Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Why Belfast International's extra security lanes won't be enough to shed its poor image

Attitude to the public must change if Aldergrove is to be an airport we can be proud of, says Fionola Meredith

Queues at Belfast International Airport have even led to some people missing their flights
Queues at Belfast International Airport have even led to some people missing their flights

I'm sure that Belfast International Airport did not deliberately set out to make itself a byword for chaos, queues and security delays, but its name has become legion among weary local travellers.

Month after month, we've seen similar pictures of massive queues extending down the main departures staircase.

Many people have been unfortunate enough to stand in that miserable logjam of disgruntled humanity, with some even missing their flights as a result. Twitter regularly goes bucko with frustrated passengers venting their ire, posting videos of hundreds of their fellow-travellers corralled in the lanes like cattle.

A change in the security company responsible for the checks, back in November, was supposed to make everything better. But still the backlogs have continued.

In January, one passenger reported that it took him two hours to get from the front door of the terminal to the departure gate. You could drive from Belfast to Dublin airport in less than that time.

Now, the International is seeking to ease the situation by expanding its security area from six to eight search lanes.

Well, hallelujah.

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It's welcome news - but it will take a heck of a lot more than two extra conveyor belts to turn Belfast International into an airport we can be proud of.

Aldergrove has a serious image problem, and it's not solely due to the delays, ridiculous and unacceptable as they are.

Last summer, it hit the headlines twice in quick succession, for reasons unconnected to queueing.

First, the airport had to apologise to a disabled man, Steve Smithers, who was travelling from Belfast to Gatwick to visit his cancer-stricken father, but was prevented from going through security because he was carrying an essential spanner kit for his wheelchair. Mr Smithers - an extensive traveller who had never had a problem in any other airport - claimed he was told by security staff that the spanners would be a security risk because they could be used to "dismantle the plane".

Just ponder that image, if you will.

Then, a couple of weeks later, urgent questions about driver safety were raised over the airport's handling of a flood in its car parks, which left many vehicles water-logged. The International subsequently released a statement to "set the record straight" about what happened, in which it claimed to have been "the subject of a frenzied onslaught by certain sections of the local media".

As the lowliest PR apprentice knows, pompous bullishness and attempts to deflect blame on to others (in this case the media) are not the best responses to a crisis. And it certainly does not impress your core audience: your customers.

There was more intemperate language from the International in September last year, when Norwegian Air withdrew flights from Belfast to the United States. The airport accused the airline of "moronically channelling much greater levels of Northern Ireland passengers onto Dublin flights".

It was a disappointing decision, yes - but "moronic"? Really?

Factor in the security delays, and all this adds up to the public perception of an airport which needs to spend less energy pumping out arrogant excuses and criticism, and far more time improving its facilities, which - in my view - are various shades of grim.

I think of it as a Troubles-era terminal, low-ceilinged and gloomy: very different to the much brighter, fresher and generally hassle-free offering at the City airport.

I'm not saying that the International is the world's worst airport. That title could easily go to Brandenburg airport in Berlin, an embarrassing multi-billion-euro fiasco of a project which was due to open in 2011 but due to numerous financial and logistical problems still remains closed, costing the German authorities between €9m and €10m every month. Last year, 750 flight information monitors had to be replaced, at the cost of half a million euro, because they had burnt out after years of disuse.

To be fair, at least Aldergrove is actually open for business. But, just as Brandenburg can be seen as a failed symbol of hubristic German ambition, perhaps the International says something about who we are, too. A small, hapless and loudly self-important statelet that needs to step away from the past?

Somewhat farcically, in order for the International to create its new, improved security area, it will temporarily have to reduce the number of lanes. A spokesperson for the airport said: "We understand this may cause some delays."

You have to laugh, or you'd cry tears of pure tedium.

Belfast Telegraph


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