Mary Dejevsky: Why should money buy anyone an airport fast-track?


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The Independent Online

Forgive me for feeling a bit miffed, but could it be time to patent ideas? Six years ago – yes, six – I contributed a polemic to the website, inveighing against the principle of fast-tracking passengers at airports and other border controls. It wasn't easy to persuade the editors to publish it; they weren't as convinced as I was that this iniquitous development was a matter of ethics and democracy, but eventually they agreed.

My argument was that controlling the borders is a central responsibility of the state, and that in a democracy everyone should be treated the same. I also objected that one (paying or privileged) person's fast-track was another (poorer, no less hard-pressed) person's longer wait. I felt that queue-jumping into your own or someone else's country should not be something that money can buy – and I still don't.

Now, the ethics guru, Harvard professor and 2009 BBC Reith lecturer Michael Sandel has highlighted the pros and (mostly) cons of fast-tracking at airport and border controls in his new book, What Money Can't Buy. And suddenly it's being treated as a serious issue – helped along, of course, by the recent surge of complaints about three-hour queues at Heathrow.

Arguably, the least objectionable form of fast-tracking is at Luton airport, where last summer a mere £5 allowed you to bypass a veritable flood of humanity (and hold them up still further). At Heathrow, as it emerged during the latest fracas, you can pay an £1,800 fee for what amounts to a VIP concierge service (for six passengers), while similar privileges – sorry, without the champagne – come with your ticket at many airports, if you are travelling business or first class. (I wrote my 2006 broadside, by the way, after a rare business-class trip, that had sped me blissfully past inordinate queues.)

My – critical – interest in fast-tracking prompted a few more thoughts about the recent protests. While disgruntled border staff, worried about job cuts and changing shift patterns, were clearly making a meal of passengers' discontent for their own purposes, might the increase in complaints also reflect the fact that businesses are making more employees, used to the high life, travel economy? And how many people were staffing fast-track, while everyone else was waiting? It's not hard to conclude that, if the rich or privileged can buy their way out of inconvenience, not only are high-profile complaints minimised, but conditions for the majority never improve.

My bottom line is that it's fine for passengers to decide how much they are prepared to pay for their travel tickets and make their compromises accordingly. It's not fine for the airlines' class system to be replicated by the institutions of state. As I wrote in 2006: "Welcome to Britain, where it would appear, there are now two classes of citizens. Those who are fast-tracked and those who must wait." All those years on, nothing has changed. If anything, the two tiers are even further apart.

Another helpful hint for the NHS

Sometimes simple solutions really do turn out to be the best. It is reported that a campaign to encourage hand-washing in hospitals has saved large sums of money and many lives. So for the brief spell that simplicity is in vogue, let me suggest something else. What if the NHS were more assiduous about encouraging the return of equipment and unused drugs, and learnt how to do so with a better grace?

When I took my crutches back to the fracture clinic, after my broken foot had almost healed, no one knew where I should go. I was pretty much growled at as a major inconvenience. I still have the orthopaedic boot that helped my foot to mend – I tried to take it back, but was told that not even the rigid plastic frames were reused (there goes around £80, according to various websites, where people apparently sell them on).

Then, when I took my husband's surplus medicine to the hospital pharmacy, as you are told to for safety's sake, the distinctly chilly welcome communicated that it was far more of a hindrance than a help. I still wonder whether all those (expensive) drugs went into any sort of recycling, or were simply dumped in the nearest bin when I'd gone.

Were you still up for Boris?

What on earth was going on during the count for London mayor? The turnout across the capital fell short of 40 per cent, and counting, as is the deplorable new practice, was held over until the following day. It then took until 10 minutes to midnight for there to be a result.

In the meantime, there had been a power-cut at Alexandra Palace, tellers had complained that electronic counting machines took longer than actual people (they can join the e-passport readers on the scrapheap), and two ballot boxes had apparently turned up at a late stage in a cupboard. This is appalling. More than 80 per cent of the French electorate voted on Sunday, and within minutes of the polls closing, they had reliable exit polls that gave the result.

Elections are something we are supposed to be able to do. Either return to the old, reliable manual count, or let's go the whole hog and introduce electronic voting.