The Taste With Vir: Travelling to Europe? Keep an eye on your luggage

Updated on Jul 18, 2022 11:27 AM IST

If you are travelling to Europe over the next few months, you have my sympathies. Take care of yourselves and keep an eye on your luggage!

The Taste With Vir: Travelling to Europe? Keep an eye on your luggage(Reuters)
The Taste With Vir: Travelling to Europe? Keep an eye on your luggage(Reuters)
By, Delhi

My son was in Copenhagen last week for a few days before he got to London. I had been reading the international press so I warned him that Heathrow airport would be a mess. Immigration queues were so long that at some terminals, it sometimes took three to five hours of queuing up before your turn came. Luggage was often not loaded on to the same flight as you. And the security queue was so long that it snaked out of the security hall into the check-in area.

So, I was surprised when my son called me in some distress from Copenhagen airport, long before he got to Heathrow. His bags had not come, he said. There were other passengers who were also waiting for their luggage but the carousel had been put off and the belt was not moving any longer. The arrivals area was jampacked and an air of impending chaos filled the hall.

I suggested that he speak to somebody from the airline. Not possible, he said. There was nobody from Lufthansa in sight. There was only one counter called Baggage Services for all airlines and that already had 30 people lining up to fill forms about their missing luggage.

Most experienced travellers try and grab their luggage the moment it lands on to the belt because all too often somebody else picks up your bag by mistake. When they realise that it is not theirs they just leave it lying on the floor. So, it always pays to check the area around your carousel to see if your bag has been dumped somewhere by mistake.

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I suggested to my son that he search the spaces around the belt. Nothing. Then, out of sheer desperation he searched the area around all the carousels. That was when he found his bag. Apparently, a whole container of suitcases from his flight had been put on the wrong belt. When nobody claimed them (because passengers were waiting for them at the right belt) they just took them off the belt and left them lying around.

Copenhagen? Who would have thought it? Not according to our expectations of Danes or their public image.

But air travel in Europe has been such a mess this year that nothing really surprises me any longer. By common consent, the two main London airports (Heathrow and Gatwick) are the worst offenders. Last week, Heathrow suddenly cut the number of flights it would allow. This meant that airlines had to cancel scheduled flights that were already fully booked. (Virgin cancelled its Delhi to London flight, for instance, one day last week).

Some airlines (notably, Emirates) refused to implement these cancellations and called out Heathrow’s management for being the incompetent twits they are.

The decline of Heathrow, now one of the world’s worst airports, always shocks me. When I was a schoolboy, Heathrow was impossibly glamorous. Indian airports, on the other hand, were dumps. Now the roles have been reversed.

T3 at Delhi airport is world class. Mumbai airport has improved beyond recognition since the Adanis took it over. (Politically incorrect to say this but it is the truth.) Even Bangalore airport, despite the odd show of incompetence, seemed smooth when I arrived there as an international passenger last month.

What has made the difference? In both cases — Heathrow and our airports — the answer is the same.

Privatisation.

But the funny thing is that it has had the opposite effect in each case. In the days when we raved about Heathrow, it was government-run. But the airport was then privatised and it is now run by people who see their primary responsibility as being to the shareholders not to passengers. So, corners are always cut in an effort to make more money.

For instance, the current crisis is caused by staff shortages. During the Pandemic, the airport asked experienced staff to go. When life returned to normal, Heathrow tried to make do with the lower level of staff. Of course, it did not work and chaos has ensued.

Now, the airport is scrambling to hire more staff (ideally at lower salaries than the people it laid off during the Pandemic) but the process takes time because it involves obtaining security clearances and training the new people. And the British govt. has (foolishly, in my view) refused to let the airport hire experienced foreigners even to do the menial tasks (baggage loading etc.)

Would things have been better if the airport had not been privatised? Perhaps. Privatisation has destroyed British Airways which was once one of the world’s great airlines. It has created havoc in Britain’s train system too.

On the other hand, perhaps all this is part of a general British decline: It takes several months to renew your passport in the UK because the (government-run) system is so slow and inefficient. Asked about the scandalous delays, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested that the answer might well be to (you guessed it!) privatise the passport office.

Contrast this with India where privatisation has nearly always worked to the benefit of consumers. I can’t think of a single person who believes that the old government-run ITDC hotels were better than their privatised versions. Nobody believes that air travel was better in India when Indian Airlines was the only option. And the reason we now have world class airports is because the private sector runs them. Government owned airports —Chennai and Goa, for example — are still shockingly bad.

So why has privatisation worked in India while it has had the opposite effect in Britain? Frankly, I am not sure. It isn’t just that our old government-run airports and airlines were so bad that anything would be an improvement on them. It may be that our private airlines and airports are run by companies closely associated with individuals who take pride in running them. In the UK, they tend to be run by faceless global corporations.

Or it may just be that Asians do a much better job of running airports and airlines, these days. I don’t know a single person who will rate Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle or even JFK airports ahead of Singapore, Bangkok or Seoul. So, it is with airlines. What would you rather travel: Singapore Airlines or Air France? Emirates or British Airways.

Either way, it is sad to see the mess the First World has made of airports and the transport infrastructure. They just don’t know how to run them well.

If you are travelling to Europe over the next few months, you have my sympathies. Take care of yourselves and keep an eye on your luggage!

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Why hide the papers? Why keep the conspiracy theories related to Netaji Subhas Bose’s death alive? And why deny India the truth about the death of one of its great freedom fighters?

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