IT IS SAID that travel broadens the mind. Up to a point, perhaps. But in recent years my travels have tended to mean dealing with an outfit that has sprawled out of all recognition, become nothing more than a retail ‘experience’ (not in a good way) and shown every sign of creatively inventing obstacles for the weary traveller. I speak, of course, of Edinburgh Airport.
We used to have a nice wee airport at Turnhouse. It was not, of course, fit for the demands and pressures of today, any more than little Riem airport in Munich – which I first encountered in 1967 – would have been. In Munich there now stands the splendid, well-appointed, user-friendly Franz-Josef-Strauss modern airport, which has in its basement a station of the Munich underground. That is what integrated travel is, and no-one does it better than the Germans. Of course, Munich airport has its share of fast food outlets and shops, as all modern airports do. It is also well furnished with escalators to make the traveller’s traverse of the airport easier and more pleasant.
For some reason not vouchsafed to us, Edinburgh airport has accompanied its rash of shops and fast food outlets with a very user-unfriendly system for travellers who form its consumer base. For example, the one-way travellator to the new domestic gates is several miles from security – so it feels. The returning traveller has to trudge wearily for what seems like miles. The escalator that used to convey returning passengers from arrival gates to the ground floor baggage collection area has been removed. Yes, removed! The airport’s owners seem to have been determined to wipe out thirty years of progress.
Unless one is privileged to use one of the few airlines with departures and arrivals using a gate with an air bridge, one’s lot is to climb down staircases on the way out and climb up them on the way back, carrying one’s hand luggage. On the outward leg of a journey, one has to walk out onto the tarmac and climb a flight of steps onto the aircraft, carrying one’s hand luggage, regardless of the weather.
Just like the old days.
On one’s return, it is a matter of climbing down the steps with one’s hand baggage and across the tarmac, regardless of the weather.
Then, having climbed two flights of steps indoors and trudged from the arrival gate, one climbs downstairs again to baggage reclaim. There actually was a brief period a few years ago when we were allowed to disembark onto the tarmac, proceed into the airport on the ground floor and progress to the baggage carousels. Not any more: the authorities want to get their money’s worth from their new stairs, so it is up and then down, carrying one’s hand baggage.
To be fair, there actually is a lift down to baggage reclaim: one lift. But if the good Lord had intended us to climb stairs in an airport, he assuredly would not have invented wheeled cases. I’m not sure whether the idea of the escalator has been banned in Edinburgh, but escalators now appear to have vanished, except for those to ascend to departures after checking in. Why have they been spared? Do escalators fall foul of the Hate Crime Bill or violate the Gender Recognition Act? They might as well, given their absence.
I remember a particularly grisly experience, in 2016. Having returned from Tokyo – a very long flight – we embarked the connecting flight to Edinburgh. It was late, apparently because a VIP had to be accommodated. This turned out to be Nicola Sturgeon. In Edinburgh, the plane came to a halt at the far perimeter of the airport. We were ejected, and left to sit, at 9.30pm, for half an hour in a bus with its doors open and rain pouring down outside and into it. Our bus was not permitted to move until the chauffeur-driven limousine had arrived and whisked the VIP away. And then we had the (dis)pleasure of standing for half an hour, waiting for a taxi.
If being inside Edinburgh airport is now a dreary experience – being forced to negotiate acres of shops before being able to get to where one needs to be – then coping with it outside has become a nightmare. The new (since about 2015) dispensation has meant that, on arrival, instead of taking a short route from the taxi/car drop off point, across the road into the terminal, one is now obliged to cross a couple of tracks to get to a large open-air concourse and take the terminal in the rear. One has to hope that it will not be raining when one pushes one’s heavy luggage across this concourse. It is, however, the return journey that is the real killer. The arrival of the much-vaunted Edinburgh tram several years ago displaced the original taxi rank, which was reasonably conveniently placed for arrivals coming via the luggage carousels, and which had a covered area for those queuing for a taxi in the rain. The new dispensation relegated taxis to the drop off area which involved pushing a trolley or pulling a case over and around various obstacles – not a pleasure in the dark. Now, as I recently discovered, having negotiated the obstacle course, the building that previously (in 2019) accommodated the black cabs and private hire cars has been emptied and gutted.
It wasn’t a pleasure to arrive there at 8.30pm recently and find that the only remnant of the former dispensation was a poster on a wall naming an Edinburgh taxi company and declaring it to be the airport’s client. There was no notice directing one to any new taxi rank, just as there had been no directions to a taxi rank as I exited the terminal building. Buses and the wretched tram were mentioned, but not taxis. I was later told that there are purple arrows on the ground that are to be followed to the taxis. I was, of course, looking on the ground for purple arrows. Not. There is no signage. It’s almost as if the people who run Edinburgh airport (I assume someone actually does) want to discourage taxis, which are, in fact, a good money-spinner for the airport given what they charge for a taxi licence and then a drop-off or exit charge.
Stranded at the airport with no visible means of getting myself and my suitcase home, I phoned for a taxi, no doubt sounding somewhat distressed. I was lucky: there was one in the vicinity of the airport and he would come and pick me up at the old rank – probably breaking all the rules. Apparently, there is a new taxi rank, back over near the tram. How was anyone supposed to know that?
I don’t much like airports in general, and imagine many people feel the same. Oliver Tambo airport in Johannesburg, which I traversed six times on one trip, is not one of my happier memories. Standing for two hours in San Francisco airport a couple of years ago could not be classed as a pleasure. But sparsely populated San Diego airport in 2013 could. My best experience in airports in recent years was after I had fallen from a height of eight feet onto my back and damaged it. I was due to fly to Hanoi to meet my Californian friend for a river cruise in northern Vietnam (that’s another story), and I had chosen Emirates from Glasgow airport for my flights. Emirates allowed me to book wheelchairs in the three airports I was using, Glasgow, Dubai, Hanoi. This was especially welcome in the new splendid and bejewelled, and very, very large terminal at Dubai. On the day before my return from Vietnam, I was on a coach from Halong Bay to Hanoi when I received texts from Emirates telling me that my homeward flights had been changed. Regardless, at every airport, when I arrived, a wheelchair was waiting for me, with a staff member to push it. This was not only fantastic service: it impressed on me that the only way to travel around a modern airport is in a wheelchair.
This, of course, would be difficult in Edinburgh with all its flights of stairs and what seems like only one lift.
Photo of Edinburgh Airport 2016 by Jackie Davies from Adobe Stock.