Simon Calder: The highs and lows of Blackpool's airport
Saturday 04 April 2009
Sometimes even a Town Crier has to enlist technological help. When I encountered Blackpool's telegraphic thespian, Barry McQueen, he was on the phone – no doubt letting the wider world know the breaking news that Blackpool had triumphed in a survey to find Britain's most pleasurable airport.
I met Mr McQueen on Tuesday at Blackpool's Pleasure Beach. One guidebook insists that this amusemant park "doesn't have much to do with pleasure". Clearly the writer does not share my appreciation of the Pepsi Max Big One, a rollercoaster that puts the g in gravity and your stomach somewhere in Morecambe Bay; nor of the remarkable resurgence that the Lancashire resort is enjoying. Blackpool wisely kept its trams running through the 20th century while every other conurbation in Britain was recklessly tearing up the tracks. The town's foresight has now been rewarded with £85m in funding to enhance the tram system.
And talking of transportational excellence: in a survey of more than 9,000 members of the Which? online opinion panel, Blackpool's Squires Gate airport was ranked above all others in Britain.
The timing could not be better for the Lancashire airport, which is celebrating its centenary this year. In 1909, it became the venue for Britain's first proper flying meeting in 1909. For much of the late 20th century it was moribund, sustained only by a few charters and hops across the Irish Sea. But during the "no-frills revolution", low-cost operators identified it as a cut-price alternative to Manchester.
Blackpool has the basic facilities that no-frills carriers appreciate, without the congestion that besets other airports. And it seems that passengers are very happy with Blackpool's simplicity. It scored top marks for check-in, "airport experience", and the time taken to pass through security and get to the gate. For "food outlets" Blackpool scored four out of a possible five stars, even though it has only one café. "We can give passengers a hassle-free airport experience," chirrupped the company in response to its triumph. But after my visit, I fear Blackpool faces relegation in next season's poll.
Slot delays may not be a problem for the airport, since it has only a dozen departures a day. But "coin-in-the-slot" delays will certainly cause expensive hold-ups for passengers.
Blackpool is one of several areas that seeks to cash in from the new rules on liquids in hand luggage. While BAA airports (the biggest of which filled the foot of the Which? survey table) give resealable plastic bags away free of charge, at Blackpool you have to put a £1 coin into what looks like a sweet dispenser in order to get four of the precious plastic bags. Need some money? The handy ATM charges £1.99 to get your hands on your cash. And before you board your plane, you will find your pocket picked, at least metaphorically. The Which? survey was concluded in November, before the airport's owners introduced the "Airport Development Fee". While we may love Blackpool just the way it is, that clearly doesn't work for the airport owner. It wants to "improve passenger facilities, develop the infrastructure and grow the route and airline network". Uncontentious aims – but Blackpool's flightpath is controversial. What it means for every adult passenger is spending an extra £10 before being allowed into the departure lounge.
The misguided passenger might have fondly imagined that, by buying a ticket, they were buying the basic elements of a transportational commodity getting them from A to B. Not in Blackpool. This is the latest manifestation of "low-fares-itis", whereby the aviation industry seeks to portray prices as lower than they actually are. What Blackpol has done, to avoid scaring away Jet2 and its other airlines, is to reduce the passenger service charge included in tickets, and switch it to an on-departure fee.
We end up paying anyway, so why is this move so bad? Because it adds complexity to a process that is already cumbersome enough. The first few thousand victims of the fee weren't improving the airport – they were paying off the capital cost of the machinery installed to collect the money and check you have paid. You pump cash into a ticket machine and get a receipt, then a few yards away put the piece of paper in a scanner to open a turnstile. A man standing at the entrance to security demanding a £10 note from everyone would at least reduce by one the hurdles to boarding your plane.
Luton's £3 queue-jumping charge, mentioned last week, is at least optional; Blackpool airport warns that anyone disinclined to contribute to the development plans will not be allowed on their plane. While the charge remains, the only high-altitude experience I'll take in Blackpool is back on the Pepsi Max Big One – opening for the summer today.
Travellers say bah! to BAA
The foot of the Which? popularity table makes gloomy reading for the 120 million travellers likely to pass through the London airports owned by BAA this year. Heathrow Terminal 1 (pictured) is rated worst, with Terminal 2, 3 and 4 only marginally better. Gatwick's South and North Terminals are rated fifth and sixth worst respectively. Stansted, also part of the Spanish-owned company's airport portfolio, shares seventh-worst spot with Manchester's ageing Terminal 1.
The only part of BAA's London operation to perform adequately is Heathrow Terminal 5, above, which this month celebrated its first birthday. It rates joint 23rd place, alongside Liverpool John Lennon airport. But while the £4.3bn structure scored well for check-in facilities, it managed only average marks for "airside amenities" and waiting times for passport control and baggage reclaim. Let's hope the airport is not contemplating an Airport Development Fee to try to boost its rating.
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