Thursday, 21 July 2011

English Airport Procedures - Compare and Contrast

I've been to England twice in the last two months, the first time flying into & out of Stansted, and the second, Gatwick.

Up till now, if I've had to go to London, Stansted has been my airport of choice. Luton is too much like a municipal bus station, while Heathrow and Gatwick are a national disgrace (well, two national disgraces, or six if you count each terminal separately). But for the most recent 2-day trip for the Offspring's graduation, timing was critical, and the most suitable times could only be got by using Gatwick.

So, Stansted. Arrival was modestly painless, involving a mere fifteen minute wait in a snaky, sweaty queue for my passport to be waved through by an Immigration Officer (or possibly a Border Agent). Departure was farcical. The hall was crammed with people and the slow-moving queues were being harangued by stern-sounding people and recorded messages telling us that all liquids, gels and creams must be in a clear resealable bag. Now, I was under the impression that this foolish, pointless and downright inconvenient knee-jerk process had been stopped (certainly nobody at any Spanish airports limits the amount of toothpaste you can take on board). But I was wrong, of course. All I had was half a tube of toothpaste and a big pot (more than 100ml) of skin cream that I'd bought while I was there. I hadn't bothered to get a special bag, so I showed the lady what I had - it was in a semi-transparent Boots bag that could only be 'sealed' if you tied a knot in it. She had a look inside, and told me I couldn't take it on board, because it was in the wrong kind of bag. And you can't argue with these people because they'll have you labelled as aggressive and tasered within seconds.

Moving on.

Gatwick is a building site at the moment - BAA claims to be spending 1 billion quid on refurbishing it. The Immigration hall seems to be finished. When we arrived, we were asked if we had chips in our passports. Yes we did, so we were directed to a self-service machine with slightly odd instructions. It tells you to place your passport details page on a scanner, go through the gate, stand on the feet and wait for it to take a photo and open the second gate. 'Stand on the feet' seemed a bit illiterate, but all becomes clear when you get through the first barrier - there's a sticker on the floor with a couple of feet on it.

So that was quite impressive, and queue-less, but I didn't know what to expect for the return journey and was fretting somewhat because the train we had tickets for wouldn't get us there in time to deal with a long wait for security (in fact we ended up not using those tickets, and bought tickets for a different operator that would get us there half an hour earlier).

I don't know if it was the time of day, or just a super-efficient new system, but the immigration hall was virtually devoid of passengers. We were greeted by a friendly, chatty bloke who had a look at our gels and liquids and then sent us to a gate where you scan your boarding pass. And then we're into the x-ray section where, once again, the staff were friendly and helpful and we were through that in about 3 minutes flat without once being made to feel like criminals. I really couldn't believe it.

Looks like I'll be using Gatwick more in the future.