Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Fly into Gatwick and see why London needs another airport

By Boris Johnson

Good old blighty, eh, I whispered at the porthole as we began to descend upon the darkened fields of Sussex.

OK, so it was pouring with rain, the grey black clouds rolling like gunsmoke over Gatwick, but think - I told myself - of the advantages of home.

Think of all those little inconveniences you never find in England. You never get kept awake by mosquitos whining in your ear. You never get sunburnt after only 10 minutes. You rarely get nappy rash from walking around all day in wet swimming trunks.

Yes, it was still in a mood of post-holiday euphoria that we taxied to the terminal, where the lights winked welcomingly in the puddles.

And morale was still pretty buoyant 10 minutes later, as we yomped down the interminable Gatwick corridors in the direction of passport control; and even there, our mood was not wholly deflated.

It did occur to us to wonder why there were so few passport controllers, and so many hundreds of exhausted travellers shuffling round the oxpens, like inmates of some Victorian penitentiary.

But then I saw a sign reminding us of the extra precautions that were necessary these days, and apologising in a nice British way, and my irritation abated; and then we were in the baggage reclaim area, at getting on for 11pm, and after 40 minutes it was no use trying to bicycle-pump my spirits.

By this time, I knew that sullen hall. By this time, I knew we stood in hell.

Across the vast neon-lit Hades were knots and clumps of dejected humanity.

Some sat and stared at the barren carousels; some tried to cheer themselves up by pretending to be their own missing luggage, sitting on the conveyor belts and taking pictures of each other with their mobile phones.

Every so often a Pyongyang-style announcement would come over the loudspeaker, proclaiming that the baggage of this or that flight would be making an appearance "shortly".

"Huh," said a woman who had arrived on a flight from Las Palmas. "That's what they said two-and-a-half hours ago. They said it would be arriving shortly."

She spoke wearily, bitterly - and if there was no particular rage in her voice, it was because there was no one there with whom to be enraged.

There were just the telescreens with the list of arrivals, with the advice by each flight that passengers were to "wait in hall", as if, frankly, we had any blooming choice in the matter.

By now, it was almost midnight. We wondered whether to abandon the luggage and go home to bed; but that raised overwhelming practical difficulties, and so finally I began the quest for whoever the hell was meant to be in charge.

It is a measure of the extreme cowardliness and cynicism of the airport authorities that there was no one from BAA in that baggage hall.

There was no one from Servisair, the baggage handlers whose entirely foreseeable "staff shortages" had caused the problem.

The only representative of authority was a nice but increasingly rattled young man from the lost luggage department. Shielded behind his attack-proof glass, he told a growing crowd of passengers what he knew. He knew nothing.

Why had some bags arrived from Dalaman, and not the others? He didn't know. Where were the bags from Cagliari? He didn't know.

All he knew was that our bags were out there somewhere in the dark on the rain-lashed tarmac. We offered to mount a Entebbe-style raid to liberate our luggage, and were told we couldn't do that for health and safety reasons.

Where were the baggage handlers? He didn't know.

It seemed that he had been in contact with a senior baggage handler as recently as an hour ago, but then this chap had gone out on to the tarmac, to search for the other baggage handlers, and had not been heard of since.

Could we ring him? We could not. All he could offer was a photocopied letter from Servisair, in the name of Mr Mark Poynton, the Service Delivery Controller.

It must be one of the most snivelling and insincere letters I have ever read. Mr Poynton apologises to passengers for the delayed arrival of their baggage and the inconvenience caused, and regrets that an airline or handling representative "may be unable to attend the arrivals hall" to explain what is going on.

What Mr Poynton does not point out is that hundreds of copies of this pseudo-apology have been distributed night after night for the past six nights.

In other words, Servisair has known perfectly well that it has too few handlers to handle the baggage.

It could quite easily have recruited more handlers, or made some provision for the extra holiday workload - but evidently decided to save money by sodding the public.

It ruthlessly refuses to allow its operatives to be exposed to the wrath of the passengers, so that if you want to inform Mr Mark Poynton, Service Delivery Controller, of his chimpanzee-like control of the non-existent delivery of his wretched service, you have to write to him at Room 3037, 3rd floor balcony, South Terminal, Gatwick, RH6 ONP.

To call this service "Third World" is an insult to the many gleaming and efficient airports of developing nations. In their contemptuous indifference to the customer, the airport authorities remind me of the 1970s, and the trades unions of my childhood.

Gatwick is the eighth most busy airport in the world, and the sheer volume of passengers coming to London airports is a testimony to the attractions of the city and the dynamism of the British economy.

But in four years, we are due to welcome the world to the London Olympics, and we need to sort this chaos out now.

With Gatwick full to bursting, and with Heathrow's third runway already bitterly contested - and I bet it never gets built - it is also ever more urgent that we investigate the possibility of a long-term solution, in the form of a new and more eco-friendly international airport at a site in the Thames estuary - of which you will be hearing a lot more in due course.


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