Going bananas in the land of Tokyo Banana

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‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’ – Inferno, Dante Alighieri

The queue towards the security checkpoint goes on and on. And then on some more. It’s 7.40am and as I try to find the back of the line, I walk past hundreds upon hundreds of passengers headed in the opposite direction, waiting patiently, moving forward listessly.

Welcome to the heart-sinking Haneda Airport security experience, the kind of ordeal that makes you understand why so often airports talk about ‘handling’ passengers rather than serving them. The kind of encounter that makes a mockery of an airport’s company’s desire – and need – to boost commercial revenues and/or maximise airside ‘dwell time’.

A tail of woe: I reach the end of the line
Doing the Haneda shuffle: As I turn the first of many corners in the queue, a long procession forms behind me

Most of the dwell time at Haneda, alas, is spent shifting one foot languidly after another in a mass of humanity that appears to belong to the starting line at the Tokyo Marathon rather than a modern international airport.

Eventually I found the end of the queue, aided by the sight of a man holding up a sign that declared ‘End of the Line’. A bit like how I felt. At least now though I could perform a u-turn and head back in the right direction towards what now felt like Osaka.

We head towards what looks like a four-lane cluster outside the security zone
Sometimes the airport industry succeeds despite itself. As these airside photos show, plenty of duty free shopping takes place at Haneda Airport but how much greater could sales be be if the security fiasco was sorted?

To cut a very long story short, I reached the security machines at 8.22am, some 42 minutes later. It was actually quicker than I had feared. But the time could easily have been halved for upon arriving at security, I discovered only two of the four checkpoints were being used. Two? 50% capacity when finally you have streams of outbound passengers after seeing barely any for the best (or worst) part of three years? It beggars belief, and belief in this case is not a generous donor.

Salvation in sight but just two of the four security belts in action

I usually hesitate to complain about airport delays. Partly because it sounds like a first-world problem and partly because you don’t always know the reasons behind such situations. But whether the mess was due to machinery breakdown (unlikely), post-pandemic staff shortages (almost certainly, but surely resolvable by now) or some other factor, the airport company needs to do something about it fast.

In May, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported an “acute” shortage of ground staff at Haneda Airport. “The hundreds [of workers] who left Japan’s airports [during the pandemic] have not returned now that operations are back on track, meaning that new people need to be taken on and trained at a time of climbing demand for staff throughout the country’s economy,” the report said.

“The situation is so serious that the Transport Ministry has set up a panel to address the crisis, with the initial suggestion being that wages are immediately increased to make airport careers more attractive.

“An official for Narita Airport Authority… said the company is working hard to bring in additional staff but denied shortages were having a serious effect on travellers or airport security.”

Oh really? That’s not what the sight of a distressed little girl stuck in a seemingly interminable, congested and clammy queue told me nor that of struggling seniors and the many mutterings I could hear from exasperated fellow passengers.

Haneda Airport posted this notice on its website on 25 March. The situation has clearly not improved in four months.

The silver lining in all this is at least people are travelling again in huge numbers through Haneda. Imagine though the impact such delays are having not only on travellers but on the revenues of retailers such as TIAT Duty Free, JAL DFS, the lovely Shiseido standalone boutique and others, as well as Haneda’s many food & beverage providers.

Beauty and tobacco products enjoy an unusual adjacency at the JAL Duty Free (JAL/DFS) store

I had not seen my last long queue of the day. Inside the Tokyo Souvenir Shop (run by Fa-So-La/NAA Retailing Corporation) it felt like all those who had been queuing for security earlier had simply been transplanted here instead. This compact store, packed with all kinds of Japanese destination merchandise, must surely rank as one of the world’s most successful airport locations in terms of sales per square metre.

There’s nothing fancy going on here, just row after row, shelf after shelf of colourfully presented products from gourmet snacks to souvenirs to fashion. And people. Lots and lots of people, many of them carrying colourful packs of Tokyo Banana, a hugely popular banana-shaped sponge cake with cream filling. I watched as a store assistant repacked the shelves at roughly the same rate consumers were depleting them.

Airport wayfinding: The arrow points to the assistant telling would-be shoppers where the queue ends
By now I felt like saying, “Skip the books, just give me the drugs”

Instead I sought the tranquility of the Cathay Pacific lounge with its splendid views over the airfield. Another sale lost by circumstances beyond the retailer’s control. One of many each and every day I suspect at Haneda Airport.