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.

What next?

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