Sunday, 30 March 2008

The Terminal  


"Life is Waiting", as the tag line for the Hollywood movie, The Terminal states. The life that is waiting in the movie is that of Viktor Navorski, played by Tom Hanks. In this film, due to a mixture of bureaucracy and petted-minded cruelty by an immigration official (played by a scene stealing Stanley Tucci). Leaving aside Speilburg's usual schmaltz, the fact it could have done with being an hour shorter and Hanks' awful attempts at an Eastern European accent, the film does throw up a few interesting points about modern life and the ways in which human beings can easily be treated as passport numbers. It explores the events that can occur when something goes wrong with a system; when someone doesn't tick a box, doesn't fit into what they should, where a situation has to be decided by a human being for the benefit of another human being.

Now, to link this with the story of the weekend (easily usurping the 300 dead Iraqis in two days) - Heathrow's Terminal 5 being a bit rubbish. I am being facetious, losing a couple of people's bags is a bit rubbish - stranding between 15,000 and 20,000 bags at the airport may well have led to slightly stronger words, particularly from the passengers. How is it that Terminal 5, so recently opened by the Queen and so keenly promoted by BAA, with its slogan 'Make Way for a World-Class Airport', could have hit the ground so badly? It was built on time and on budget which, considering other recent white elephant nominees (The Dome, Wembley and very likely the Olympics) is quite an achievement. It is the largest enclosed space in the UK; it houses a Gordon Ramsey restaurant and enough designer stores to make it impossible to swing a paint-bloodied fur coat without hitting one; it is the home of one of Europe's oldest and most respected airlines. Wait a minute - British Airways? Ah, that's where it all went wrong.

Let's go for another slogan and BA's wonderfully ironic "London begins with British Airways". It seems that many passengers will be rather more interested to know when the end to their British Airways experience is, than to celebrate a less than auspicious beginning. And that end may be some time coming with so many bags in great piles around Heathrow. In fact it is likely that the majority of the passengers (many of whom are in fact just transferring at Heathrow) will not see their bags until sometime after the end of their journey. BA have apologised and have promised an extra 400 hundred staff, but the fault lies firmly at their door and their handling of the situation has been abysmal, treating the thousands of people affected as poorly as Stanley Tucci's character treated Viktor Navorski.

BA's policy of a £100 upper limit on hotel accommodation costs for delayed passengers has been rightly criticised. This limit was terrible PR, contravened European law and was just downright mean. BA is at fault for the baggage failures and it should, as a major airline, take responsibility for its actions. However, BA has not been acting like a major airline for many years and, as a result, should no longer be seen as one.

BA treats its business passengers very well. Its Club World seats are amongst the best and it has invested heavily in giving its frequent, business transatlantic travellers every comfort imaginable in a flying tin can. However, the economy flyers are not given a service relative to their class. These passengers have increasingly been treated as if they were flying with Ryanair, an airline that prides itself on its low costs and no frills service, rather than as 'The World's Favourite Airline'. Anyone who has travelled long-haul with BA will know what an excruciating experience it is. The seats are too close together, the food is awful and the flight attendants are over-worked and somewhat surly (possibly because they are forbidden from wearing certain types of jewellery and can be suspended for eating leftover food). BA's budget airline approach has even extended to the baggage it holds, where it is is now charging economy passengers if they check in more than one bag (up to £240 per bag) but this approach has not affected the prices of the tickets. In fact, as we all know, BA was found guilty of fixing its prices with other airlines and thus over-charging its customers (it was subsequently fined heavily). The BA management clearly took on some of the ideals of the budget airlines who were eating into so much of its European business and they did this while inflating their prices; making their company that most rare of things: an airline that thought it was the world's favourite, acted like the world's cheapest and failed to be either.

Lost luggage is not new to BA. In fact, BA has the worst record for losing luggage of any European airline (bearing in mind the budget airlines do not publish their figures). Is it really any surprise that BA, with such a poor record when it comes to the treatment of its passengers, and a particularly abysmal record with cabin baggage, has managed to leave so many on the Heathrow tarmac.

BA is a failure and it needs new management. It will need to be streamlined and modernised. Moreover, and more importantly, it should not be given any more preferential treatment by the government or BAA. It has been given a brand new, shiny terminal to play with and it has managed to fill the place with mounds of baggage. If BA is allowed to continue as it is it will continue to treat people like passport numbers and they will be feel that life is waiting for them in another country, just as long as it is not the UK.

Monday, 24 March 2008

The Fear of Fu Manchu  


The Olympics are almost upon us and, as with any Olympics worth its salt, the 2008 Olympics is steeped in controversy. However, this Olympics is not going to be just the usual mixture of camp ceremonies and muscle bound athletes. This Olympics is in Beijing and the Chinese have a knack of doing everything far bigger than any other country could even comprehend.

We are going to be treated to an opening ceremony beyond anything we have seen before. Imagine Chinese New Year with practically no limit on the budget. We will stare in disbelief at the magnificent Olympic stadiums, awe-struck at the ingenuity and design that has gone into the famous Bird Nest Stadium.

This Olympics is also likely to be the most rigorous with regards to testing athletes for banned substances and it should be, another Balco Labs permitting, as drug free a games as we have had in the past couple of decades.

This Olympics should see an improvement in the British performance as, after the disappointment of Athens, so much money has been poured into British athletics. We have a couple of rising stars and at least one serious hopeful in Kelly Sotherton, of being a gold medallist.

The question is, then, why are so many of us so adamant that this Olympics should never go ahead?

China undoubtedly has one of the worst human records in the developed world, with the state executing nearly 4,000 people each year, by far the largest number of state executions. This figure is even more shocking when you consider the second largest (Iran) executes a mere 159 and the US 59 (SOURCE: Amnesty International). Equally, its treatment of Taiwan and Tibet is horrific, with the former regularly threatened with military force and the latter pitifully subjugated.

Tibet has been in the news a little more than Taiwan recently, with Tibetan monks leading protests against Chinese rule. Several of the monks are missing, with Amnesty International calling for their release. There has been wide-spread brutality by Chinese riot police and its military in its efforts to quell largely peaceful protests.

China has a pretty poor record when it comes to the environment. South Korea annually feels the full force of Chinese industrial power as every Spring the country is steeped in a deep brown-yellow cloud of pollution that has floated over from China and Mongolia. I lived for two years in Seoul and I can testify from first hand to the pollution caused by the 'Yellow Cloud'. People avoid going outside when the cloud is at its most dense, staying inside to avoid choking on the dust, to prevent their eyes from stinging and becoming bloodshot and, most of all, to avoid the foul stench.

All in all the people who argue for boycotting the 2008 Beijing Olympics are more than justified to criticise China's human rights and environmental records. However, these people are certainly not justified to use these as an argument to boycott the Olympics.

Napoleon famously said "Let China sleep for when she awakes, she will shake the world". China has slept for a long time and, for a period in the early to mid 20th century, it seemed to be in a coma. It has now awakened and it is starting to stretch its limbs. From Nixon's historic visit to China, to its entry to the World Trade Organisation and on to the present day, China has been slowly opening itself to the rest of the world. However, the party leadership, however much it has embraced capitalism, has retained a desire for one China. This belief that the great landmass of China, with all its various ethnic groups and cultural traditions, should be one is held by the vast majority of the Chinese people and it has been so since the days of the First Emperor two thousand years ago. It is largely irrelevant which countries wish to break away from China, the Han Chinese who make up the vast majority of the Chinese people place the unity of their nation as central to their country's and their personal identity. As such, in arguing that China is ruled by a cruel and despotic government which seeks to subjugate and threaten any parts of its empire who dare to wish for independence, people are rather missing the point. They are, in fact, falling for the old Cold War mentality of black and white thinking and of believing that the Chinese government is run by a Fu Manchu style, melodramatic villain.

So, if the Chinese majority are so keen on unity, even to the detriment of those who wish to break away, are we in fact dealing with a nation of Fu Manchus? Of course not. Having visited China on a couple of occasions I have always been impressed by the people and their great passion for their country. It is true that Shanghai smells and that Beijing taxi drivers have a terrible habit of reversing into streams of unruly traffic; it is true that everything is chaotic and that you are more likely to have a local delicacy ripped from your hand by a beggar than to sit zen-like in a park; it is true that the level of poverty in the countryside is sickening compared to the wealth in the cities. However, everything about China is in flux, and that this constant transition so full of colour that even the considerable darkness is drowned out. I have never met anyone who has been to China who has not left in love with the country and its people.

Equally, with regards to the dictatorial and cold-blooded, Ming the Merciless mentality we have been taught to think of the Chinese authorities there are many examples to the contrary. I took my laptop through customs once with a Chinese colleague. The customs officer upon seeing the laptop wanted to take a look inside. My colleague shouted at him and demanded the laptop back and the customs officer dutifully obeyed. I am by no means suggesting that this was a good thing (it was not a bomb), but we have been brought up in the west to see East Asians, particularly the Chinese as cold and untrustworthy and as having authorities who are as cruel as they are dictatorial. This is not true.

It is true that China limits access to certain websites. The BBC website, for instance is blocked by the Chinese government as it has been critical of it in the past. However, Western countries and media organisations are largely at fault. Western countries cannot simply push their ideals upon another nation while at the same time taking its money for helping to limit those ideals. Yahoo! and Google should certainly not have made a deal with the Chinese government if they believe in free speech and Western governments could have intervened. Equally, whereas the BBC is blocked for being critical of the Chinese government, the majority of news organisations including CNN have not been. Why is this?

The 1936 Olympics went ahead despite the fact that the Nazi party's open discrimination of Jewish athletes and desire to promote its Aryan super race. The US and the UK quibbled about sending a team to the Olympics but both decided to send teams. This was the right choice for the wrong reason. As the majority of Western governments wish to have a piece of China's sudden prosperity, Nazi Germany was also suddenly powerful and countries such as the UK and the US wanted to avoid upsetting them. Governments who have understandable concerns about Chinese human rights should make their objections clear, but this should be independent of the games. Individuals should feel free to boycott the games, but they should also do so for the correct reasons and not because of some pre-existing cold war fear of the Chinese people.

However much the Olympics should be treated primarily as a sporting event it is true that it has a huge influence on a country and its citizens, not to mention its appearance to the rest of the world. China, more than any other country, wants to demonstrate its worth and it is through events like the Olympics that the Chinese government will move towards giving more human rights to all its citizens. To boycott this event is to say that China is not welcome and it will push it further away. China will fully awaken with the Olympic Games and let's make sure that it knows it is welcome.