Boris Johnson renews his campaign today for a new London airport, citing the lack of slot capacity and the loss of business to Britain that this is causing. I think we should also ask what kind of airport we want, if any: London’s airports are notorious worldwide for their slum-like conditions. Many people, myself included, go to great lengths to avoid passing through them if possible. Need they always be so bad? No, because there is a quite different model for airports, based on what makes the passenger’s experience as simple and pleasant as possible; one that gets you from the taxi to the departure lounge for your flight in five minutes. I experienced that again last week, and we could have it here and become a travel Mecca for stressed passengers. But is BAA listening?
All travellers know how stressful modern airports are and this is far more than a question of the long lines waiting for egregious security procedures that are increasingly intrusive and embarrassing but have so far failed to catch a single candidate terrorist. Many will have seen nuns being “patted down” by gloved officials in the US and elderly men forced to removed their belts under protest and told they can hold their trousers up with their free hand. The bad airport experience is more than security outrages, as older travellers know most acutely: the endless corridors and walkways, the forced marches past what are basically supermarkets, having now lost their original function since “duty-free” became meaningless within the EU. Nearly all airports are variations on these themes and vary little in degree of stress they create; it’s just our misfortune that London’s airports are among the world’s worst in their total lack of concern for passengers. How many hearts sink at that Terminal 1 sign “No toilets beyond this point” as you stagger off down yet another endless bay for a wait of indefinite length at the end.
But it doesn’t have to be like this at all, and the proof is Tegel airport in Berlin, probably the world’s best airport. It has been designed to make the experience of being in it brief and painless. As your car or taxi approaches the airport you pause at a large real-time departure board that tells you the gate for your flight. You then drive right to that gate. You enter the door and there is the check-in, five yards behind it is passport control and five more yards behind that are the security scanners, but with no crowds because they serve only your flight. Seven minutes after stepping out of the taxi I was in the departure lounge, boarding pass in hand, along with toilets, a good coffee bar and one modest shop with the usual drinks and perfumes for those who cannot kick the airport shopping habit. Coming in to Tegel, the process is just as simple: passport control, then luggage recovery and into the taxi rank - a total distance of 20 yards from the ramp door.
There must be costs to achieving this simplicty: passport officials, check-in clerks and security people must move around the airport’s gates on a strict timetable. But again, this arrangement suits us, the passengers, not them, the officials - an extraordinary concept. But think of the savings: less construction space needed for the glossy supermarkets, no need for fleets of electric cars, no trains of baggage rolling round the airport exteriors. I have seen the future of airports: it is Tegel Berlin. BAA and Mayor Johnson please note.