Simon Calder: Stansted stands still as snow stumps security
The man who pays his way
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Friday 10 February 2012
You probably don't live at an airport. But after the extraordinary scenes at Stansted last Sunday morning, you may consider moving.
On one occasion last year, as I have mentioned here, the hold-up for secondary searches of bags was so long that I saw several passengers abandon their cabin luggage at security rather than risk missing their flight. But hundreds of people booked on the early wave of flights last Sunday didn't even have that option, because their planes had gone before they had even reached the search area. More than 80 security staff failed to get through the snow to work.
Thousands of passengers made it, including Susan Leadbeater:
"We were waiting three hours to get though security. We were told not to panic – 'all flights were delayed'. But when we got through, we found our flight had left, on time, an hour earlier."
The couple lost the money they had spent on flights and the journey to the airport – though "Hertz were great and have transferred our car-rental booking until later in the year".
Also in the queue was Peter Finlay, who was failing to reach Dublin: "I was at the airport 90 minutes early, with no luggage. How can nobody be held to account for this failure?"
Because, Mr Finlay, there is no stipulation about how many staff should be assigned for the expected number of passengers. Stansted has a target of 10 minutes or less for security – but only 95 per cent of the time. If the airport ups its game for the rest of the month, it will avoid a fine.
Neither will the airport be penalised for what appears to be the staggering absurdity of allowing passengers whose flights had already departed to continue to queue, thereby holding up fellow travellers and making them miss their flights, too.
Mark Davison, head of media relations for the Essex airport, says: "The snow fell most heavily when shift workers were leaving their homes to arrive at the airport for the first wave of departures on Sunday. This created significant challenges, especially for those needing to use the local road network. This resulted in longer security queue times for passengers on Sunday morning.
"We immediately put in contingency measures and were able to get the operation back to normal from the early afternoon."
The total costs to passengers who missed their flight may top £1m. Stansted has no obligation towards them. Indeed, the airport's owner, BAA, may inadvertently profit from the spectacular snarl-up. Passengers will surely arrive hours ahead rather than risk losing a holiday or business trip to security sclerosis.
"Dwell time" may stretch to the point where the airport feels like home – except that BAA takes a cut from all the money you spend while you are there.
This looks to me like a system that rewards failure. But Mark Davidson of Stansted insists:
"Our advice remains the same. Passengers should turn up two hours before departure – no more, no less. Sunday is an exception that we apologise for."
Will Ryanair and easyJet make allowances for passengers caught up in the Stansted shambles? Both airlines have declined to tell me. Each earns more cashfrom passengers who don't fly than from those who do, pocketing taxes from abandoned trips and earning rebooking fees from people who decide to stagger on.
Don't let your confidence in the 'Superjumbo' crack
In the unlikely event that you make it through security in time for your flight – how safe will it be, especially if you are flying on the Airbus A380, where new cracks have been detected in the wings?
Regulators are far from infallible: we know that from the way that the banks were allowed to play balance-sheet roulette at the taxpayers' expense. We also know that hairline cracks precipitated a series of fatal crashes of the world's first passenger jet, the Comet.
One solution: err on the side of caution and ground all Superjumbos just in case. But such a move would traumatise long-haul aviation, especially from Heathrow, and push up fares.
No airline would take chances if it was in any doubt about the integrity of its aircraft. As an old aviation adage insists, "If you think safety is expensive, try having an accident."
Flying in the 21st century is implausibly safe: if the safety standards of air travel were applied to terrestrial transport, many of the world's vehicles – and drivers – would be taken off the road.
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