The Travel Detective

Why I Boycott British Airports

Locations in this article:  Amsterdam, Netherlands Brussels, Belgium London, England

Airport2August 31, 2007

The situation at British airports continues to get worse. In the first six months of this year, British airways managed to do the nearly impossible — it somehow lost 550,000 bags! That number bears repeating … 550,000!

How did this happen, and what can be done to make the situation better? The answers are incredibly easy, but they do require one essential component which has been missing from the folks who run the airports in Britain: common sense!

For those who have read my comments on this subject before, then you know that I am actively boycotting all UK airports, and for one very important reason: the British Airport Authority’s (BAA) stupid, absurd and unjustified rule about carry-on bags. Only one carry-on bag per passenger. Period. Everything else has to be checked.

For most business travelers, especially those who will do everything within their power NOT to check bags, this is a nightmare scenario. In the U.S., we’re allowed to board planes with one check in bag and one “personal” item, such as a laptop briefcase, purse, et al. This allows us to travel without the need to check any bags. (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again … there are two kinds of airline baggage … carry-on and LOST).

But once you try to fly from, or even worse, through a UK airport, you’re suddenly confronted with the one carry-on bag rule. What does this mean, especially when airlines will allow you to board your flight in the U.S. with two carry-ons?

It means you’re in big trouble. You’ll be denied the opportunity to transfer terminals when you land in Heathrow. You’ll be forced to enter the country, clear customs and immigration, and return to the check-in area, and check in that second carry-on. And therein lies a double problem:

1. If your second carry-on is an open bag, you now have to find and/or buy a larger bag in which to pack the smaller carry-on and/or two.

2. Because more people have been forced to check bags, the system clearly cannot handle that volume, and the BAA indicates it has no plans to change the rule.

Now, is the rule because of security and terrorism? No.

It’s because the BAA doesn’t want to hire the staff necessary to scan/screen the carry-on bags. But that creates an even costlier problem for airlines — there is a physical limit to the number of bags any one aircraft can carry, and at least in the case of British Airways, the bags have far exceeded that capacity, not to mention the capacity of the baggage sorting system at Heathrow for all airlines.

I’m apparently not the only one boycotting Heathrow and other British airports. More and more passengers are flying to/through Amsterdam, Frankfurt, or Brussels rather than to be forced to play by these nonsensical rules.

Already, at least one carrier has postponed serviced to/from Heathrow. British Midland has delayed inaugurating service from London to the U.S., claiming that because of the baggage rule (and the baggage system), the number of passengers interested in flying from Heathrow has decreased, and has actually resulted in a measurable market shift away from Heathrow by passengers.

Indeed, the economic impact is substantial to airlines, especially British Airways. But until the BAA comes to its senses, please take my advice: Unless you are flying with a backpack or just a briefcase (and nothing more) you should avoid Heathrow. And because so many other people are checking bags, you might want to avoid Heathrow even if you have only one carry-on bag, because the odds are increasing that your checked in bags won’t make it.

I’ll be monitoring the situation regularly at UK airports, so stay tuned.

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