Ah, the glamour of air travel.The early morning wake-up call, the nightmare journey to the airport on public transport laden with unwieldy suitcases. Your eventual arrival at an overcrowded and chaotic check-in, short-tempered and perspiring. If that rings an all too familiar bell, then Transport Secretary Chris Grayling shares your pain.”Often it is the struggle to the airport with heavy bags that is the most challenging bit of the journey,” he said on Friday, as he announced the government’s consultation on a new aviation strategy. Mr Grayling said one of the things the government was interested in was how it could make the journey to the airport easier. ‘Commercial failure’So did he have any ideas? Yes he did.”In Hong Kong, for example, they’re looking at a solution we’re looking at carefully where travellers can check their bags in up to two days before their flights, not at the airport but in the centre of town,” he said. “They then pick up their bags only at their final destination when they finish the flight. It makes things easier for those passengers. It also increases space for passengers on trains on the way to the airport.”Sounds good. The only fly in the ointment is it’s been tried before in London and it was a commercial flop, according to the Independent’s travel editor, Simon Calder. Some airline passengers travelling from Heathrow used to be able to drop off their bags at Victoria or Paddington stations in London. However, there simply wasn’t the demand and the service was dropped. “Clearly it’s practical and has been tried, but it’s been a commercial failure,” said Mr Calder. ‘Fresh look’But it’s not just the trip to the airport that’s under scrutiny.As this graphic from the consultation document shows, the Department for Transport (DfT) wants to hear about the whole passenger experience – from booking a flight, to airport security, the flight itself and what happens at the other end.
The DfT says its consultation on a new strategy “will take a fresh look at the aviation sector and its challenges and opportunities, as well as the role of government”.So just what would make air travellers happier? What could be done to improve the experience? Talk to consumer groups and they focus on compensation for when things go wrong, such as delayed or cancelled flights.At the UK European Consumer Centre Wojtek Szezerba said that of the 500 customer complaints about airlines the group received last year, two thirds were about cancellations or delays “usually to do with the difficulty of obtaining compensation”. Simon Calder puts it more bluntly and says some airlines are “lying through their teeth to avoid paying compensation”.However, he argues, this could be remedied fairly simply. “That’s a matter of the CAA enforcing the rules and having sanctions for airlines that misrepresents the rules and mislead passengers,” he says. Big pictureThe DfT consultation document also said that, along with its “particular focus on consumers”, the strategy would “look at where government could, and should, make a difference”.However, rather than fiddling at the edges, Mr Calder thinks there are a couple of big fixes which would improve consumers’ experiences. The big picture is that two airports in particular – Heathrow and Gatwick – are simply too busy. He has a couple of suggestions about what could be done about that.One is to increase airport capacity. The government has said its preferred option is to build a third runway at Heathrow, although it’s not likely to see the light of day for many years. His second idea is to increase the tax – or Air Passenger Duty – for passengers using Heathrow or Gatwick to encourage people to fly from other airports. Either one of the solutions would relieve the pressure on the two airports, reckons Mr Calder.
Back in the day, of course, it all seemed so much simpler. Between 1957 and 1974 British European Airways passengers flying from Heathrow could check-in and drop off their bags at the West London Air Terminal on the Cromwell Road in west London, now a branch of Sainsbury’s. Then they were whisked off by bus down the M4 to the airport where they were deposited right next to the aircraft. Pie in the sky? Well, today security concerns would probably rule out dropping people off airside.However, there was another problem – even then traffic often held up the coach and delayed plane departures. So nothing’s ever perfect. And indeed even Simon Calder, who’s clocked up more air miles than most, reckons the UK has “the best range of options in Europe … and the world, in terms of destinations and fares”.But he adds “often the end to end journey is less than pleasurable”.Some may regard that as an understatement – in which case the DfT wants to hear from them.