The evening before my early-morning departure, I received a text message from the airline. "Due to congestion at Luton airport, we strongly advise you to arrive at least three hours before departure to avoid missing the flight..." Three hours, I thought bolshily, they can stuff it. If I miss the plane, I miss it, but I'm not setting off in the middle of the night.
If I'd been going on a family holiday, rather than for a weekend, my response might have been different. But it comes to something when the time you have to set aside to fly to eastern Europe from Luton would see you across the Atlantic from almost anywhere else.
Not that you would know of any inadequacies from the airport's website, which waxes lyrical about its delights, while boasting that it has set up a blog for comments (which I couldn't find). More searching, though, turned up another site – www.airlinequality.com – which began: "I've used airports all over the world and Luton is the worst that I have come across." Indeed.
Congestion is an understatement. Luton says proudly that the number of passengers in July exceeded a record 1 million. I don't doubt this, so why can't it improve conditions to match? At least the airlines do what they are paid to do reasonably competently. Do passengers on low-cost flights – the bulk of Luton's traffic – deserve only a low-cost, low-service airport? Where does the money from these record numbers of planes and passengers go?
I've taken two return trips from Luton in three months. The experience each time has been one long, chaotic queue from more than a mile outside the airport to the steps of the plane and back again. A £1 fee introduced for car drop-offs in April has led to gigantic tailbacks for all traffic, including buses. If, after that, you think your blood pressure won't survive inching towards security in a mass of several hundred – slowed further by the dozens queue-jumping with impunity – you're encouraged to pay £3 to be "fast-tracked" – an iniquitous system that, I imagine, is meant to reduce complaints from stroppy individuals like me.
On your return, notices advertise the automated e-passports system through immigration. But there's no bypassing the thousand-strong mass of mostly east and central Europeans spilling far into the corridors. When I ask why the e-passports lane is shut, I'm told that it only opens at certain times. Why? Because passengers "need help" to use it, so – like bagging your own groceries – it takes twice the staff. Oh the efficiencies of automation!
When I then ask why non-EU citizens don't face a similar queue, I'm told that it's unusual. (Out of the corner of my eye I watch them open the non-EU lane to all-comers.) Welcome to Britain, fellow-Europeans – pregnant, carrying small children, walking with difficulty, you're in for a good hour's wait and more than a few staircases on the way.
The saving grace is that the staff are, mostly, polite. And if you complain enough and need help, you may be escorted past the queue – though, of course, that means a longer wait for everyone else. The kindly employee who took pity on me (with my walking stick) said it would be good if someone made a fuss. So that's what I'm doing. Whoever manages Luton airport, you are in charge of a national disgrace.
No, minister, you don't know what I'm thinking
As International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell seems to know what he is doing. I have quite a lot of time for him – or I had. At a recent forum on the Arab Spring, he praised British non-government organisations in Egypt. When he took questions, I asked whether he was talking to the Egyptians about these NGOs, given that there appeared to be misgivings about their presence and there was talk of regulation.
In his response, Mitchell seemed to discern an agenda behind my question. In fact, there was. Some years ago, Russia took much Western flak for a law banning foreign-funding for NGOs in politics – even though many countries, including the US, have similar rules. I thought he might say something about this being a sensitive area, but he didn't.
Then because the question came from a woman, I assume, he embarked on a paean to the work of NGOs in defending women's rights and getting more girls to school. I have to say that I found this patronising political gamesmanship. The same question from a man would have been treated on its merits. No wonder the Coalition worries about the women's vote.
A couple of million pounds too far
It was the allegation that most shocked the public, returned the phone-hacking scandal to the headlines, and sealed the fate of the News of the World. The claim was that the paper had not just hacked the phone of the missing Milly Dowler, but deleted her messages, so giving her family false hope that she was still alive.
Now this was clearly a reprehensible thing for anyone to do; and the news, nine years after her murder, devastated the family and shattered even that tough old Aussie, Rupert Murdoch. So much so, it transpires, that he is about to reach a £3m settlement with the Dowlers, a third of which will be paid to charity in a cheque signed by the hard-bitten tycoon himself.
That leaves £2m for the Dowler family – which, frankly, like the overall settlement, seems beyond excessive. Yes, the action was disgusting and underhand, as well as illegal. But £2m to compensate the family for the hurt they suffered from phone-hacking seems out of all proportion to anything that anyone – except the actual killer – did. Given that money is unlikely to relieve their pain, is it too much to hope that the Dowlers will donate the whole lot to a good cause – for the benefit, say, of girls without the advantages their late daughter enjoyed?
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