I queued for two and a half hours at Birmingham Airport – a quarter of scanners were out of action

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Birmingham Airport CEO Nick Barton has been all over the news this week to reiterate his frustration at chaotic delays.

He urged passengers to not have more than 100ml of liquids in their hand luggage. He said one in six travellers were overlooking this rule. The best way of getting through quicker was to make sure we weren’t flouting the regulation after it had been abandoned before being unexpectedly brought back, he said.

In the same month that airports were supposed to have introduced upgraded security scanners, a last-minute directive from the Department for Transport (DfT) effective from June 9 has again restricted all liquids in hand luggage to containers of 100ml or less, irrespective of whether they are scanned in the new generation scanners.

Birmingham Airport had already introduced high-tech 3D scanners as part of a £60m security upgrade – the first major UK airport to do so – but had not yet allowed passengers to take any liquids over 100ml due to pending regulatory approvals. It has blamed a government u-turn and passenger confusion, resulting in many arriving with hand luggage that doesn’t comply. The airport says that it “continually” has non-compliant bags with liquids over the allowance “which results in extended queueing time for customers.”

This didn’t seem to be the case on the day I was held up. It’s important to be clear: This was at 5am. This is absolutely the worst time.

What I experienced as I queued appeared to have equally as much, if not more, to do with inactive scanners and ongoing building work. There definitely weren’t one in six of us keeping us waiting with the wrong amount of liquids.

As a passenger who waited for two and a half hours from 5am on Sunday, June 16, I’d say a bigger issue appeared to be two out of eight scanner lanes were inactive. Another one jammed, with a member of staff climbing on to the conveyor belt to free someone’s jacket from inside the machinery.

Why are they not working? We mulled over as we snaked through the guided lanes, and wondered if it was a case of not having enough staff. It was announced a day after I flew that some 100 new employees had been recruited.

I saw an expected amount of bags diverted to a different lane where a security officer would quiz its owner, but I didn’t witness anyone flouting the rules with a bigger liquid container.

Perhaps the worst part of the queue was before we all piled into two available lifts. People were complaining they needed the loo or couldn’t stand for much longer. There weren’t any obvious toilets on our route. Had I seen any, this is where a customer ambassador would have been very welcome to hold my place in the queue. Some people were wearing lanyards or high vis jackets that said ‘hidden disability’ At this point, they were still waiting like the rest of us. There have been reports of those wise souls who booked Express Lane tickets in advance going through in very short times – quicker than normal even. Booking fast track remains an option if you plan ahead, places are limited though and at just £5 online and £7.50 per person, once you’re already there, it’s understandably proving a very popular choice.

A spokesperson for the airport has said “for customers who are less able to stand for durations we advise they book the assisted travel service. However, if a customer is queueing during our peak periods and feels they need assistance then our customer ambassadors are in the area and can assist them without losing their place in the line.”
If required, Assisted Travel should be booked with your airline at least 48 hours before departure. If you require Assisted Travel, make sure to register at the Assisted Travel Help Desk at least three hours before your scheduled departure time. The Assisted Travel Help Desk is in the concourse area near the Spar shop on the ground floor of the terminal building, next to check-in zone B.

Every now and again airport staff would come and pull people out of the queue if their flight was approaching. This was excellent for the passengers being singled out but it was causing a great deal of disappointment from those of us left in the queue – as it dawned on us, how long we had left to wait, judging by these scheduled take-offs.

Apart from these efficient interventions to get the line moving, no other staff offered any more information at any time. We just filtered through the best we could as six police officers looked on. We didn’t knowingly see any customer ambassadors.

We had an option to drop off our luggage the night before but decided against it. Some people were mistakenly joining our queue before they’d checked in but were soon pointed in the right direction to separate queues at their check-in zones. This was by us fellow travellers as at this stage, staff were nowhere to be seen.

Anyone in our queue who loves an airport ritual of a hearty breakfast or a good mooch around Duty Free would have been disappointed. There was no time. I bought some water and then it was straight on to the plane. It must be tough for the businesses who’ve paid a mint to have their outlets here — even Wetherspoons wasn’t heaving. My flight was delayed by around 40 minutes as more passengers trickled on.

Airport bosses have declined to predict when the long queues will subside. Experts have said it could be until September.

According to Rob Burgess, as reported in The I paper, editor of frequent flyer website Head for Points “the delays are primarily due to the major construction work taking place at the airport coinciding with the first wave of summer holiday traffic. It’s difficult to see it improving while the construction is ongoing.”

This mirrors what happened on the day I queued exactly.

The best thing about the queue was everyone remained in good spirits and were respectful of the security staff who were doing their best in challenging circumstances. They were very polite. If their nerves were frayed, they didn’t show it.

So what’s the alternative? I could have driven to Manchester or East Midlands and still had time to spare.

Stressed passengers were reportedly missing their flights and queuing up to three and a half hours last month.

This came at a time when Birmingham Airport had been ranked the worst for delays, two years running.

With a continuing need to take exasperated travellers out of the queue as flight times approach, that unenviable accolade won’t change anytime soon.

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