To Gatwick yesterday, then, for the first meeting of the new Gatwick Passenger Panel that I told you about a while back. We took a tour through the much improved, light, airy and enormous north terminal, with its huge, covered outside area and modern glass frontage. After a slightly embarrassing journey through customs – who knew that I had three tubes of half-used handcream and four lipbalms (look, I love a lipbalm, I can’t help it. One of these days we’ll discuss the merits of Carmex vs Blistex, but not now, okay – people are looking), dropping my magazine and nearly strangling myself with my security pass when it got tangled with my scarf (I know, classy) – we arrived at our meeting room in the lovely passenger lounge.
The meeting was hosted by the gorgeous BBC News 24 presenter and all round lovely lass Penny Haslam (bit like herding cats, frankly – the poor girl did well to keep us all in order). We are a random bunch: John Carter (travel journalism LEGEND – who incidentally was a top bloke), the wonderful Jasmine Birtles from MoneyMagpie.com, incredibly knowledgable business travel journalist and editor Mike Toynbee and the Disabled Living Foundation’s Philippa Bromley with, of course, Gatwick’s CEO, Stewart Wingate (not forgetting the lovely Sarah from Gatwick and PR Ellie).
Times are a-changing for Gatwick. No longer under the umbrella of the BAA, they are free to be competitive and want people to actively choose to fly from Gatwick. They are investing hugely and are keen to provide a service second to none (the Apple effect, as Penny called it). The positive outcomes from these panel meetings, though, will benefit all travellers and, hopefully, improve the experience for passengers at all UK airports. No pressure, then.
We started off our panel discussions by listing the one thing for each of us that really makes or breaks our airport experience. Considering our diverse backgrounds and specialisms our answers were similar. It seems what most of us want out of an airport is information (but not an overload of it) and a general flow (as John eloquently put it) from checking in, through security, into departures and off onto our flight. We don’t want to get lost, we don’t want massive holdups through security, complicated technology or surly immigration officials. What we’d love is to see a friendly, helpful face or two – a nice light airy environment and an all-round pleasant experience.
From Stewart Wingate’s perspective, he was very open and honest about our views, telling us the feedback he’d received from other passenger surveys/complaints etc and he was, most importantly, really interested in what we all had to say.
From my own perspective, representing parents, the pitfalls of family travel are many and it was easy for me to list them: after setting off at 4am to the airport, your child has just fallen asleep in the buggy when the surly man at security wants to turf them out so that the buggy can go through the x-ray machine… You’ve just come off an 8 hour flight, with a child desperate for the loo, only to find a mile-long queue for just two toilets…
But then consider the business traveller – they don’t generally care so much about shopping or duty free – they just want to get to their destination as quickly as possible. Things that would make the business travellers’ life easier aren’t so different to those of, say, parents, or the disabled – but maybe a day room where they can grab a quick shower between connecting flights would be nice – places to charge laptops, meeting rooms…
John also made a really valid point about older travellers – frustrated with huge queues, complicated check in procedures and invasive security checks, it seems that they’re moving away from the airports towards other forms of transport: the Eurostar being one of the major ones. I found this fascinating – and a bit disturbing.
But the biggest eye openers for me were the points raised by Philippa Bromley of the Disabled Living Foundation about the very diverse challenges faced by the disabled traveller: imagine how upsetting it must be, when travelling with a disabled child, to be confronted by a massive queue for security when you know your child will shout out and make noises, and other travellers will stare and make comments. Consider also how terrifying a disembodied automated voice could be for someone with, say, Autism or Alzheimer’s. Think how daunting it must be for a person with learning difficulties when confronted with an automated check-in. All these people must be considered, and Gatwick are determined to make travelling better for everyone.
All in all, it was an enjoyable, enlightening – and exhausting – day. My journey home was delayed in a rather comic fashion when our train appeared to have no driver. After a 20 minute hunt (and a bit of giggling during the announcements) a driver was found and I eventually got home safe and sound. I do admire those that rely on trains and tubes to get them to work every day – I’ll need a sofa day tomorrow to get over it.
More information on Gatwick Airport is available on their website: gatwickairport.com – and if there’s anything you’d like me to bring up at the meetings, feel free to contact me or leave a comment below.