e-bloody-Passport gates


Unless you’re scuttling about in the document-free Schengen zone, an international journey means passing through passport control. This is rarely an experience worth travelling for on its own account, but sometimes a briskly cheerful British immigration officer can make your day at the end of  a long homeward journey, with a bit of banter about the weather.

The worst thing about passport control until recently was the queuing, and queues were never longer, nor more unruly, than in the late 1980s and early 1990s at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. In fact there wasn’t anything deserving of the description. There was simply an unstructured crush in front of the passport booths and you had to fight to retain your position in it and to advance. It often took more than an hour, and most businesses paid for business class seats just so that their staff could rush to the front of the melee. The grim, unsmiling scrutiny of the border guards was no fun either, and it could take nearly five minutes for your passport to be examined and stamped.

Contrast that with arrival at Kuala Lumpur, where immigration officers offer you sweets, a smile, an instant feedback machine (green smiling buttons or red scowling ones), and a cheerful ‘Welcome to Malaysia Truly Asia’ efficiency (although, if you’ve got a twist of cocaine in your luggage they’ll just as soon hang you).

Now, wherever you go in Europe, they’ve given us e-passport gates to make our lives even easier. Except that they’re rubbish. They’re more often than not unreliable and they’re too damn difficult for most of us to use.

Compare them to the self-checkout machines we use in supermarkets. Their makers seem to have worked out how to make these machines work pleasantly with humans. They’re cheerful (‘Have you swiped your Nectar card?’), grateful  (‘Thank you for using Sainsbury self-checkout’), and more or less moron-proof. I use them all the time. The technology works.


Not so, e-passport machines. Although there must be some standard software at the heart of them, the surface features of these intelligent turnstiles are utterly different, and they’re very far from moron-proof. Often they’re not working at all. There was a row of about twenty of the things at Stansted late last night, but only about ten of them were receiving visitors. It’s hit and miss for me. The Prague ones just occasionally accept my passport, the Sofia ones never, and I enjoy a success rate of about fifty percent at Stansted, Luton and Gatwick. I think I do the right thing, but there are times when I must remove my passport from the reader, and put it in again. It’s an anxious process, especially with all that resentment building up behind you. Have I centred it, or should I press it to the left or to the right? Have I pressed it flat enough?

Sometimes you’re only admitted to the camera part once you’ve naviagated the reader, and then you don’t know whether to blink, or smile, or stay stock still. Sometimes it’s over in less than five seconds, sometimes it’s back to the Soviet days with five minutes of meticulous scrutiny. And often on the screen in front of you there’s this pasty-faced and tired traveller looking back at you in unflattering black and white, that’s you.

I see people struggling. I saw a young lady last night who was trying to make an EU identity card work. Idiot. I saw a man standing in front of the camera with hat and glasses on. Idiot. There are so many morons standing moronically in front of these utterly moronic machines doing utterly moronic things in an utterly moronic way, that you simply want to scream. They shouldn’t let them into the country if they can’t work an e-passport gate.

And then, of course, when I’m struggling myself to make the damn thing work and jiggling my passport all about, there’s the thought of everyone else, exasperated, behind me.

Can’t they make this dreadful experience a better one? One obvious thing is to make the instructions more intelligible. Often, there are incomprehensible graphics that you realise, after a minute or more, are urging you to remove your passport and start all over again, or your shoes, or your head. Why don’t they ‘speak’ to you in the language of your passport (true, they’ve probably got to read the passport first to know who’s issued it)?

Give me the cheerful old immigration officer any day, and the banter about the weather.


Making Sense of Airline Pricing

I travelled to Toronto via London ten days ago, flying business class on British Airways. Fortunately, I wasn’t paying, and neither was my company. The client, unusually, was willing to pick up the bill.

tickets air

When searching on http://www.ba.com I noticed that a ticket from Prague cost less than half the cost of a ticket from London to Toronto and back. Four flights instead of two flights, but less than half the price. Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that it’s only distance that determines price, but I was still astonished at the difference. Revenue management is a fine art, and I suspect that all manner of factors come into play, demand being the main one, but whatever algorithm balances the profitability of expected sales from London against the profitability of expected sales from Prague must be a complicated one. How to decide whether to reduce the London price slightly to stimulate demand from London as opposed stimulating less profitable demand from Prague?

Certainly, if I had the time and needed the comfort, and was based in London, I’d be more than happy to add a comfortable day or two in Prague at both ends of a trip to Toronto, even if it meant flying through London both ways. I’d be saving a substantial amount of money.

So, what determines price? I can’t work it out. It’s a black box, the contents of which are known only to the revenue managers at British Airways. I had a look at business class flights to New York leaving on 18th and returning on 25th of November (converting prices into GBP, and showing % against London price):

PRG  LHR  JFK  LHR  PRG     2010      58%

LHR  JFK  LHR                         3472     100%

CDG  LHR  JFK  LHR  CDG     1854     53%

SOF  LHR  JFK  LHR   SOF     1794     52%

DME  LHR  JFK  LHR  DME      1769     51%

The distance between London and New York is 3459 miles,

And for Toronto they are these:

PRG  YYZ  JFK  YYZ  PRG      2130      40%

LHR  YYZ  LHR                         5277     100%

CDG  YYZ  JFK  YYZ  CDG     2383     45%

SOF  YYZ  JFK  YYZ   SOF     1978     37%

DME  YYZ  JFK  YYZ  DME      2595     49%

The distance between London and Toronto is 3547 miles,

Now these are snapshots on a particular day, so I’m not sure that these would be the cheapest prices you could ever pay for these routes, but one can at least conclude the following:

  • The cost of flying from London to Toronto is disproportionately more than the price of flying from London to New York. The distance is only slightly greater. Competition on the London to New York route, I suppose, is greater.
  • But if you’re flying to Toronto from continental Europe you’ll pay around 45% of the London-Toronto price, presumably because there’s greater competition on the indirect routes. But you’re still paying disproportionately more than the difference in distance would suggest.
  • If you’re flying to New York from continental Europe you’ll pay around 55% of the London-New York price.

You can’t, of course, buy an indirect route and board from London. But if you’ve got time, then spend a night in continental Europe before your transatlantic trip, but think twice before choosing Moscow.

The Art Gallery of Ontario

You’re lucky if you can find the way to your plane at most of today’s airports. They’re no longer merely the arrival and departure points for aircraft, but also shopping malls, restaurants, clubs for the privileged, and places of entertainment too. Heathrow Terminal 5, for example, is an obstacle course of retail and gastronomic distractions. So much so that sometimes the airport is the most fun you’ll have on holiday. Why board the plane?

Art galleries, too, have caught on to this, albeit for loftier motives. Ticket sales aren’t enough to keep the paintings on the walls. Without substantial subsidies galleries can’t afford merely to provide space for their paintings to hang, and cabinets for their curiosities. They must explore every possible avenue of cash generation.

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, which I visited on Saturday, is a fine example of this approach. Since its reworking in 2008 by Frank Gehry (a native of the city) it houses an upmarket restaurant, a shop that’s as large as any of the exhibition rooms, a café, a ‘function room’ for hire (where better to get married than in the company of a Francis Bacon and a Bernini Pope), and a cluster of education and research centres.

Once you’ve passed through the arrivals hall, avoiding the VIP check-in desk (a kind of art gallery version of business class), you’re left wondering where to go if you’re to see any actual paintings.

If you’re interested in architecture, though, the building is probably your destination (just as, if you’re a fan of Norman Foster, then Heathrow Terminal 5 is probably as much fun as wherever you’re off to). Gehry’s adaptation of the neoclassical central courtyard, and a hotch-potch of 1970s extensions, is an imaginative balance of the classical, the modern and the extravagant (a wooden spiral staircase twists and slithers its way from the first floor to the roof and beyond).

Gehry slither

The tall tower building at the rear of the gallery is clad in cool blue, reflective titanium.

gehry blue

But somewhere inside, if you can find it, there’s the collection itself (a selection from 80,000 paintings and other kinds of bric-a-brac) – a very manageable display of paintings by the French Impressionists (a beautiful Renoir, a Degas, a Monet (usually just one of everything)), the Renaissance and Flemish masters, all generously arranged and well lit. There’s an unexpectedly huge roomful of Henry Moore’s vast and dignified reclining and standing figures, in quiet but far from lonely communion, perhaps more of them together in one place here than you could ever see together elsewhere.

There’s a whole floor devoted to the work of Canada’s native artists. And you mustn’t overlook the African and photographic collections either, or a special temporary exhibition of disturbing images related to nuclear power, explosive and utilitarian.

Get a slice of this…

Atomic Cake-lo

The AGO is also a monument to generosity, and its fabric is as labelled as its contents. Indeed the labels are larger. You’re passing from one room to another through the ‘Rosy Tannenbaum walkway’, the roof is supported by the ‘Wasabi Family supporting girder’, the ‘Helen Battersby’ door sits snugly in ‘the Mary Minder door frame’, and the paintings are kept in good condition by ‘the David Clark and family humidifier,’ and so on. I presume the lavatories too are named, but I didn’t feel the need to check.