Bill Jamieson: Customer care is in terminal decline

SIMPLE courtesy could have alleviated the chaos that faced me upon my arrival at Heathrow, writes Bill Jamieson

I found myself last Friday night at the heart of the Heathrow Terminal Five Border Agency storm. Friends and relations had warned me beforehand that Terminal Five was not for the faint of heart. But nothing really quite prepares you for the existential hell it has become.

I would say from last Friday’s experience that a poorly staffed Border Agency is the least of the problem. What was glaringly evident – from the moment I entered the terminal to the breathless relief of leaving it on a packed flight to Edinburgh – was the lack of assistance, courtesy or civility throughout.

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Remember that for millions every year this is their first experience of the UK. And for tens of thousands of visitors to Scotland, this is a killer turn-off that can wipe out at a stroke the millions of pounds lavished on VisitScotland promotions. After a night like last Friday, who would contemplate with equanimity a repeat of the experience?

There is much that is very wrong about Terminal Five. It extends beyond numbers in those passport booths. This purpose-built building was designed to bring order and efficiency to the passage of millions of travellers, easing the very chaos and overcrowding to which it is now clearly susceptible.

But from its baffling miasma of corridors, elevators and staircases to hallways with passengers in coiling snake-like queues that would put Hampton Court maze to shame, Terminal Five has become a revelatory rite of passage exposing what a depressing, officious, bureaucratic and unwelcoming country we have allowed ourselves to become. I was ordered, hectored and pushed from one queue into another, the high stress of the airport staff transferred instantly to the thousands of tired and confused passengers. Any notion of customer care or service was absent. I do not expect pampering. I know I am just one of thousands. But I do appreciate a modicum of civility when asking for assistance. And, in an environment where we are in particular need of the kindness of strangers, this was quite lacking.

My business at Terminal Five should have been simple. I was only meant to be passing through for a connecting flight to Edinburgh.

Regular users of Terminal Five will vouch for the strange and inexplicable way this glass cube of a building belies the complexity of the journey ahead for disembarking passengers. I soon lost my way, having to descend staircases, proceed through more long corridors, travel on an underground tube and ascend again, this time in large sealed metallic lifts with adults, children and luggage packed into them as the steel doors closed. On Friday evening I was lucky. There were queues, but all three lifts were working.

Along another interminable passageway I made good progress, only because I was in the wrong lane. I was ordered into the heart of a long queue. Instead of wheeling left into another concourse I carried straight on and – lucky break – found myself in a clearing in front of immigration control with only two or three passengers ahead. On the other side of the rope was a melee of hundreds of (presumably non-EU) passengers queuing under a large sign proclaiming “Border Agency”. My passport was cursorily inspected before I was released into another maze of elevators, corridors and concourses to the baggage inspection area for my connecting flight. Was I home and dry? Not quite.

After the ritual of laptop, belt, jacket and shoe removal, I discovered my flight bag had been pulled out on a table for special inspection. There it remained until I asked what the problem was, as I was on a connecting flight. Enter Miss Bossyboots from behind the luggage-scanning machine. I was held up for 20 minutes as she adorned latex gloves, equipped herself with arm’s-length tongs and a medical swab and proceeded with the air of a top-drawer forensic scientist to daub my bag with all the earnest ferocity of Emilia Fox in Silent Witness.

As she swung the daubs into what seemed to be an electric toaster, the minutes ticked away. I was duly asked to open the bag and disgorge the contents.

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As every item in my toilet bag was laid out for inspection, she pounced triumphantly on a tube of Boots spectacles cleaner: “You can’t take this!”

I would have thought it not unreasonable to deduce that for a spectacles-wearing passenger in his mid-60s this was not an unusual item. Nevertheless, it was confiscated. “Air travel”, she intoned as if passing on a deep secret, “is not what it used to be.” How on earth could I not have guessed?

So what, you may say, and why does this matter? It matters, first, because such an introduction to the UK can nullify the millions spent on tourist and visitor promotions. First impressions do last – and Terminal Five can be a hellish gateway to Scotland for many.

Second, it matters because the problem is not just staff numbers, but the rude, crude and bossy way passengers are treated. Some might ask what else can you expect in a business having to handle thousands of people. But businesses from supermarkets to Costa Coffee and Starbucks have to contend with thousands every day, and customer care and courtesy are fundamental requirements of business survival. If “Terminal Five” was the attitude when you checked in at a hotel, it would soon have no customers.

Third, it matters because “solutions” such as imposing a levy on airlines to pay for more Border Agency staff miss this core aspect of the problem: a missing culture of customer courtesy and care in dealing with the travelling public. Such levies would in due course be passed on in higher fares to passengers, so that UK taxpaying passengers would end up effectively paying for the Border Agency operation twice.

Finally, it matters because this is not an incurable condition to which we must submit, but a malaise within our gift to rectify. Yes, more staff in the booths would help. But the Terminal Five problem is as much about attitudes as it is about numbers.