You probably know all about the situation at major UK airports right now. Whether you’ve read about it, heard stories from loved ones or experienced it for yourself, many people have been talking about it — and for good reason.
There have been a lot of issues at the likes of Manchester, Leeds Bradford and Bristol airports. In the post-COVID travel boom, where everybody is travelling internationally after months of not being able to, these airports just don’t have the resources to accommodate the influx of people coming in and out every day.
I’ve heard one of the main reasons why is because the staff that were let go or on furlough during the lockdowns are refusing to come back due to poor wages or treatment. Therefore, airports are having to recruit new staff, but they’re struggling to fill the positions or the training periods are taking longer than they initially thought.
Either way, it’s all a bit of a shambles, to say the least. And the situation is looking unlikely to improve anytime soon.
My Experiences at Leeds Bradford Airport
I’ve flown from Leeds Bradford airport (LBA) three times in the last nine months. The first time was when I went to Ibiza for my belated hen do in August 2021. This is when I first became aware of any kind of problem.
I arrived with 5 of my friends two hours before our flight at the lovely time of 5am, feeling groggy but excited about the trip that was ahead. I mean, I was finally going on my Ibiza hen do (even though I was already married, but that’s another story).
We’d already checked in online 24 hours before our Jet2 flight. Even so, we were still required to join the main check-in queue because there wasn’t another option to drop off bags at the time (there is now).
This queue itself took 30 minutes — not too bad (although we had no idea what was to come). Then we sauntered to the security queue blissfully unaware of any issues. Until we’d been in it for 30 minutes and we realised we had barely moved.
The minutes slowly ticked by as the queue went down metre by metre. However, when the 60-minute mark had passed, we still weren’t through to the security section (after the boarding-card check) and it was 30 minutes until our flight departed, I started to panic.
At that moment, it dawned on me and my friends that we wouldn’t be able to get the obligatory airport drink and breakfast we were so looking forward to before our trip. There were going to be no airport selfies in the hen do sashes we were wearing. There was going to be no time to chill in preparation for the flight.
A holiday begins at the airport. And the start of our holiday was ruined.
There was one member of staff stationed at the queue who was moving people to the fast-track queue if their flights were due to depart pretty soon. When we spoke to them about our flight departing within the next 30 minutes, they immediately moved us into the fast-track queue.
It turned out that the fast-track queue didn’t seem to be going down any quicker than the normal security queue. That said, when we rounded the corner where the machines were and passed through the boarding card check, we could see there were less people in the fast-track queue.
We eventually got through security after about 70 minutes with 10 minutes to spare before our flight was due to depart.
Instead of being able to leisurely grab drinks and snacks for the plane, head to the gate and go to the toilet before boarding, we had to run to our gate. It was like a scene from a movie (I always think of Home Alone 2) and I honestly thought that we were going to miss the flight after months of looking forward to this trip.
By some miracle, we didn’t. However, we did get a snotty comment from one of the cabin crew scanning people’s boarding cards at the gate.
(They asked us what time we got to the airport, expecting us to say 30 minutes ago. When we responded with “two hours ago,” they didn’t say another word.)
Anyway, we were able to board in the nick of time and our flight departed around 15-20 minutes later than scheduled (I’m assuming so that people who were still trying to get through security had time to board).
Fortunately, this experience didn’t completely ruin the trip, but it definitely tainted the start of it. I should have got on the plane relaxed and ready for the amazing four nights to come.
Instead, my friends and I were tired and stressed before we’d even arrived in Ibiza. Not ideal — especially when it was such a special holiday.
After this first experience at Leeds Bradford airport, I was super nervous about my upcoming second trip to Tenerife with my sister. As a result, I made sure we arrived at the airport two hours and 30 minutes before.
I’d thought to myself, surely, LBA has it figured out some seven months later (we travelled in March 2022). Even so, I assumed the extra 30 minutes would be enough to give us a calming airport experience in comparison to what I’d been through previously.
Oh, how I was wrong.
It seemed like I had got it right at first. We arrived at the Jet2 check-in hall and there was a whole other queue for bag drops this time. The main queue was very short and the bag drop queue was practically non-existent.
We’d already checked in online 24 hours prior to the flight. Then the staff manning the bag drop queue asked to see our proof of vaccination status before we dropped off our bags in not even 5 minutes.
But as we made our way to the security queue, imagine my horror when I realised that it was even longer than it was last August. It was stretching the full length of the terminal without an end in sight.
It took us 90 minutes to get through security. 90 minutes. You can watch a whole Disney film in this time (or two episodes of your favourite 45-minute show).
It felt never-ending. And once again, we had to run to our gate to board the flight (the gate was closing 15 minutes before).
Luckily, this time around, we had a little bit of time to grab a water from a nearby vending machine and go to the toilet before boarding. But there were no shops open around our gate — it must have been in a new section of the airport that I’d never been to before — which meant no food, no breakfast, no way to satisfy our groaning bellies.
We were relieved to have made the flight, looking on the bright side and thinking we would just buy a breakfast sandwich when we were on board.
The flight was delayed by 30-45 minutes so that our passengers stuck at security could make it. Fair enough. I told myself it was okay and the breakfast was coming — just be patient.
When we eventually got in the air, one of the cabin crew announced that Jet2 didn’t stock the plane with enough hot food and our only choice for hot food was a pot noodle, if you can believe it.
We’d been up since 3.30am. We’d had the long security queue to contend with. We were so unbelievably hungry. And all we could have for a four and a half hour flight as our reward for making the flight was a pot noodle.
We weren’t happy at the time, but thankfully still managed to have a pleasant few days in Tenerife following yet another negative airport experience.
I wasn’t taking any chances when flying through LBA the third time around for a family holiday to Majorca at the end of April 2022.
I’d done my research, bought an advance fast-track pass for me and my husband (other family members were already in Majorca on the day we were flying) and I was ready to kick this airport’s butt.
And kick its butt, I did.
We checked in with Ryanair 24 hours before the flight and only had to drop off our suitcases. There was no one at the bag drop so we could have just used the machines straight away. That said, hubby (being from the US) had to have a “visa check” so we had to go to a staff member at the check-in desk instead.
There was another couple already at the desk so we had a 10-minute wait before we were seen. But it only took two minutes when it was our turn and then off we went to the fast-track security queue.
On our way, I saw that the standard security queue was stretching the entire length of the terminal as it did during my second trip. There was no one visibly in the fast-track queue so I felt almost guilty when we meandered past everybody else.
We got straight to the front of the queue and through security within 5 minutes. It was £5 for the fast-track ticket and it was the best £5 I ever spent.
This LBA experience was “third time lucky” for me. We had plenty of time to eat a leisurely breakfast, look around the shops and relax before heading to the gate. There was no rush or chaos. It was all easy-breezy.
(Until the Ryanair plane we were booked on didn’t get to the airport until 10 minutes before our departure time and it caused a brief delay — but that’s another story.)
My Experience at Manchester Airport
I had some warning before travelling to Manchester airport about what the experience was going to be like. Just like everybody else, my husband and I had read the newspaper stories, which had made us anxious in the lead up to our trip to North Carolina for his stepmum’s celebration of life.
The truth is, we were already anxious about what we were travelling for. We were anxious about having to get a negative COVID test the calendar day before to be able to enter the States. The scaremongering about the airport didn’t help.
We were very fortunate in the sense that we’d already pre-booked fast-track passes for security after my two negative experiences at LBA. We’d done this in April and were due to travel mid-May — and were thankful when we heard that Manchester airport are no longer selling the tickets as they can’t guarantee the service. They’re honouring pre-bookings though.
After the 90-minute car journey to the airport on the morning of departure, we parked at terminal 2 east multi-storey and walked into the terminal three hours before the flight.
It only took us 10 minutes to drop off our bags given that we’d already checked in online 24 hours before and then just 10 minutes through fast-track security.
The other queue looked fine (not too long at all). If I had to estimate from the number of people in the standard queue, I’d say it would have taken around 20 minutes to get through security.
It was eight o’clock in the morning and we flew from terminal 2 (supposedly the most efficient terminal). I’d heard beforehand that terminal 1 is the worst for queues followed by terminal 3.
As it turns out, the only thing we ended up queueing a long time for was breakfast — it was a 55-minute wait! Although when we left the restaurant at 10.15am, there wasn’t a queue at all.
We got on the plane on time and departed on time, and ended up having the most enjoyable journey so far flying with Virgin Atlantic.
5 Things You Can Do to Speed Up Your Time at the Airport
The airport queues may be out of your control, but there are a few things you can do before you get to the airport to improve your experience.
1. Check In Online 24 Hours Before
I already mentioned that I do this before every flight — and it’s totally worth it so you can just go in the (often shorter) bag drop queue instead of the main check-in queue.
By printing your own boarding passes or downloading them to your phone, you can also save time too.
2. Upload Your Documents Online Prior
Some airlines are now allowing you to upload important COVID-related documents online prior to your flight.
For Virgin, we could upload our vaccination status and negative COVID test certificate 24-48 hours before, which meant that we didn’t have to show them at check-in. In fact, we could go in the “Pre-Verified” queue, which meant that we’d already uploaded our documents and had them approved so all we needed to do was drop off our bags.
And this queue had hardly anybody in it — result!
3. Arrive Two or Three Hours Before
I’ve read that some people are showing up at the airport five hours before their flight to make sure they get on it. While I understand this logic, it also means that the people with a flight in two hours are stuck behind these early birds and it actually creates a longer queue.
Try to stick to airline recommendations when it comes to the time you arrive at the airport. Some airlines have been sending emails 24-48 hours that contain their recommended arrival time because they understand that passengers will be concerned given the current situation.
The general rule of thumb is to arrive two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight. But again, I’d advise you to go with what your specific airline (or airport) are recommending.
4. Buy a Fast-Track Pass
If you’re able to, invest in a fast-track pass so you can join the (much shorter) fast-track queue when you head to security.
Although it does cost you extra, it’s usually not much. Plus, not investing in one is not worth the price you pay to get to the gate stressed having almost missed your flight (or missing your flight period). Right?
5. Put Your Toiletries in a Clear Plastic Bag
A lot of security delays tend to be caused by people having water and toiletries over 100 millilitres in their hand luggage that aren’t allowed.
Make sure you familiarise yourself with security requirements ahead of your flight and drink any water before you get to the front of the queue.
(Tip: empty out your bottle and keep it in your bag. After clearing security, you can refill it at a water fountain or even in the bathroom so you don’t have to buy another one.)
Also, buy some small plastic sandwich bags that are clear in the run-up to your trip and use one to put in any toiletries and makeup under 100 millilitres as you’re packing your hand luggage. You can then just dig this out while you’re in the queue without having to faff getting a clear plastic bag from a staff member and packing it on departure day.
Flying From UK Airports: A Final Warning
Unfortunately, I don’t think these issues at UK airports are going to be resolved anytime soon. They’ve been going on since last summer and are only set to get worse as we moved into the peak travel period this summer.
It’s good to make sure that you’re aware so you can prepare accordingly. You may also need to accept that the leisurely airport experiences we used to have pre-COVID are no longer going to exist — at least not for the foreseeable future.
That said, how thrilling is it to be able to go abroad again? We have to be grateful for small victories in such a disruptive time. And I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before airports adjust to the post-COVID boom.
Let me know if you found this article useful? I’d be happy to answer questions or help further in any way I can. Contact me on Twitter or Instagram @trendytouristuk or email [email protected]
Katie Davies is the Yorkshire-based freelance writer who founded Trendy Tourist. Since 2017, she has written for over 100 companies on a range of subjects, from fashion to marketing. When she’s not producing content, you can find her shopping, exploring a new place or sitting somewhere having a cup of builder’s tea.