deal of walking involved, but the spaces seem less claustrophobic than in Terminal 5.

EU passport holders can take advantage of the automated entry gates that scan your passport and use face recognition to compare you to the picture on file – it’s essentially the same system as GOES in the USA, but you don’t have to pay for the privilege. Through immigration with barely a break in your step, the slowest part then becomes the wait for other passengers to retrieve their bags from the carousel. Terminal 2 carousels are very quiet, but rather small. Conveyers are controlled by sensors that watch for a gap on the belt and then scoot a bag out to fill it – but if the delivery carousel is already full of bags whose owners are standing in immigration then there’s nowhere for your bag to go!

The terminal as a whole benefits from an extensive recent overhaul, and public spaces are pleasant. Upon checking in for the return flight security went very quickly, and seemed less cramped than the equivalent process at T5. While there’s still the same emphasis on retail space, there seems to be more seating available for travelers – or it could just be that Friday morning is a very quiet time to travel! Regardless, T2 feels a nicer choice than T5.


On the hunt for a worse traveler’s experience than Heathrow T5

We’ve never liked Terminal 5 since it first opened, which considering it should represent the state of the art in terminal design is pretty depressing. Our most recent transit through Heathrow’s newest terminal only cemented what we already felt.

Arriving as Business Class travelers we were equipped with “Fast Track” passes that were supposed to speed our way through the immigration and security lanes to our connecting flight. Unfortunately, as ever, the weakest link came into play. It doesn’t help that the arrangement of immigration and border control lanes is permanently temporary; lines of people are divided by those temporary ribbon-tape barriers attached to portable metal posts – and entrances are sign posted by portable signs. To jet lagged eyes it’s all a bit visually overwhelming.

Having found the correct lanes for fast-track, Non-EU passport, domestic connecting flight passengers (as opposed to the other permutations involving non fast track, or EU passports, or connecting internal flights, or just plain arriving here) we had our boarding passes examined for the first time. We then stood in line with only a few people ahead of us, and 3 immigration officers servicing 2 lines. The officer that the minimum wage minion directing traffic sent all of our line to appeared intent on minutely examining every detail of every traveler, meanwhile the other 2 officers – dealing with simpler EU citizen arrivals – processed 10 for every one of ours.

Th final straw came when the immigrant currently being grilled had to take out his laptop to provide proof of return travel – I pointed out to the ESL minion traffic cop that the other officers were getting through 20 times as many passengers as ours, and why not spread the load. “They’re Fast Track” he replies. I point to the Fast Track pass in y hand and point out that we’re bloody Fast Track too – so what?

Having finally got through immigration we have to show our boarding passes again, and have our photos taken for something to do with security. Then it’s more confusing tape barriers upstairs to security screening. Upon exiting security screening we see that, with 30 minutes before departure, our flight is boarding so we start to hustle downstairs.

Terminal 5 deserves a moment of recognition for the evil ingenuity of its design; as an arriving passenger you’re cattle managed through lanes and channels until the moment you exit security screening, at which point the ceiling opens and light streams in! All the space is devoted to the main departure hall, with its 7 floor high wall of glass – and completely intrusive retail spaces. You are forced to walk through retail spaces to find a departure board, to go up or down an escalator, to get to your gate. This is much less an airport terminal with shopping than a full on mall that happens to have tried to squeeze in some aircraft.

We follow signs for gate 9, wit the PA telling us that doors are about to close. Initially all gates 1-9 are directed together until you’re in the middle of a Pub, when suddenly only gates 1-7 have directions assigned to them – apparently we’d missed the sign (generously assuming there was one) back in the Sushi stand that told us 8/9 were splitting off to the right.

Now of course if you’ve been frustrated by minimum wage minions, tedious processes and poor signs AND have had to run to your gate the chances are you’ll be a bit flustered. A flustered, tired face is apparently not a good candidate for digital face recognition, so when we show our boarding passes and pose for the camera we’re not recognized, which of course slows things further. That hurdle surmounted we have to show our boarding passes for the purpose of actually boarding the plane!

So now we’re seated and gt to wait for 20 minutes until the ‘plane pushes back. For some reason they wanted us to hurry up so they could close the doors fully 20 minutes early for a 50 minute flight to Aberdeen. Good thing we’d rushed.

The UK out-commercializes the USA

In airports, at least.

In all the British airports I’ve used recently passengers are carefully managed through retail experiences. You are forced to walk through the center of duty free before reaching the departure area and, once there, you’ll find that the reader boards only exist in areas surrounded by retail.

Your departure gate won’t be posted until the last minute so you’ll have no choice but to spend as much time as possible in retail areas – where there’s almost no where to sit other than in a food or drink establishment.

By comparison an American airport appears to exist primarily to convey passengers to their destinations; acre upon acre of departure gates with seating only occasionally interspersed with places to get a snack or light meal. Reader boards are dotted liberally around and flights are posted hours in advance – plus the wi-fi is free!!

The unbundling of air travel

My memories of air travel in the ’70s are of a special experience; we joked about meals but in fact they weren’t bad, kids got activity packs with airline badges, drinks were complimentary and there was a sense of occasion to the whole thing.

Today you’ll be asked to pay for checked bags, a very rudimentary boxed snack on board must be paid for, as must alcoholic drinks, if you want extra legroom that can be had for a price as can preferential boarding. Everything is negotiable for a price, and yet flying is more expensive now than ever before.