Moscow … and Domodedovo in particular

I have come to the conclusion that the problem with Moscow is that it is in Russia. The problem with Moscow’s south-city international aviation child is that it is just a pit. I first used this airport in 1992, at a time when Russia was still a very strange place for ‘foreigners’. Actually, it hasn’t really got that much better over the years, but at least in the centre of the city you can now lose yourself in the sprawl of a large hotel or a decent restaurant and just for a moment pretend that you are not really there. You can’t at the airport. You may think this sounds terribly jingoistic and you are probably right. The older I get the more I marvel at the enthusiasm we once had for exploring the spirit of the countries that we visited and the cities we inevitably played in. Now I just want to shut myself off from the awfulness of some of the places that I go to and dream of that house that we are going to have one day, remote and silent, halfway up a mountainside in Switzerland.

Domodedovo airport, Moscow

It is true that I may be a little out of date with the statistics, but I am fairly sure that when I first used Domodedovo to travel to remote parts in Siberia, I read somewhere at the time that it was the world’s largest airport. I think Heathrow was always the busiest, but Domodedovo was the largest. I recall once taking off in a rattling Tupolev and doing a quick scan of the airframes on the ground as we climbed upwards, counting more than eighty scattered around the airfield. Landing this week in a dramatically changed airport it was as though a giant pair of hands had scooped up an assortment of aircraft and dropped them in haphazard piles around the runways. It’s a marshaling yard for famous Russian names from the past few decades – Antonovs, Tupolevs, Yakovlevs and Ilyushins. Now replaced by their modern counterparts – Boeings and Airbusses of all descriptions – but still elegant even though subdued and abandoned to the elements and the intransigence of the aviation regulators.

Here I am in danger of becoming a sentimental old dogmatist (that’s a type of old tortoise) reminiscing about the good old days. But it’s quite sad to think of their decline and how once they represented all that was modern and glamorous and hopeful and how quickly they have been overtaken by the march of technology. I am sure that these overtly inanimate objects contain a heart and secretly harbour a soul that should be cherished rather than abandoned and forgotten. That’s all very well you might say, but what I really set out to do was to rant about Domodedovo.

I recently wrote about Wroclaw and its claim to being the world’s worst airport. But I cannot imagine what I was thinking about and how I could possibly have forgotten to single out security control at Domodedovo. There is no doubt that the whole Russian airport experience has improved over the last twenty years. The snaking passport queues entering the country have almost, only almost I must emphasise, become a distant memory. The customs officials, who barely able to read would scan your currency forms for the number of zeroes as a guide to whether they should call ahead to alert their underworld mates waiting out in the arrivals hall, no longer have the opportunity to do so. They have surely moved on to some other form of petty crime. The occasional impounding of your laptop pending a small cash inducement to elicit its release no longer occurs. But to be honest no longer is there the need to smuggle large quantities of dollars to pay local staff.

But what has not changed is the overt disregard for anything other than the convenience of airport officialdom. Where else in the world would you be expected to walk to a stack of plastic trays, unload all the usual paraphernalia of travel – coats, pockets, watches, belts, laptops, coins, toiletries – into one or more trays and carry them, along with your bags, to the scanning machine, load them, unload them again and then re-stack the trays? An unusually communicative German man sat next to me as he replaced his shoes and in reply to my rueful comment ‘welcome to Russia’ he replied with the uncharacteristically dry retort ‘only in Russia’. We exchanged smiles and went our separate ways as though we were Cold War emissaries imparting coded signals.

Russia is a country of anachronisms and nowhere more so than in the Moscow airports, the gateways to the real country that has remained unchanged for the last forty years or so.

Heathrow T5 – what is going on?

Over the last couple of years since Heathrow’s Terminal 5 has been open I have tried very hard to be objective about the place. So it had its teething problems: baggage mountains appeared because the systems didn’t work properly and the security procedures after check-in are frankly still a disaster. Even a return to T4 would have been an acceptable alternative at one point. But now there is simply no reason to take your luggage into the cabin on a returning BA flight, because as soon as you have negotiated passport control it is already there waiting for you, revolving at a stately pace on one of the many carousels in the colossal baggage hall. There is no question that the place is a spectacular piece of engineering too; landing in the half dusk of a summer’s evening as the lights start to go on, the building shines like a crystal box that makes you want to look into it, inspiring a feeling of well-being. A friendly lantern on a dark night, it welcomes you home, dominating the eastern end of the main runways, making its own statement about who really owns Heathrow. Well, maybe I’m getting a bit carried away.

But I am sorry to say that I have finally arrived at the inescapable conclusion that the place is simply managed by imbeciles. Take last Thursday night as an example. We arrived on a fully loaded European short haul flight at around eight thirty in the evening. It was an Airbus 320, so not really so many people when you think of it. The main terminal beckoned in all its seductive and illuminated glory as we landed and taxied. We, however, stopped short at the C gates. Now, the C and B gates are in themselves quite impressive buildings and would probably be serious airport terminals in their own right if not for the dominance of the mother ship across the apron. Unfortunately there is a design flaw in the communication system: the shuttle train doesn’t travel direct. It has to go past terminal B on its way home to Mother. On the night in question only one line was operating, and that started the over-crowding problem. By the time we had stopped at the B gates to pick up all those people who had arrived from Hong Kong and were desperately wanting to end their journey too, it was not dissimilar to a London tube journey of the worst rush hour nightmare variety. The carriages were packed to absolute breaking point. At mother ship central, the escalators were not working ether. Not just one of them, but both. In fact one was even taped off, until some enterprising passenger decided sod this for a game and opened it up. The lifts … well there was no point in trying to get near the lifts.

Then came the killer blow – the UK Border, once known as Passport Control. Here adequate words to describe the scene simply fail me. The Iris and e-gates were backed-up to the rear wall of the building and the queue for the manned desks must have had ten or more turns in its snakelike journey and even then was similarly choked with arriving passengers. It was doing a very good job of masquerading as a queuing system for the rides at Universal Studios, where they are the world’s experts at the queuing game. I don’t recall how long exactly it took to get through, but it was agonizingly slow. At the end of all this it is to emerge facing a long glass wall of the type designed to allow Them to look out but not to let you look back in. At one end of which is a very large sign on a door that reads ‘Chief Duty Immigration Officer’. I assume this is a Very Important Person as otherwise one would assume a rather more discrete sign on the door would be in order. The question I ask is who is this Chief Duty Immigration Officer? Where is he when things get tough on the front line? You would have thought that at the very least he would be standing behind his troops, perhaps with one or two trusty lieutenants, urging them on in their difficult task with a few words of encouragement and perhaps exchanging a brief word of apology to the seriously inconvenienced passengers. Defusing the tension and explaining that circumstances are unusual and that even if he did have more staff, he couldn’t deploy them because there are no more desks for them to sit at. Perhaps offering a few words of hope about how good it will be when the e-gates are more widely deployed. Instilling confidence that he has a strategic plan to deal with the influx of all those passengers that are coming for the Olympics.

But no, he cannot do any of these things. Not because the e-gates are clearly substandard in comparison to the design and speed of those they have at Amsterdam or Lisbon airports. Not because he doesn’t have a plan for the Olympics (and anyway he’s determined to teach those elected Government ministers a lesson in what will happen if he doesn’t get the staff he says he needs). Not because there are never going to be enough desks, or that things just will never, ever, get any better at Heathrow. No, it is simply because he is a civil servant and actually he just doesn’t give a damn, because if he did, he would be doing something. He’s like all the other people who ‘manage’ Heathrow: he simply doesn’t know how to run an airport. Let’s just pack more of those passengers in, let’s just have another runway, let’s just encourage more and more transit passengers to clog up the system and provide little or no benefit to the country on their way through to some destination elsewhere. If they can’t manage Heathrow at its present capacity, how can anyone in Government even consider the prospect of giving them another runway to play with and even more people to cram through the system? It’s a bit like the Prison Service, in that it took someone a long time to work out that civil servants simply don’t have the skills to run such a large people-based organisation. No, you need a retired army General used to managing a hundred thousand soldiers to sort out that kind of a problem.

Oh and by the way, I am convinced that the Chief Duty Immigration Officer must be a man. No woman would ever allow such a disgrace to continue.