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Airport: London Heathrow Terminal 4
Date: 16 January 2010
Destination: Incheon, South Korea
Airline: Korean Air
Flight time: 20.10
My arrival time at the airport: 18.05
The Moodie Report is on the road again – this time to the South Korean capital of Seoul, entering via the country’s main gateway Incheon International Airport.
I flew out of the expansively, and expensively, revamped Heathrow Airport Terminal 4. It’s only a few weeks since I was given a guided tour of the new facility by BAA’s senior commercial management.
This time I’m here incognito, just another traveller on another Saturday night.
My experience – neither profoundly bad nor startlingly good, but persistently frustrating – was probably typical of that faced by thousands of travellers last night. And certainly it underlined many of the barriers that the travel retail industry faces in maximising commercial revenues.
First impressions of T4 are so, so much nicer than before. Even on a bleak winter’s night the forecourt outside the departures zone is welcoming, modern and brightly lit. Inside, there are some really nice, spacious landside food & beverage options and generally the atmosphere is bustling without being hectic or daunting.
So to check-in. From the back of the queue there seem to be plenty of staff at the Korean Air desk. I count 22 people ahead of me. This shouldn’t take long.
But it does. 23 minutes later I reach the front of the queue. There are three staff handling customers so I am surprised it’s taken me this long to get to the front.
KE908 to Incheon is a crowded flight and despite my pleas I am told only a middle seat is available. An economy middle seat on a near 11-hour journey to Korea. Bliss…
Next stop at T4 is immigration. I arrive at 18.32. Another long queue. My heart sinks but actually it moves very quickly. I reach the front of the line and despite the fact that I am already walking towards him the immigration officer yells out “Next!”
He takes my passport without a word.
“Good evening,” I say, checking whether anyone human is there.
“Hello,” he grunts back reluctantly, as if pleasantries weren’t mentioned in his job description.
He hands my passport back after a cursory check and before I’ve even moved past him, he barks out even louder “Next!” If I was of a nervous disposition I would have jumped.
What an oaf, one straight out of the Anglo-Saxon school of customer service that thinks shouting at people (especially of other nationalities) will make them understand better or move faster.
Yet in real terms the officer is dependent on me and the young Korean traveller behind me who he’s just SHOUTED at for his salary. We are his consumers. I doubt he sees it that way.
Now it’s onto a third queue – security. Irritated by my previous experience I decide to force the next jobsworth to treat me like a human being via my own politeness.
“Which line Sir?” I ask a security staff member whose back is turned to me, as the queue branches off in about four different directions.
Except, as I discover when the officer turns around, it’s not a Sir.
“Whoops, sorry Madam!” I exclaim weakly.
“Maybe you know something I don’t,” she replies jokingly – a more kindly riposte than I deserve.
The security queues look long but they are briskly managed. I get through in nine minutes, slightly higher than the airport’s target of seven minutes, but not too bad at a busy period. These staff have a tough job making our flying experience safe and putting up with an often rude public; in return I don’t expect concierge service but I do expect civility. And that’s what I get.
It’s 18.47 and I’m finally airside. 42 minutes of a total 125 minutes between airport arrival and flight departure has been eaten up. And that’s despite no real glitches.
I take a look at the FID screen – “Gate Opens 19.10”. Now I know I’ve got more time to shop or dine than that – but many of my fellow travellers will see that as the deadline for being at the gate.
T4 is swarming and like any traveller I have to prioritise my remaining time. My check list is to visit the main World Duty Free stores, buy some wine for gifts in Korea; pick up a newspaper; visit the new WDF-run Simply Chocolate boutique to see how it’s doing – and hopefully grab a pre-flight glass of Sauvignon Blanc at Caviar House & Prunier.
First up is World Duty Free’s liquor, tobacco and confectionery store. When it was opened in the 1990s this was dubbed “the ultimate liquor store” by the retailer (then owned by BAA).
Retail moves on remorselessly and unforgivingly and the store looks slightly tired and cluttered now.
I find the wine section quickly, down the back of the store, alongside a fairly downbeat souvenirs and confectionery selection. The offer is better than I had expected (but oh how I miss Berry Bros) but the wines are unimaginatively displayed and, worse, are all standing up – worrying when great wines such as Penfolds Grange Hermitage are on offer, which surely don’t have a great turn rate.
I’m delighted to find Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from my home country of New Zealand – the new 2009 vintage, hopefully better than the mediocre 2008 – which is great buying at £15.99 a bottle.
While I’m browsing, a Russian-sounding shop assistant responds to a couple of young Australian women querying the liquor allowance into their home country. In heavily accented tones she tells them (correctly) that the Australian authorities do not allow duty free liquor purchases bought in the UK into the country. One of the women rolls her eyes at her friend and says to the assistant, “What, Australia doesn’t allow duty free?”
Unnerved by the scepticism, the assistant says she will check. She’s back quickly with the bad news. That’s one bottle of Jack Daniel’s that won’t make it on the plane tonight – but better that than an alienated customer who had it confiscated after arriving home.
Over at the malt section a Korean is asking for Glenfiddich 30yo. The assistant at first struggles with the shopper’s pronunciation but then her eyes light up. “Ah Glenfiddich 30yo – we only have the 21yo.
“But,” she adds helpfully, “we do have a specialist whisky store [World of Whiskies] just along there [she points down the terminal] that may sell the 30yo.”
I take my Cloudy Bay to the check-out counter. Another queue, at least ten people long. The man behind me has two bottles of Teacher’s, while behind him a young male traveller is carrying a tri-pack of Chivas Regal. In front of me an Indian shopper has two bottles of The Balvenie Doublewood. Crisis? What crisis?
I ask the nice (again foreign-sounding) man at check-out about the wine allowance in Korea. He doesn’t know but points me towards an allowance sheet on the wall a few feet away.
Bizarrely it excludes South Korea (the Republic of Korea). “Don’t worry, I’ll look it up for you,” says the assistant. He pulls out a well-thumbed anthology of customs allowances.
“One bottle of liquor, one litre,” he says, looking at my two 750ml bottles of wine. “So you’re sort of in-between on the allowance.”
I buy it anyway and decide to pay the duty. A gift is a gift. Full marks to both the World Duty Free staff though for knowing their stuff.
Next stop is Travelex, the foreign exchange specialist. Surprisingly it is to be my best encounter of my time at T4. The young man serving me is called Naven and he’s superb – friendly, knowledgeable and fast. He quickly takes me through the buy-back option (useful as I’m not sure how many Korean Won I’ll need); and when I suggest £250 worth he pushes me up to £300, which he points out means no commission.
I’m starting to fret time wise now as he begins to count out a huge wad of Won – I’ll need a wheelbarrow to carry this lot. But he’s quick and it’s done. He duly mentions add-on services such as Travel Insurance but doesn’t push me.
“Have a good trip – see you back here for the buy-back.”
A quick dash to Simply Chocolate. The place is packed, uncomfortably so, and it’s clear WDF could do with more space. A number of Korean travellers are crowded down the back of the store – interestingly enough though they’re focused not on all the super-premium lines that have made the headlines but on the mainstream confectionery brands that are housed there, notably Toblerone and M&M’s.
I choose some nice Damian Allsop items, having been smitten by them during my earlier visit. They’re not cheap – £12 and £15 respectively – but I know what is inside is worth it.
As I pay, I ask the sales assistant how these chocolates are doing. “They’re doing well,” she says, her smile fading almost as fast as it was fixed on her face, turning to talk to her colleague. Clearly not one for small talk.
Time is running out and I don’t have my newspaper, which means a visit to WHSmith. It’s 19.12 but my gate is still not open. Just as well, it transpires.
There are 29 people in the queue in front of me, a line that tracks this way and that in the fashion of a British Post Office queue. All along the way, to the consumer’s left and right, there are special offers and last-minute temptations, from Red Bull shots to bottled water to chocolate bars and Pringles. I’m sure it’s a successful technique but I find it ugly and more force-through than walk-through. Annoyed at the slow speed with which we are moving, I put down the (two for one) Buxton bottled water I was about to buy.
At 7.24 I get to the cash-point. That’s 12 minutes, three minutes longer than it took me to clear security, to buy one newspaper. By now there are only two young men serving – their name badges turned inwards. Where else in the world would consumers tolerate waiting 12 minutes to spend £1.80? It’s diabolical.
My gate is open. As I exit WHSmith, I see Caviar House & Prunier outside. What a perfect adjacency – anyone emerging from the WHSmith ‘experience’ would need a quiet drink to calm them down. But now, thanks to my 12-minute newspaper, I don’t have time.
It’s time to board. I’m leaving on a jet plane.
How to sum up my T4 experience? Overall, the terminal is a big improvement from what went before. So is the commercial offer. But the shortcomings at check-in and shop queuing level are a barrier to spending, and some of the staff attitudes (notably at Immigration, not controlled by BAA) could do with a Changi-style training course.
Pass marks but no more.