Category Archives: Rant about life

Things to hate about travel (5) – the nudger

The person, who no matter how much space you give them, still nudges you from behind in the queue for security, passport control or boarding. It all starts with a gentle pressure against your bag or the back of your legs. Sometimes it is accompanied with a whiff of something pungent from last night’s garlic-laced meal, wafted via an effusive or impatient exhalation of breath. Once you’ve noticed it there is no turning back. No way out of the downward spiral of aggravation and latent aggression that you start to experience. You think of all the outrageous things you want to say and do, but somehow you keep it under control. After all, isn’t that what differentiates us normal people from the psychopath?

The nudging pressure is gentle but insistent. But soon it gets more forceful. You move forward a little, but like the ever-decreasing stopping distance of cars in a decelerating traffic queue, the pressure intensifies. Before you know it you have a major incident on your hands. Pushing back has had no effect and if you don’t do something soon they will be level with you and then in front. There’s a theory that if you let someone in front of you in a queue, or in a line of traffic, if it happens enough times you will end up back where you started. Maybe that’s why we just stand there, fuming, rather than taking the logical action which is to move aside politely saying ‘Why don’t you go in front of me, your journey is obviously very important and you are in a hurry … BEFORE I RIP YOUR SODDING HEAD OFF!’

A thought about passport control

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.

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.

Things to hate about travel (4) – the reclining seat

I have had a short rest from travel over the Christmas and New Year break … Happy New Year by the way. But here I am back on a flight and suffering from another of those ‘things to hate about travel’ moments. This time it’s the passenger in front who reclines their seat. I don’t know whether it is because I was brought up to go through life respecting others and trying not to make a nuisance of myself, but it is an increasing challenge to be charitable to the fellow traveller who does not know how to behave. This particular one can be agony on a cramped short-haul flight, but is enough to send you rushing for the emergency exit on longer journeys. Passengers who do this thoughtlessly are the epitome of selfishness and, I think, are secretly not as frequent a traveller as they would like to make out. I have noticed that the worst offenders are often those who are sitting in a bulkhead row and already have plenty of space themselves. It works like this. You’ve noticed the person in front is large enough to have an impact on your personal space. Usually it is their unattractive head that pokes up above the line of the headrest in front. Then, just when you have your laptop open on the tray table or that moment when your drink is still just too full to withstand the risk of turbulence … wham … the seat flips back without warning and the drink goes and the laptop lid is wedged into the tray table space. A short sharp jab to the seat back sometimes elicits a reaction and a small adjustment but more often than not, nothing. Then of course you have no option but to slightly move your own seat to provide just a little personal space for your own sanity. Unless that is you are the row in front of an emergency exit or you’ve been unlucky enough to check-in late and are seated in the last row at the back, in which case your own seat is locked rigid in an upright position. There is nothing for it but to close your eyes, breathe deeply and just hope the person next to you doesn’t have some repulsive personal habit.

This, I believe, is why God invented the iPod.

Things to hate about travel (3) – people who arrive last onto a packed flight with carry-on luggage

People who arrive last on to a packed flight with bags that won’t go under the seat in front. And then then spend ages rearranging the overhead bins and the belongings of those who boarded in good time, and who didn’t travel with ridiculous amounts of carry-on luggage. Then bitch like mad when the cabin crew get strict with them. Personally I can no longer handle the stress of boarding a flight early early just to get a space for carry-on bags. I would rather spend a few more minutes at the other end waiting for my checked-in luggage and board the flight in a leisurely manner after everyone else, secure in the knowledge that my laptop bag can slip neatly under the seat in front. One of the few good aspects about Terminal 5 is that your bags now arrive in double quick time. I’m conscious that as I write these words I am on a flight … with checked-in baggage … going to T5.

Although I must admit that I did once have an infuriating woman in front of me who clearly didn’t understand one of the unspoken laws of the frequent flyer: that your bag goes under the seat of the person in front of you and the space under your seat is reserved exclusively for the use of the person in the row behind you. The only pleasing fact about this story was that along with her duty free bottles she had also deposited something fairly soft in one of the bags. I am ashamed to say that it felt satisfyingly like duty free cigarettes as I flattened it under my feet.

Things to hate about travel (2) – the voluntary seat change

This is a gripe about the person who asks you to change your seat for an inferior one so that they can sit beside someone who they know. Then then they don’t talk to them at all throughout the flight. By which time you’re stuck somewhere inaccessible and can’t do a thing about it. For some reason it’s always the seat you’ve moved to that has the moron sitting in the row in front who reclines the seat fully back into your space. You can see the seat that you gave up and it is splendid in its isolation, free from reclinee interference. That’s when you realise you’ve been had. Next time you vow to say no to the request. But somehow you know that it would be churlish and you’ll be branded a misery.

Things to hate about travel (1) – end of flight announcements

These are the annoying announcements that ‘welcome’ you back to your own country. As if the audacity of this wasn’t enough, some airlines will freely dispense ‘welcomes’ to somebody else’s country as well. Presumably on behalf of someone in the other country who has provided dispensation to do this. I wonder who hands out these dispensations? Do they get traded between airlines? Is there some kind of market in them? The ‘welcome’ is often delivered in breathlessly enthusiastic tones on behalf of the ‘entire’ crew. As if there was some confirmation needed to show that all of the crew, that means absolutely all of them, are joining together in the collective ‘welcome’. Does this mean that on some flights there are members of the ‘entire’ crew who do not ‘welcome’ you home? Are there some miserable killjoys out there, languishing in the shadows of the galley and the emergency exit rows, who refuse to join in the collective welcoming to someone else’s country? Somehow I cannot imagine these recluses being the young and fashionable ones. The Mikaels or the Carlottas. No, they’ll definitely be the Brians and the Janes of the crew training academy. And by the way, while I’m at it, I’m not an idiot. I do know that the UK is an hour behind the rest of Europe. Are there really people out there who if not reminded would actually commit the chronometric equivalent of driving on the wrong side of the road? Ah … I was getting ahead of myself again … there are Americans.