The plane landed a fraction early, at just after 9 p.m. Hope flickered that passport control would be as deserted as the echoing arrivals terminal. But no. By the time we reached sight of what is now labelled in enormous letters the ‘UK Border’, we had joined a mass of humanity in a single corridor to be decanted in batches into ‘the maze’.
This is the point where, at most UK airports, the great segregation occurs, between UK/EU passports and the rest, and then between regular channels and ‘e-passports’. Often, they try to chivvy you into e-passports. Tonight, though, these lanes were taped off. After the long shuffle to the control desk, I had the nerve to ask why.
I dare say that this was a question British Airways might have asked when it complained recently about interminable late-evening queues at Heathrow, because the answer offered part of an explanation. E-passport channels, apparently, are invariably closed after 10 p.m. because the shift changes and there are not enough staff. My watch showed the time to be 10.03.
My first thought was to regret that my plane had not been that bit earlier. My second was more to the point. Hang on a moment: wasn’t the whole reason for e-passports that machines (and passengers) did the work? So why wasn’t Heathrow opening, rather than closing, its e-passport channels when the evening shift went home?
Well, dear reader, dear fellow passenger, deep down you already know why. Because some large piece of machinery that was installed to improve efficiency has ended up costing time — staff time and, more particularly, yours and mine. Anyone still puzzled by the Great British productivity conundrum (we lag stubbornly way behind even France) has part of the answer right here. E-passports only work if there are real, human staff around to instruct the passengers how to use them, let them out when they become trapped in this miniature no- man’s-land, and inspect their IDs manually when the machine fails.
What is more, everyone knows this. They recently introduced e-passports at St Pancras Eurostar departures — but only for hoi polloi. ‘Fast-tracked’ passengers hand their passports to a human in a booth; of course they do, it’s quicker. E-passports are one of the more egregious examples of do-it-yourself Britain imposing costs on you and me — but only one.
Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that you extricated yourself from the airport by midnight and successfully negotiated the after-hours e-check-in at your hotel. Let us assume, too, that the machine spat out a cardboard room key which admitted you, after several abortive tries, to a vacant room (and not, as has happened to me, to a room where a naked man was surprised from his sleep). Your work is by no means done.
The breakfast buffet has long been a test of every guest’s hunter-gathering expertise. But it is the multiple-choice coffee machine, now standard at hotels and conferences, that really frustrates me. How long does it take to make and then pour a half-decent mug of coffee from a glass jug on a hotplate? A few seconds. How long does it take to extract some splash of indeterminate liquid from a machine when you first have to put on your glasses to read the options, figure out where to place the cup, wait while the mechanical innards click and whirr — or don’t, because it has invisibly run out of some ingredient? For ever, as the queue ahead and behind you testifies. But the time and effort squandered is all yours, so the largely absentee management would appear content with the economics.
Come lunchtime, you turn your back on the buffet in favour of some fresh air and some fast, or faster, food. My own weakness is for a milkshake, about three times (yes, honestly) a year. But this occasional indulgence may be over.
You will know, if you have patronised one particular fast-food outlet (McDonald’s) recently, that what used to be a brief but productive interaction with a human is now discouraged. Staff now urge you to order from an enormous touch-screen, pay by card, extract a receipt, then wait for your number to come up. It reminds me of nothing so much as the double-queueing system in what passed for shops in the defunct Soviet Union. Then as now, much could go wrong.
You will find rapturous reviews of this so-called ‘kiosk’ system on social media — viewed, if you read carefully, almost exclusively from the company’s perspective and lauded as the shape of the future. On the other hand, if you actually observe (and time for observation will be ample, while they are boxing up ten Happy Meals before pressing the button on your one milkshake), you will see kitchen staff hanging around idle, would-be customers having to be ‘led through’ the self-ordering, and frazzled parents trying to make representations about mix-ups. The company, though, can joyfully wash its hands. Any mistake must, of course, be yours; after all, you entered the order. The time, money and effort it takes — why, they are all yours.
And so, at the end of a long afternoon, to the supermarket to assemble the ingredients for an evening meal. It should be instructive that, while coffee and ticket and hotel check-in machines have started to make inroads abroad, putting in extra hours as your very own supermarket checkout assistant remains a largely British privilege. Elsewhere, it seems accepted that a professional will generally be better at the job than an amateur, but we actually have to queue to do it ourselves. Then again, as it’s our time and effort as we search for the barcodes, faff about with the bag, insert the banknote the wrong way and have to call someone over for the wine, who’s counting? If the food supply is to be automated, give me a Japanese slot machine any time.
Two weeks ago the gas company called, demanding (not requesting) a meter reading. The cabinet is outside and locked. With great difficulty I finally managed to reach a real person to suggest that they might have to send someone to read the meter. Three weeks later, an envelope arrived from British Gas; it contained a key.
To my unpaid responsibilities as border guard, hotel clerk, coffee-maker, fast-food assistant and checkout girl, it would now appear I must add meter reader. How much more of other people’s time and money, I wonder, will I be recruited to save by being volunteered, in effect, to donate my own?