Travel and strife

Image of Tyler Brûlé

How often do you set off on a trip only to find that minutes from your point of departure you’re already asking, “Surely there’s a better way to do this?” I left my office in central London last Friday for Brisbane (via Singapore) and by the time the driver attempted to pull up at Paddington station’s new taxi forecourt I was already starting to wonder how a project as simple as building a taxi rank could go so wrong.

For those who haven’t sampled this dreadful bit of engineering and planning, it suffers from too little space allotted to a high-traffic, high-speed operation that requires room for queuing (cars and passengers alike), dropping off and picking up. As this is a very basic concept that has been employed at transport hubs for more than a century, you’d think it would be rather simple to get it right. But the various parties involved in building one of the most important interchanges in London have delivered something that is sub-par and makes a bad first impression of the capital.

As my driver tried to slalom through the tangle of vehicles cutting each other off, I checked my watch for the next Heathrow Express departure. As the second hand swept across my watch-face, I thought there should be a new global standard for grading travel experiences. Forget about star rankings and user-generated review sites (the domain of idiots who mostly seem to travel as far as their refrigerators), my new system would pit everything from airlines to hotels to restaurants against the clock – the greater the number of minutes a journey or stay can accumulate without causing upset, the better.

By my measure, the Heathrow Express experience hit its first bump at 00:00:04 – the moment we came to a screeching halt in traffic in the drop-off area. Once out of the cab, however, it was clear sailing all the way to terminal three. While I haven’t worked out the complete formula for grading the experience – a journey that starts off with a hiccup will get an overall low score for causing early stress in a trip, and making a bad first impression – the good news for operators is that they’ll be able to pinpoint precisely where their performance is falling short and, I hope, make the appropriate amendments.

At terminal three I breezed through security and walked up to the screens to check my gate. The BA10 to Singapore was at gate 432,795! Glancing down at my watch, I noted that my BA experience had its first strike against it at 00:01:05. And, though it was still a good 35 minutes till departure, the board was already showing the flight closing. I decided I wouldn’t fall for that trick and went to the chemist instead.

Ten minutes later, at gate 432,795, hundreds of passengers were standing anxiously at the door while men and women in high-vis jackets walked back and forth from air-bridge to gate desk. We weren’t going anywhere soon – strike two at 00:11:05. When the gate did open it was a complete free-for-all, with prams, grannies in hiking gear and back-packers all squeezing into the jet-way – strike three at 00:21:03. All of this was made worse by the fact that the 747 was positioned at a gate with just one jetty – strike four at 00:21:30 (why they’ve built so many single jetty gates for long-haul aircraft at Heathrow is another source of wonder to me).

On board I asked the flight attendant if it was just a recent spate of bad luck or if BA had made a policy of asking for the most distant gates to save on landing and handling fees. He confirmed he’d noticed the same and there was probably some sort of negligible saving in taking the gates no other airline wanted. I slept almost all the way to Singapore and when we touched down in Changi we might as well have been in Johor as our aircraft pulled up to the last gate at the terminal (strike five at 13:24:17).

Overall, a not particularly great trip on BA given it was bookended with seemingly institutionalised bad experiences. As I made it from the gate to my car in fewer than 10 minutes and never once hit a hitch, Changi got full marks with no strikes and a clean clock. After a quick meeting in town I was back at the airport and boarded the Qantas flight to Brisbane. The first-class cabin had been commandeered for business-class passengers on this route, so there was the bonus of a better seat and the sweet old dear serving me said I was so low-maintenance that she stuck a bottle of wine in my bag as we pulled up at the gate – full marks for Qantas.

Inside Brisbane’s international terminal it was quiet, and as I approached the maze of barriers at immigration (often a bit of a heavy-handed, not particularly smiley Aussie experience) an officer dashed to the front of the barriers to unfasten them in order to save me criss-crossing back and forth before reaching the desks. At customs a sleepy inspection beagle wasn’t interested in my bag, so seconds later I was in the car zipping into town. Full marks for a perfect arrival on a sunny winter’s day in Australia.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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