John McLellan: Airport spreading its wings

Airport chief executive Gordon Dewar kept his cool when the baggage-handling system broke. Picture: Jane Barlow
Airport chief executive Gordon Dewar kept his cool when the baggage-handling system broke. Picture: Jane Barlow
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It was silly o’clock last August when, dragging our two half-asleep sons with us, we stumbled bleary-eyed into Edinburgh Airport for an early flight to spend a weekend with friends in France.

And there, rather more bright-eyed than us, was the chief executive of the airport, Gordon Dewar, on duty for what he expected to be the busiest day of the year.

I’ve known Gordon Dewar since his Scotrail days and it’s fair to say he doesn’t know how to face challenges other than head-on. So there he was, setting an example by being out at the sharp end rather than sitting behind a desk waiting for reports from the front.

How he puts himself on the line was plain for all to see in last night’s BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary about the airport, which culminated in a near disaster one day last summer when it handled around 40,000 passengers amidst a catastrophic failure of its baggage handling systems.

It may well have been the same day we flew, but if so we were through without a hitch and long gone by the time more than 2,000 baggage-laden Spanish cruise ship passengers were coming and going amidst the meltdown. Phew!

But there was Gordon and others from his senior management team humping cases and trying to figure out the self-check-in system to get customers on their way. It’s no surprise there were times on the show where the strain was clearly noticeable. Accepting the seemingly benign offer from TV producers to participate in such shows might seem like a good idea at the time, but last night’s programme showed how dangerous it 
can be.

The camera crews float around filming hours and hours of tedium until suddenly something dreadful happens which might make TV gold. Totally unrepresentative of the day-to-day reality, but good TV all the same.

The near collapse of the airport that day was just such a moment, and provided a climax to what was otherwise a pretty dull programme. But even though the events were nearly a year ago they were enough to give the Beeb’s publicity team material to make stories for this week’s papers.

Such shows have cost many businesses their reputations, but despite the problems the terminal seemed to emerge with its reputation intact.

Gordon Dewar certainly kept his cool amidst the fraying tempers with a TV camera stuck up his nose. This was no Call Centre and Gordon certainly no Neville (and the Welshman will be lucky to escape a tribunal for abusing an employee with a speech impediment in this week’s episode).

The airport chief’s resigned response to the complaints was pretty much textbook customer relationship stuff, and I know that being on the shop floor is not just something he does for the telly. Locals watching the show might now feel warmer towards the staff if they encounter turbulence on their travels. In particular, the sensitive way the autistic boy Liam was treated was exemplary.

It certainly contrasted with our treatment on a horrendous holiday flight with the now defunct Flyglobespan, on which the pilot announced on the Tannoy if our clearly frightened three-year-old didn’t sit in his seat the flight wouldn’t take off. That really got our fellow travellers on our side. He got in such a state that he threw up all over one particularly grumpy woman.

But back to last night. Lorraine, the announcer who can give her grandchildren elocution lessons, was a star, while Lorna the security supervisor must keep the make-up concessions going single-handed.

Did anyone spy the chairman, Sir John Elvidge, once Scotland’s most senior civil servant? Unlike his successor at St Andrew’s House, he always kept a low profile and last night’s walk-on part was no exception.

The low point wasn’t the baggage crisis, but Richard Branson lifting his kilt to reveal underpants emblazoned with “Stiff competition”. Eugh.

With more services like Virgin’s Little Red and plans to handle three million more passengers in the next six or seven years the terminal must expand. Arriving services have experienced delays in finding parking bays for some time now and nothing gets a visit to any destination off to a great start than an efficient airport.

The airport has been in a constant state of change and the acceleration of its development as a result of last summer’s incident can only be a good thing for passengers. For now the main entrance is again a building site, but from my experience going through departures yesterday, the place is still operating smoothly (although one member of security staff could do with some customer relations lessons from the chief executive). As a nationally important infrastructure, building work doesn’t have to go through the normal planning procedures otherwise you can bet your last ticket in the Ferrari prize draw we’d be waiting years for improvements.

And if the population projections for Edinburgh are borne out – well over 600,000 citizens by 2035 – then the target of 13 million passengers by 2020 will have been more than surpassed. That’s a lot of people wanting to go on holiday in the first two weeks of July.

As was pointed out in the programme, they are short of parking bays, short of check-in terminals and short of car-parking space. The road access will need improving soon because the limitation of the tram service will make no difference to an expanding local population.

There will be those unhappy at the prospect of a bigger air terminal but it’s essential if the city is to remain globally competitive. And when you see how its people are out at world trade fairs fighting for business we should be right behind them.

Build on Boroughmuir’s potential

Edinburgh Rugby players have been given a taste of what might have been and what could still be at Meggetland recently, playing their games at the home of Boroughmuir instead of the cavernous sandpit which is Murrayfield.

Thankfully the indication is that they will be staying on the canal side for most of next season. As a canal-sider and rugby follower that obviously pleases me, but so too should it please anyone involved with the pro team.

Scotland star David Denton has spoken of how much better it is for the team to play in a tight club environment rather than the atmosphere-absent national stadium and the opportunity is still there to make Boroughmuir the permanent home for all Edinburgh games.

I went along last Friday night for the Cardiff match and despite the result the experience was so much better. Seeing the likes of Denton, and Lions Gethin Jenkins and Alex Cuthbert up close is worth the money compared to Murrayfield.

The pitchside viewing at HQ? Useless for kids.

To make Meggetland work at its best there will need to be changes, though. Car parking for one thing is inadequate. In fact the car parking isn’t even adequate for Boroughmuir’s mini rugby tournament – it’s come to something when parents get parking tickets on a Sunday morning.

But it’s not difficult to fix – there is access to the back pitches from the road behind Slateford railway station and there is even a road next to Harrison Park which runs along the old railway line right through to the ground.

And spectator accommod-ation? There is ample room at the railway end to build a small stand to hold say 1000 supporters. Ideally the main grandstand could be altered to take away the ridiculous cantilevers which take up so much space and add nothing, but that might cost too much.

So where will the cash come from? The ground is council owned and they don’t have the resources, certainly not while the entire school estate needs urgent attention after the Liberton High tragedy.

The SRU? Well they should be in a position to put up something now their debt is manageable and a better ground for a pro team should mean more income.

The third source is private finance. New Meggetland is the product of private investment, from the now defunct developer Applecross as part of the deal to build the flats on council land.

It should be possible with the loosening of control by the SRU to encourage a private investor to take over the running of Edinburgh rugby with a brief to not only improve the team but the facilities for fans. A three-way partnership with the SRU and the council could create the kind of set-up which will produce real results.

Now European Cup rugby has been revolutionised and the automatic places for the two Scottish teams lost for good, there is a real financial incentive for the SRU to get the pro game fixed and get it on the same level as the top Irish sides.

Private money has transformed Ulster’s Ravenhill stadium and it can be the same for Meggetland. The SRU has nothing to lose except regular mediocrity.

Too public-spirited for my own good

Charity, as the old cliché goes, should begin at home, but that doesn’t mean not doing the right thing.

Last Friday, I popped over to our local Scotmid to get some cash from the cash point and to buy my Evening News. Putting the money in my wallet, I went into the shop, picked up the paper and stood in line to pay.

The elderly lady just in front of me paid for her bits and pieces and left the shop with her arms wrapped around her loose bundle of shopping and what looked like a half open purse.

On my way out I noticed a £20 note lying in the doorway and guessed the woman hadn’t noticed it fall. So I picked it up and ran after her.

“Excuse me, have you dropped this £20 note?” I asked on catching her up. “Oh yes, she said, I’ve just got that out, thank you very much.”

So I turned and headed towards home, glad that I’d done the right thing. But then I thought. What if it wasn’t hers? Maybe I’d dropped it on my way in when putting my cash back in my wallet. So I had a look and sure enough, the fifty quid I thought I had was only thirty.

This was only a couple of seconds after I’d handed over the loot, and on retracing my steps was there any sign of the women? Not a chance. Did the £20 get handed back to the shop? Nope.

I hope she got something nice with my moolah.

Patients come first

The power of an Evening News campaign some years ago has obviously not been forgotten at NHS Lothian, with strong indications that services provided by Princess Alexandra eye pavilion will not be taken out of town.

Closure of the Pavilion was first mooted in the late 90s, with the ludicrous plan that the facility should be transferred to St John’s Hospital in Livingston. This was despite the fact that the majority of its patients lived in Edinburgh, were elderly and, if suffering from eye problems, were hardly likely to drive.

In fact, one of the procedures used regularly in examinations is to apply a dilator so the doctors can get a better view of what’s happening inside the eye. Elderly or not driving afterwards is not recommended.

Maintaining a city centre service where public transport is good made sense then and makes sense now, but it took a concerted campaign and a petition to make sure the St John’s plan was scrapped.

NHS Lothian has often had a difficult relationship with the public, and indeed the Evening News, culminating in our campaign to improve care of the elderly in all its hospitals following some truly harrowing cases of neglect.

Fortunately, on this occasion the interests of patients seem to be at the forefront of planning and the Pavilion’s services will be retained in the city. Thank goodness for that.