John McLellan: all hands to scanners at Edinburgh Airport

Edinburgh Airport chief executive Gordon Dewar. Picture: Jane Barlow
Edinburgh Airport chief executive Gordon Dewar. Picture: Jane Barlow
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For every highly successful business there comes a day of reckoning; hubris, comeuppance, call it what you will. The moment Icarus flies too close to the sun so his wax wings melt and he plunges to his death.

Resilient organisations can recover, chastened, but able to rebuild. Others die. The Bank of Scotland as was is dead and now exists only in name. The Royal Bank of Scotland built by Fred Goodwin collapsed and the new state-owned version still lurches from one crisis to the next.

The once all-powerful Vladimir Romanov is exiled in Russia, bankrupt, while Hearts emerge from the rubble of his empire.

And going back to Icarus and flight, is it happening right now at Edinburgh Airport? Has it grown too big, too fast, its bullish boss Gordon Dewar finally bitten of more than he could chew?

After a chaotic week, the view of many passengers would probably be yes; flights missed because the new security hall couldn’t cope, queues stretching down an immobile escalator, and all lamely blamed on an IT hitch.

To a degree the airport might be a victim of success, with a predicted five per cent passenger growth turning out to be ten, but it cuts little ice if it takes half an hour to reach the terminal from the A8 and then at least another 30 minutes to reach the departure lounge. And that’s without bags to check in. But forward planning is the name of this game and the irony is that alarm bells have been clanging for some time. The airport chiefs knew problems were mounting, solutions were identified but none of them were instant and it all reached boiling point this week with, yes, an IT hitch.

Airport staff were subjected to an unprecedented torrent of anger, in particular from regular travellers, to the extent that a comments board had to be taken down. “There are only so many ways to say ‘you’re s***e,’” said one staff member.

But as so many infuriated customers have pointed out, the holiday season proper has yet to take off. With the schools finishing and the Trades starting next week, unless there is a significant improvement it won’t be a few extra staff they’ll need but riot police.

Passengers have been regarded as a dripping roast by Edinburgh Airport for years now, with the drop-off and parking charges cranked up at every opportunity and justified on the basis of helping to fund improvements to the overall passenger experience.

That was fine when it worked. People don’t mind paying when the experience is good and the benefits tangible, but businesses shouldn’t expect to be loved. As the Royal Bank found very quickly, if you take people for granted it’s amazing how few friends you have when things go wrong.

So the anger passengers felt about the deterioration of what was previously a relatively smooth system was aggravated because the impositions they were previously prepared to tolerate were still defiantly in place.

And to make matters worse, staff have been at best helpless, at worst short-tempered and officious. No wonder customers react badly if a two-minute drive takes half an hour, face a hefty parking charge and are then barked at for the privilege.

So what is the recovery plan?

First of all the mea culpa. Marketing and communications chief Gordon Robertson is quick to admit they have got things wrong. “It has been a very bad week, we know that, and we’re very sorry but we do have a plan to sort it,” he said. Robertson accepts they under-estimated how long it would take the higher volume of passengers to get through the new system, which in itself is quite an admission for such experienced operators.

Secondly, Robertson revealed the design of the new security hall did not allow for enough room to accommodate more passengers taking longer than expected. He says the queues are actually no longer than before but the size of the hall is such that the lines are stretching out the door. It’s another extraordinary admission.

Thirdly, having identified the need for more security staff it has taken weeks to recruit and train them and they are only just ready to be fully deployed.

Now an extra 52 officers are on duty and as the IT issue has been resolved Robertson is confident this week’s problems will be resoloved, but even so he still advises passengers to allow half an hour to get through to departures after arrival in the terminal.

And to remember not to bring liquids through. “I saw someone try to take three litres of Irn-Bru through security and that only holds everyone up,” he said.

On the other hand, Robertson also says that all staff have been reminded about the importance of customer relations. “The new system does require the officers to talk more to customers and a lot depends on the tone,” he explained.

“If done properly it really works and in training for the new system we have perhaps not concentrated enough on customer service,” he added. Recognising that regular business flyers and holidaymakers often don’t mix, new dedicated lanes for families and the disabled are being opened up.

But the biggest improvement travellers want is not entirely in the airport’s gift; an end to the ridiculous regime of repeated random searching and over-sensitive scanners which puts far too many people clearly posing no threat through an unnecessary rigmarole which holds everyone up. Given the detection of terror is primarily an intelligence job, the intensive regime to which we are all being subjected is little more than show.

Bus and train passengers do not go through the same palaver despite 7/7 because the disruption would be too great. Are cars stripped to the chassis before driving on to ferries?

In other words, the reaction is proportionate to the practicalities and in the case of airports passengers go through the ritual humiliation because it’s easy to do.

So the most useful thing Edinburgh Airport and all other operators can do is to negotiate with the Civil Aviation Authority and intelligence services on ways to bring back some common sense to airport security.

For now, it’s all hands to the scanners at Edinburgh Airport for the big getaway, and that includes chief executive Gordon Dewar who has been doing shifts on the gates to make sure he knows what it’s like at the sharp end. And very sharp it has proved to be.

“I can’t deny the last week has been very difficult and the comments we have received have been very vitriolic,” admits Robertson.

“But we are now fully manned, the new officers are in place, we have a new layer of management and we are confident the issues have been resolved.”

As they say, watch this space.