Why can’t Britain’s airports get the basics right?

London City Airport
Apart from London City Airport (pictured), many 'London' airports are located tens of miles outside of the capital - Getty/Photodisc

You only get one chance to make a good first impression. Land in Singapore, Dubai, or Kuala Lumpur airports and you get just that. These airports are clean, efficient, slick. Helsinki, Madrid Barajas, Munich, too. They mean business.

Britain’s airports, however, can give off more of an awkward uncle kind of first impression. They stumble their lines, ask for money in inappropriate places, get cultural sensitivities a bit wrong. We’re the country that invented Bond and Bentley, yet our airports are categorically Bean.

A case in point. Last week, Bristol Airport proudly unveiled a new “multi-faith area”. A fine idea. The only problem was that they plonked it in a car park, and it looked suspiciously like a bus stop or a temporary smoking area. On cue a social media mob (including priests and MPs) roundly mocked and criticised the prayer zone.

“Pilgrims of all faiths will be coming from all over the globe to worship in this ornate modern wonder,” one X (formerly Twitter) user joked. The problem is, people do travel from around the world to observe our wonders, and our airports are letting the side down.

Let us rewind to the very start of your maiden voyage to the UK. You land, triumphantly, in “London”. Well, unless that’s followed by “Stansted” (50 miles as the crow flies from central London), “Luton” (27 miles) or “Southend” (35 miles), that is. Other countries are in on this act; “Stockholm” Skavsta is 66 miles from the city, “Frankfurt” Hahn is 78 miles from Frankfurt. But I can’t think of another global city that so comprehensively gaslights its arrivals in this manner.

Heathrow passport control
Last year, more than 500 passengers accidentally side-stepped passport control upon arrival in the UK - PA

Still, you’re here, and it’s time to progress to passport control. Or as it turns out, maybe not. Last year, more than 500 passengers arrived in the UK and were directed the wrong way through the airport, meaning they side-stepped passport and immigration controls entirely, free to roam Britain at their will.

Home Office figures show that 574 passengers accidentally dodged passport control in 2022, up on 142 passengers in 2021 and 420 in 2020. If you paid for the privilege of “fast-track passport control”, an astonishing £10 at Gatwick, that would have been good money down the drain.

Passport stamped (or not) you cruise to baggage control to retrieve your luggage – if you aren’t one of the unlucky ones. In June 2022, a “sea of baggage” piled up outside Heathrow’s Terminal 2 building (I went to witness the mound with my own eyes) after a technical malfunction. Passengers waited for days to be reunited with their bags, but at least they were at the right airport. On an Inverness to Manchester flight in May this year, the captain reportedly emerged and announced, sheepishly: “Your luggage is going to Belfast”.

Baggage handlers load suitcases from a pile outside the entrance onto a DHL van at Heathrow's Terminal 2
In June 2022, a 'sea of baggage' piled up outside Heathrow’s Terminal 2 building after a technical malfunction - Jamie Lorriman

With bag or without, it’s time to head into town (if you can: on Monday this week, all train lines to Heathrow – the Elizabeth line, Piccadilly line and Heathrow Express – were down). Hopefully you’ve budgeted well for this trip. If paying on the day, your Heathrow Express ticket will cost £25 one-way for the 25-minute journey, or £37 return. That is one of the most expensive train journeys per mile in the world. In comparison, at Berlin Brandenburg you will pay £3.30 for a one-way train ticket into town; at Amsterdam Schiphol it’s £10.20 for a return shuttle ticket; Paris Charles de Gaulle costs £9.95 one-way au centre de la ville.

Or perhaps you’re getting picked up? In which case, your friend will need some sterling to hand. The sub-15 minute wait at Stansted will cost you £7, while Leeds Bradford (£6) is the second most expensive. Of the UK’s 15 biggest airports, only London City and Birmingham don’t charge for the privilege of collecting a loved one at the pick-up/drop-off point.

And then, after your wonderful stay in the United Kingdom, it’s time for your return flight. But not before you have run the gauntlet through a horrific duty free area in which oxygen is replaced with Dior Sauvage, while those M&M characters stare on, maniacally, from all angles. If and when you survive all that, your destiny is a holding pen at the gate, thoughtfully equipped with fewer seats than any normal flight capacity.

There are improvements on the way, in theory. Manchester has recently spent £440m on its new Terminal 2 building, although reviews have been mixed. The Telegraph’s aviation expert, John Arlidge, described it as resembling “a Westfield shopping centre with runways attached”. Gatwick Airport has also just unveiled its new, £249m train station concourse upgrade which a railway worker (speaking anonymously) told me was prone to flooding on rainy and blustery days, on account of not having walls in the right places.

Duty Free shop at Manchester Airport in England, UK
Manchester Airport has recently spent £440m on its new Terminal 2 building - Alamy

Credit where credit’s due, some of our airports have upped their game in recent years. Heathrow Terminal 5 is a delight and I challenge anyone to say otherwise. City Airport is classy, speedy, and the only airport in the UK that doesn’t fleece passengers for superfluous add-ons. It is also the first to have rolled out a new generation of scanners that can detect liquids, meaning you no longer need to fuss with 100ml limits.

Let us pray that our other airports get their act together soon. I know a great multi-faith area where we can do just that.

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