So why are holidays always so damned stressful?
It starts with the journey to the airport. Have you noticed that most of our airports only have one main road access route? Birmingham – A45; East Midlands - M1; Luton – M1, Stanstead – M11; Gatwick – M23. Take a close look at the airport you want to fly from and its pretty certain that any blockage on the major access road is either going to prevent you getting to the airport at all, or will entail a major detour to get around to any alternative route.
The only exception I can think of (please don’t e-mail to tell me about the exception you know of) is Heathrow, where you can avoid the M4 exit by joining the M25 until you reach the Terminal 4 exit and drive around a lengthy orbital road to gain access to Terminals 1-3 by that method – but of course we all know what the M25 is like and everyone else will have had the same idea, thereby gridlocking the area!
OK, you’ve made it to the airport, so are your troubles now over? Well, we all know the answer to that.
If queuing were ever an art form then airlines and airport managements have turned it into a science. Queue for check in, queue for security, queue to order a meal, queue to board. Even on-line check-in doesn’t offer relief unless you are one of those slightly worrying people who can live for a fortnight on what they can squeeze into a small case or rucksack so they don’t have to queue for the bag drop. Yes, on-line check in just gives you a different queue to stand in and the bag drop is where you are asked all the questions that you have already answered when you checked-in on-line.
Security is such fun, isn’t it? I know it’s for our safety, but do they have to make it all so undignified? There really has to be a better way! Whoever discovers it will make a fortune.
Every time I fly, which is usually twice a year, I find they have introduced yet another new rule. This time it was for laptops and other electronic devices which have to be removed from hand luggage and passed through the X-Ray machine separately.
Now, if this new requirement revealed anything additional that would be fine, but what shows up on an X-Ray when the laptop is removed from the hand luggage is exactly the same as what shows up when it is still inside the hand luggage, so this is a totally redundant requirement.
On this trip I made the mistake of not removing my Kindle from my hand luggage and had to enjoy a ten minute wait in yet another queue for my bag to be searched by an overworked security lady. No, she didn’t ask me to switch on my Kindle, which would be the easiest way to check that it wasn’t a bomb. She had a much slower process she could use. She took it out of the bag, swabbed it to detect traces of explosives, tested the swab and then passed my Kindle through the X-Ray machine again. Meanwhile myriad other electronic devices were passing through the X-Ray machine without a second glance simply because they weren’t inside a bag.
Why do I get the feeling that all that queuing and testing wasn’t anything to do with security, but rather a punishment for not obeying an arbitrary rule?
So now we are inside the departures lounge and looking for something liquid to relieve the stress. Here is something that really gets my goat and sets my stress levels soaring. All the shops know that you have to dispose of liquids before going through security. Yes I know it is for my safety, but that doesn’t then justify all the retail outlets charging me a premium for anything I want to drink, from water to a drop of the hard stuff. A bottle of water that would cost me about 60p on the High Street now costs me £2. A pint of beer that would cost about £3.20 in a pub now costs up to £5.
This blatant profiteering should be causing a public outcry. Questions should be being asked in Parliament. It should be the subject of a one hour TV investigation, or a ten minute segment on Watchdog at the very least, but none of these things are happening so the airport retailers are getting away with it.
The same applies for food. A Wetherspoon’s meal that would cost you a fiver in your local pub suddenly costs more than a tenner. None of the retailers are innocent. The best that can be said is that some aren’t as greedy as others, but of course they have you over a barrel and they know it. You will be squeezed until you could be used to make cider.
Most of us factor this cost into our holiday budget or we go for the cheapest option, a packet of sandwiches, fizzy drink and snack choice, or “meal deal” as it is laughingly called. But all this does is allow this legalised robbery to continue.
Flight delays are a major cause of stress. Not just because you start to wonder if you will ever get to your destination, but because of nervous flyers.
The nervous flyer views every delay as a source of danger. There must be something wrong with the aeroplane. When it eventually arrives will they have fixed the problem; will the aircraft be safe?
Just because your aren’t a nervous flyer doesn’t mean that you won’t suffer this sort of stress. If you are traveling with a nervous flyer then you get the stress transferred onto you, with a bit added on for good measure. Suddenly you are supposed to be the world’s expert on aeronautical engineering and are supposed to be able to answer all those worrying questions. If you can’t or don’t answer then the stress just increases for both of you.
The airlines don’t help, of course. There is never an explanation for the delay. With the new laws on compensation for delayed travel the airlines daren’t make any statement in case it allows you to make a claim. The law of unintended consequences strikes again! So we are kept in the dark to worry, or trying to calm down those who are worrying. Our delay was an hour. Not excessive, but stressful just the same.
But it’s not over. First you have the flight itself to contend with. Airlines differ in standards from the diabolical of Ryanair to the not so bad of some of the more traditional operators, so I won’t try and describe all the things that can cause stress during the flight. It’s enough to say that the best you can hope for is that you don’t hit any turbulence.
After more tedious queuing for immigration and the bored/suspicious looks of foreign immigration officials we get to the most exciting lottery you will ever take part in. No, I don’t mean take-off or landing or anything like that. Despite recent tragedies air travel, mile for mile, is still the safest form of travel and, unlike car travel, is actually getting safer.
No, the lottery I refer to is the one that you didn’t even enter. The airline gave you a free ticket. It’s the one where you stand beside the baggage carousel waiting to see if your bag emerges.
In truth, thanks to advances in baggage handling technology, losing one’s baggage is a rarity these days. It may not feel like that when it’s your bag that fails to emerge (more of that later) but that doesn’t change the levels of stress that develop as you wait anxiously for that fragile cuboid that holds all your clothing for your entire holiday.
If it fails to appear then you are doomed to spending the first day of your holiday shopping for shorts, tee shirts, underwear, shoes and toiletries. If it’s your wife’s bag that goes missing then you are doomed to spend the entire holiday traipsing from shop to shop trying to find that exact dress that was in the missing suitcase – which, even if bought, won’t then be worn.
You can’t help thinking that your suitcase has had a better holiday than you did.
At last you are at your holiday destination. If you have booked with a reputable tour operator or if you did some proper research before you put together your own holiday package then you will probably enjoy your stay. The relaxation or excitement you were hoping for will probably be forthcoming. There’s still room for stress, but not on the industrial scale meted out by airports and airlines.
But all good things come to an end. Everything I described in the first 1400 words (if you count them please don’t e-mail me to tell me I’ve made a mistake) is about to start all over again, with the added complication of language differences. As your transfer bus departs for the airport you glance back to take one last look at your hotel, just in time to see your missing suitcase being carried into the lobby by a taxi driver - and your bus driver refuses to stop so that you can go and reclaim it
However, this time I’ve discovered a whole new source of stress. It’s called the Stansted transit.
The source of this stress is a little known security requirement. It only involves flights that arrive in the UK at one airport and then carry on to another, final, UK destination.
It appears that if you have a short stopover in your journey and you fly from an airport outside of the EU then you have to be security screened all over again before you can re-board the same aircraft that you just left. No, you can’t stay on the aircraft and wait for the new passengers to board. You have to collect all your belongings, troop off the aircraft and queue up in a corridor to go through security, then sit in a transit lounge until the new passengers have boarded, then you will be allowed back onto your aircraft again – this time without an allocated seat. Well, that's what happened to us anyway.
What deranged mind at the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) thought this one up? Where is the logic? It seems that security arrangements at Turkish airports aren’t considered adequate (I mention Turkey because that was where we had been on holiday). But that isn’t the illogical part.
In reality I consider Turkish airport security arrangements to be superior to our own. They security screen you, and your luggage, before they will even let you into the airport. They then screen you again before letting you into the departure lounge.
It seems that CAA logic dictates that having smuggled a bomb onto the aeroplane at your departure airport the terrorist is going to wait until the Stansted to Birmingham leg of the flight to trigger their device. The 3½ hour flight from Antalya just wasn’t going to create enough of a bang, apparently, so the terrorist is obviously going to wait for the 30 minute hop to Birmingham to do the dirty deed.
But this isn’t the only logical failure. Because if the putative terrorist actually left the flight at Stansted they wouldn’t be subject to any security checks. They would simply walk out into a crowded Immigration Hall (opportunity 1), then into a crowded Baggage Reclaim Hall (opportunity 2), where they would be (possibly) reunited with their suitcase which might also contain a bomb (opportunity 3) and then out into a crowded airport concourse (opportunity 4) and from there onto public transport, not least of which is the Stansted Express (opportunity 5).
So, there are at least 5 opportunities for the would be terrorist who made it through that thorough Turkish security system with a bomb to cause mass carnage at Stansted Airport. But it appears that we, the 100 or so people flying on to Birmingham, represent a greater threat to security.
OK, I’ve pointed out the logical inconsistency in this policy but “it’s for my own safety” so we’re stuck with it. But that actually wasn’t the problem. The problem was the way Stansted Airport implemented the policy.
Using an “airbridge” we exited the aircraft and entered a short corridor. There were no seats and no toilets. As you know, you aren’t allowed to use the aircraft toilets once the pilot has switched on the “fasten seatbelt” signs, which in the case of our flight had been about 25 minutes before landing. The average age of the passengers on our tour was well over 50. Between us we could re-stock a pharmacy from the myriad (I do like that word) pills we were carrying. Artificial hips and walking sticks abounded and aging bladders and colons were being tested to destruction, but we still had to stand in a barren corridor.
At the end of the corridor was an X-Ray machine and a metal detector arch. Yes, just one of each; there wasn’t room for any more. There were about a hundred passengers flying on to Birmingham.
Let’s say that for each passenger to get their hand luggage, coats, duty free etc through the X-Ray machine and themselves through the metal detector takes 30 seconds, how long will it be before the last passenger passes through security and into the transit lounge?
Yes, I made it 50 minutes as well. The thing is, according to the itinerary, the duration of the stopover is supposedly only 45 minutes. We had sat on the aeroplane for 10 minutes while the Stansted passengers had disembarked, so the total stopover time was already 60 minutes. Now I know why the flight was an hour late arriving at Birmingham the previous week.
If we were now immediately called forward to re-board the flight that would have been a fruitless enough exercise, but instead we were kept in the transit lounge for a further 30 minutes. 100 aging people with just two toilets between them. The only refreshments available were from two vending machines, one of which was taking people's money but not delivering any drinks.
Well, that’s all down to the CAA and Stansted Airport management, isn’t it?
No - because we didn't have to be at Stansted at all. Note the fact that the transit stop is on the way home, not on the way out. The passengers who boarded at Stansted to start their holiday wouldn’t have to go through all that hassle at Birmingham, because their journey started within the UK.
My tour company had deliberately entered into this arrangement in order to maximise the use of the aircraft’s capacity. The carrier, by the way, is a Turkish budget airline called Freebird (no, me neither) which had no doubt won the contract by competitive tender.
Yup, this is all about money and in particular the amount of profit the tour company makes. We’ve had our holiday so the tour operator can muck us about any way they like. If this had been the process on the way out no doubt passengers would have inundated the tour company’s representatives in Turkey with complaints. Instead we are corralled at Stansted where there are no company representatives to whom we could complain and then arrive at Birmingham where there is a similar lack of company representation. They then rely on us, the customers, to cool down and just shrug it all off.
The tour operator asked us to complete a satisfaction questionnaire and hand it in before we left Antalya. Two of the questions were about our satisfaction with our airline and the tour company’s organisation of our holiday. What do you think our answers would be now that we have experienced that transit stop?
But of course the tour company will now cynically use our completed questionnaires as part of their marketing, citing its thousands of “satisfied customers” as evidence of their competence.
The tour company’s name, should you wish to make a note of it, is RSD Travel and their UK office is Regent’s Place, 338 Euston Road, London, NW1 3BT. Guess who won't be travelling with them again.
While Stansted’s management may have implemented CAA policy somewhat ineptly, are they at fault? I don’t really think so. Stanstead isn’t an international hub. Most journeys start or finish at the airport. The number of transit passengers is low, mainly people who are switching aircraft and/or airlines and most of those have to go through Immigration Hall before taking their onward flight, which means they then go through the primary security channels, not the transit channel.
The airport has dealt with an unusual request in a ham fisted way, perhaps, but the problem mainly lies with the airline who made the request in order to save money so they could win a contract with a tour company that was trying to maximise profits at the expense of passenger comfort and convenience.
Unfortunately the story isn’t quite over. We still had the baggage carousel lottery to participate in and this time I was a loser. Yes, after the indignities of Stanstead Airport I get to queue all over again to report my missing suitcase. It did turn up on Thursday and I can only be thankful that I was spared the torture of going shopping to replace missing clothing. Yes I do think my suitcase had a better return journey than the one I experienced.
My stress levels have just about settled back to normal. Did I enjoy my holiday? I’m not sure I can actually remember. After the flight out and the flight back the memories of the bit in the middle, the bit I actually went for, have been swamped by my memories of the beginning and the end.
But never mind. We get to do it all over again in 6 weeks’ time when we go to Florence.
Next week my review of Mordred’s Victory & Other Martial Mutterings by Jamie Clubb.
"The whole of life is just like watching a film. Only it’s as though you always get in ten minutes after the big picture has started, and no-one will tell you the plot, so you have to work it out all by yourself from the clues." Terry Pratchett, my inspiration, who leaves a hole that will be hard to fill.