Saturday, 4 February 2012

Luton Airport tough on passengers

Is client humiliation a corporate policy of Luton Airport? I first asked myself this question back in 2009 after not being let by airport ground staff to take my baby's safety seat on board of an aircraft. Having flown with that particular airline a dozen of times I knew that they in fact tolerated the use of baby car seats on board of their aircrafts, instead of the much less safe and comfortable children safety belts. But my knowledge and my status of a regular customer of the airline and a travelling parent did not have any effect on two not very friendly airport employees who insisted that I should have the baby in my hands and leave the seat with them. I finally obeyed, just to be asked a minute later by a flight attendant why had I not brought the baby seat on board, as it would have been much safer.

Soon after than the airport introduced a drop-off fee, which needs to be paid by drivers who just stop for a minute or so to drop off or pick up passengers at the airport terminal. Rather than offering a 5 - 10 min gratis period for parking which would be sufficient for people to just jump in or out of the car along with their luggage along, the airport management had apparently decided to "milk the cow". As a result even taxis dropping or collecting passengers are expected to pay the drop-off fee. Mind you, this is at an airport which is accessible only by road, including from the nearest train station, and whose access road is notoriously narrow and gets jammed quite often.

About a year later Luton was the first airport where my cabin-size suitcase was measured at the check-in desk and found 3 kilos overweight. I had to pay an extra fee and register it as luggage, carrying my laptop in my hands through security and to boarding. This was when I got the intuitive sense that the young man at the check-in was as embarrassed as I was, for sending me to the cashier to pay for my extra 3 kilos of hand luggage. In fact I got the sense that his fear of being watched by his colleagues more than anything else made him so inflexible and impolite.

With online check-in and direct access of passengers to the boarding gate this terror seemed to be over, but not for long. On January 25, 2012  I witnessed Luton Airport ground staff measuring passengers' carry-on luggage, and asking them to pay for extra pieces of weight at the boarding gate.  How it worked was that three ground staff members walked up and down along the queue of passengers waiting for boarding at the gate, screening their hand luggage. Those who had more than one piece were immediately asked to pay extra, even if the second piece consisted of items obtained in the airport's own shopping area, after security. Others, whose carry-on suitcases seemed too large were asked to fit them in a metallic frame, allegedly the size of the aircraft's overhead luggage racks but in fact much smaller.

I was not sure what I found more disturbing: the concentration-camp warden style of behaviour of airport staff - most of them in their 20s, some seemingly of ethnic and immigrant origin; or the fact that they all seemed to do it absolutely naturally. That it was a part of their job was obvious, but that they were content with losing human face seemed scary. More strikingly, they seemed to almost enjoy terrorising the passengers, and competed in demonstrating zeal and creativity in this routine task.

At some point one of them saw me taking photos and immediately gave me a sign that I should stop - which I ignored. A second later another one ran to someone senior - both in rank and age, reporting on me. "The passenger with the hat over there has been taking photographs", I heard her voice through the crowd. The supervisor, a middle-aged English woman, looked up at me for a second, and then shrugged off the complaint: "So what?".  I was not sure if I was lucky to be in the priority boarding lane, or if she was someone who still remembered the times when passengers were treated with respect. Or perhaps policing passengers who take photographs was not on her list of duties. In any case her younger colleague seemed surprised, but was quickly back to her duties.

The 'low-cost' business model of flying has introduced new flexible pricing techniques. And rules, such as weight and number of bags, are there to be obeyed. Passengers of low-cost airlines, of the kind predominantly using Luton Airport, have accepted these conditions and rules, which make travelling somewhat less convenient than with traditional airlines. But nowhere in their travel contracts is it written that they agree to be treader with disrespect, humiliated and policed through the course of their journey. First, because the principle relationship between passengers and airline industry staff remain one between client and service provider.  And second, because in fact the payment levels on low-cost airlines differ, and in fact there are still many passengers who chose to use them for reasons other than the ticket price - like the convinience of arriving to Luton Airport for instance. A corporate policy that humiliates and terrorises passengers for the sheer fact that they chose to use the Luton Airport does not seem to be of great behefit to the chance of the airport company to attract higher number of passengers and income.