Jake O'Kane: Nothing normal about the standards at Belfast International Airport

I'm not as frequent a flyer as I once was – thank God – but after the delays I encountered at Belfast International Airport last year, I'd be minded to follow the example of many others and choose to fly from Dublin in the future

Belfast International Airport admitted last year that its lengthy security queues represented "an unacceptable standard of service". Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Jake O'Kane

IMAGINE you invite a new friend over to visit. They arrive at your door but you make them wait before admitting them. Once in, you offer them average food at extortionate prices.

Obviously they’d ask to leave but once again, you make them wait, only this time in a queue for over two hours. You can be sure they wouldn’t return anytime soon. Better still, they’d tell everyone they met what a horrible experience they'd had and advise them to stay away.

My analogy relates, of course, to our main airport. While I know this paper has covered the ongoing difficulties at Belfast International Airport, it seldom features on television or radio; this is baffling. Occasionally you get a cursory two-minute mention of passengers queuing for hours to get through security, as if that’s somehow normal. It isn’t.

The International Airport’s problems with security queues stretch back to last May, when they apologised to passengers facing two-hour waits, admitting they offered "an unacceptable standard of service". Airport management at the time offered assurances that their then-security contractor, ICTS, was in the process of training an extra 40 new members of staff to deal with the backlog.

This apology was followed by yet another in August, after some passengers missed flights due to spending hours in security queues. This time, the airport management cited "unprecedented passenger numbers". But surely the number of passengers booked on every departing flight was known in advance, or had planes started sneaking in and out? Or worse, were passengers breeding mid-flight?

They added that ICTS were once again experiencing "staffing issues". A new security company – Wilson James – was brought in in November. I could’ve told them this wouldn’t work out – you can’t trust a company with it’s name the wrong way round.

Predictably, the queues didn’t get any better, with "staffing problems" still the excuse of choice offered to travellers standing for hours over Christmas.

But it isn’t just queues at security. When 100 passengers arrived home last August – some in the middle of the night – to find their cars water-damaged after flooding in the airport’s overflow car park, their misery was compounded due to receiving neither communication nor help from airport management. Then there are car-parking fees so high you almost need a second mortgage to cover them; the extortionate prices for mediocre meals; the shabby and dated décor – in fact, it’s everything.

As for the culinary delights on offer, all I can advise is to bring a sandwich. I was travelling a few years ago and stupidly asked about gluten-free options in a restaurant; the look on the server’s face made me wonder if I’d started speaking Hebrew. I won’t describe the inedible monstrosity I was served, as some of you might be eating; suffice to say, I paid a lot for the privilege of going hungry.

I took to social media last week to demand that Belfast City Council ask for the removal of ‘Belfast’ from the official name of the airport; Belfast has had enough pain over the years, we don’t need this. My comment immediately drew dozens of responses with irate passengers sharing horror stories about the airport.

I don’t need to rely on other people’s experiences as I’ve quite a few of my own. I’m not as frequent a flyer as I once was – thank God – but after the delays I encountered last year, I’d be minded to follow the example of many others and choose to fly from Dublin in the future. Even though this involves a two-hour drive, we consider it a better option than risking being stuck in a queue at the airport 20 minutes up the road.

When Ian Paisley decided to delete his Twitter page last year I’m sure the airport would have liked to follow suit as their feed is a constant litany of customer complaints. Airport management were criticised last February when it became known they had sponsored a DUP fundraiser organised by the North Antrim MP. Many questioned why they would sponsor such an event but I think it’s obvious – what airport wouldn’t want to keep a frequent flyer like Ian happy?

As weary passengers finally took their seats on departing planes over Christmas, they looked back to see that even the airport sign was taunting them; the light in the ‘L’ in ‘Belfast International Airport’ had gone out, showing a sign which read ‘Be fast International Airport’.

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