Dreadful experiences are trying to patience of travellers, says Steve Dunne, chief executive of Digital Drums

Author Douglas Adams once said: “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the phrase ‘as pretty as an airport’.”

Once you experience a cruise terminal and the boarding of a cruise ship, or enjoy the ease of boarding a high-speed train from Euston to travel to Edinburgh, you’re left in little doubt – airports offer a dreadful experience for a traveller.

This line of thought was triggered by seeing dozens of tweets over the summer from travel industry professionals clearly experiencing 
the worst that airports had to offer.

Long queues at immigration, indifferent food at exorbitant prices, exchange rates completely at odds with those on the high street, eye-watering car park charges, inadequate seating in terminals, great distances between gates – you could be excused for thinking a strategic decision had been made by management teams to create the most miserable experience possible.

Passenger pain

A quick search on the internet started to reveal reports, surveys and stories of airports and their practices that bordered on a national scandal.

According to one report, complaints at UK airports rose by 77% last year. Meanwhile, press cuttings emerged of one British airport rumoured to have tried to charge passengers for use of its escalators, while another was charging 30p a minute to travellers wanting to use the drop-off zone. Some UK airports insist you place your toiletries in sealed plastic bags, but will only provide them to the passenger for £1.

A BBC report indicated that one in five flights to popular holiday destinations is delayed by more than 30 minutes, and 38,000 out of 199,000 international flights from UK airports to popular destinations were delayed between June and September last year.

I can vouch for the misery of delayed flights. I have stopped flying between Scotland and the southeast of England because I spend more time in the air circling Heathrow or Gatwick than I do on the actual journey.

Airport avoidance

When I mention to airport bosses the miserable experiences travellers endure, the knee-jerk response is about airport capacity, the need for another runway or simple supply and demand. I appreciate that, but do they justify some airport companies’ mean-spirited tactics?

The travel industry is in a constant battle with government about the rate of APD and getting it either reduced or abolished. However, I am sensing a subtle sea change in the traveller’s view of the airport experience.

Maybe we can live with APD, but I’m not convinced the public will put up with the almost dehumanised experience that passing through an airport has become. Perhaps, if things don’t change radically, more people will opt for a staycation or a ferry, cruise or rail journey.

This prospect presents a tremendous opportunity for regional airports – a marketing strapline of ‘We make airports human again’ strikes me as a powerful marketing strategy.

The message from the industry to airports is simple: improve the experience or risk seeing travellers change their habits at your expense.

Let’s make airports human again!


Britain’s airports rated as some of the worst in the world