I meant to add a footnote to a previously very disparaging note about Copernicus airport in Wroclaw. I have to take it all back, the transformation is amazing post Euro 2012. The people are friendly – all of them – the airport is clean and airy. What a transformation. It even won Poland’s Friendliest Airport 2012 competition. Just goes to show that those sociologists were right, environment is everything!
Getting to Moscow is just painful. Not only is it necessary to spend three and a half hours getting there from London, but it’s three hours ahead which means that however you look at it just about any flight you take means wasting most of the day unproductively in the air. Which is fine if you want to sleep, but not much use on the work front. I think I’ve finally worked out the least painful way to do it, but it involves going to Amsterdam first.
Step one is to take the early flight to Schiphol and spend the day working in the city. Step two is to arrive back at Schiphol about two and a half hours ahead of the eight-something evening KLM flight to Sheremetyevo. This bit is important, because there is a later Aeroflot code share flight with KLM. You do not want this flight. Take it from me. The ‘plane is a zoo, just like flying with the Penquins of Madagascar. Last time they took away my boarding pass to change it and then tried to have me thrown off the flight because I didn’t have a boarding pass. Early arrival at the airport gives ample time to negotiate a seat as far forward as possible. This bit is also critical, because you need to exit the ‘plane at the other end as quickly as you can in order to get ahead of the immigration queue. Failure to do this can seriously effect your mental well being.
Now comes the best bit. Make your way to Holland Boulevard between piers E and F. Here you will find the Bols Experience. It is a cocktail bar where you can get proper cocktails, but all made with Bols. The woman who runs it is a bit of a tyrant. She doesn’t like you to mix cocktails and she doesn’t like you to have too many. In fact, she will stop serving you if she considers you’ve had too much to fly. Try giving her any lip and you also get to instantly regret it. It’s clearly not her business.
So, have just the two cocktails. Honestly, they are strong and you don’t need any more. Plus a burger which she will bring you. After this proceed to your flight at a leisurely pace, fall asleep immediately you sit down in your seat and in a miraculous feat of time travel, wake up at Sheremetyevo three hours or so later, refreshed. And because it’s half past two in the morning there is no immigration queue – and anyway you’re at the front of it so you don’t care. You can then afford to take a further nap in your hotel room because you are now three hours ahead of London and even if you don’t get up until ten, it’s still only seven in the morning back home.
Can you believe it? Arriving at T5 this evening at around 20.00 and the queues for the passport control actually started at the far end of the terminal. You wouldn’t believe it unless you actually saw it. When is it ever going to end? These people have no idea how to run an airport. And to think they want another runway – even more passengers to process!
Last week I had quite the worst ever Schiphol passport experience of the last few years, the best part of an hour waiting in the EU Passports queue. It is pretty clear to me that no one gives a damn about which queue you are in at this airport. Having been traveling to Amsterdam for the last twenty or so years in the years since we’ve had dedicated EU entry queues I have never once seen a non-EU citizen getting to the border control officer in the wrong queue and being redirected to the correct one. In fact quite the opposite, on many occasions I have experienced the inevitable delay while they process the offending passport and delay everyone else. You end up playing a sort of ethnic-origin game and try to judge which queue looks like it has the least number of non-EU passport holders in it. It is yet another stress factor connected to travel. It made me think about this whole Schengen treaty thing and how it has effectively relegated non-Schengen country citizens to a kind of second class travel status.
I don’t know if anyone else has noticed but it seems that the only country that observes the rules in Europe, such as the blue EU customs channel where I understand they have to have a very good reason to stop you, is the UK. Pick anywhere else, France or Germany for example, and the channel does not exist. Pick another country, Italy or Poland, and it is always closed. There’s no logic to any of this. If you query this then there will inevitably be an observation that if the UK was a member of the Schengen treaty then this would not be an issue. But the point is that we are not a Schengen country, so why should we be treated with some kind of pariah nation status? The facts are that the UK stood by its principles and elected to stay out of Schengen in order to try and control a porous border problem that was (and many believe still is) rapidly getting out of control. In fact other countries in Europe are now regretting their decision to abolish this basic precaution that enables a state to maintain its sovereignty, namely the control over whoever enters the country. Unfortunately the price that the UK has to pay is delays getting in to just about anywhere in Europe.
As ever, anything to do with the EU and the unceasing push to standardise and harmonise is really all about bringing everybody down to the lowest common denominator. Plus it gives everyone else the vicarious pleasure of making life hard for the British.
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.
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.
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.
It’s been a while since I was so cold. Here it was -20c overnight and an early evening wander around without a coat was not a good idea either. This city is 1,000 years old and has everything you would expect from an ancient Central European city – romantic old buildings, squares, cobbled streets, cafes and restaurants. Until 1945 it was one of Germany’s foremost industrial cities and still today Lufthansa confusingly refers to it by its German name, Breslau, like Gdansk the formerly named Danzig. However, it has one of the worst airports in Europe. Copernicus airport, named after Nicolaus Copernicus the Renaissance astronomer and mathematician, is without a doubt the most unworthy tribute imaginable to the man who probably had the single most profound impact on the understanding of scientific teaching over religious belief of the Renaissance. The airport itself is small, lacking in services and there is nowhere to sit. Plus it is extremely dirty.
The other extraordinary thing about Polish airports are the security guards. They dress like a paramilitary force, black tee shirts with Straz Graniczna emblazoned in white on the back. This means Border Guard in Polish. The ensemble is finished off with combat trousers and military boots … oh and a pistol casually strapped cowboy-style to the thigh. It’s quite some get-up for the girls if you like that sort of thing. But the whole image is one of heavy-handed oppression. I made the grave error the other day of smiling at a very attractive ‘Straz Graniczna’ of the female variety while waiting to be scanned at Warsaw airport. That’s Lotnisko Chopina for anyone who hasn’t been there, named after Chopin. What is it with these romantically styled Polish airports? Must be something to do with the perceived glamour of travel. Anyway, she fixed me with a stony glare and pointed to my laptop bag.
Now, I don’t know how it is with others, but my laptop bag, a Tumi one in fact, is a small portable part of my private world when I am travelling. It has many interesting things in it. Along side the work items like the laptop, mobile phone and papers there is a bag with all sorts of gadgets and adaptors required to connect to the outside world from alien hotel rooms, a plastic knife, fork and spoon set because sometimes you can’t get hold of these things easily on the road, Macbook Air or iPad for personal use depending on length of trip, my personal iPhone, pens, tie-pin, access cards to multiple offices, quite a lot of spare currency from various frequently-travelled countries, a couple of passports to avoid any unnecessary embarrassment in certain unfriendly countries, photographs to remind me at times why I get up and go to work at all and most importantly my glass evil eye to ward off bad things when I am airborne. A few years ago some unmentionable stole the trusty forerunner of my current bag while I was under the influence in a London restaurant and I had to travel all the way to Istanbul to replace that evil eye. It was a nerve-wracking flight without it.
But back to the bag. She took it off the belt and removed every last item from it and after examination spread them out over several trays as she put them back through the scanner. I stood there in absolute disbelief and after a few well-chosen words, which I don’t think she could have understood or otherwise I would probably not have got off lightly, I realised that I had no option but to just stand there and endure the smirks of other passengers as she made her point and no doubt her day. Beauty in an iron fist. I hope she stops terrorists.
By the way, I can highly recommend the Radisson Blu hotel in Wroclaw. It is clean and the staff are excellent. It also has a good bar that you can sit at and observe the comings and goings in the lobby. This is always a very entertaining activity to pass the time in Polish hotels. All round a very worthwhile place to spend the night and to base yourself if visiting.