Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Bits of Belfast - Part 6 - George Best Belfast City Airport

Plane in the Belfast Sky over Belfast City AirportWhat did they do!? It was a few weeks ago and the start of our long weekend in Northern England, the snow was falling sporadically around Europe and it was causing a few issues with flights. Delays were expected and understandable, however we were a little disappointed by the recently refurbished George Best Belfast City Airport.

The new layout of the City Airport seemed more like a work in progress and failed to impress, much like the City Aiport bus service whose number wasn't quite working properly a couple of weeks later when I happened to pass one. For information the 600 Airport Express to Belfast City Airport (BHD) leaves from the Europa bus station and heads through town via the Chichester Street stop very close to Belfast City Hall, a bus route not to be confused with the number 300 Airport Express which serves Belfast International Airport (BFS).

It started off well, it was a Friday night and probably the busiest time of the week at the airport which has to be taken into consideration. We were a little early as usual as we made our way straight to security. This section of the airport now goes back into part of what used to be the departure lounge. It was nice and spacious and actually an improvement on the old security layout making it a little quicker considering the day and time. Before long at all, we were past the friendly staff through the beepy machines and putting our shoes back on (this isn't sarcastic, the staff honestly were nice and friendly, especially with a family whose kids were a little bemused by the whole process - something seemingly quite unique for airport security staff).

It was after security that the new layout started to cause us a few headaches or rather feet aches. Beginning with a broken escalator.

The departure lounge is now upstairs in an extended section that used to be where the cafe was. The cafe is still there and the rest of the facilities extend either side of it. So facing either the broken escalator or the stairs and with our hand luggage of a long weekend's worth of guff including a wedding album weighing down on our backs we looked for the lift. The lift wasn't very big, it would have been a push to get much more than a buggy, 2 people and a little luggage into it. Thankfully we fitted in with the bags on our backs and ascended to the 1st floor to the 'relax and shop' area known as the departure lounge.

Once we were up there we were met by a mass of people, every seat filled and people using the floor and anything that could be leaned on to as best effect as possible. Next to the main restraunt/cafe mentioned already is a bar to the left and across the way a W.H.Smith. We were eager to explore what was there and without any seats free, there wasn't much of an option but to wander around anyway. The relax had already been taken out of the relax and shop for us and we did actually need to shop, first of all we needed food and drink.

First came drink and this was a plus, the bar is a bit bigger than the old one and the service was relatively quick given the amount of people. After about 15 minutes stood up we eventually managed to bag ourselves a bar stool each and perched for as long as our drinks could last (a pint of Guinness was £3.30 which isn't the most expensive pint in Belfast by a long shot).

We were hungry by this point, the restaurant/cafe though was full, people were understandably loitering after eating. So plan A was out the window. Plan B was a quick snack from W.H.Smith... and a good job it was a small bite, the prices, if anything were steep. 73p for a packet of fruit pastels... seriously, 73p. You expect to be taken advantage of a little with high prices because you've no choice, especially since you can't bring much through security these days. However there is a point where it goes beyond a joke. Although expensive as airports generally are, in the end we did make it into the cafe for some hot food just before our flight flashed up as ready to board. The soup was yummy, worth the £3.95 a bowl at that point.

A little time before we had found a place to be seated in order to eat some food once a few flights worth of people had left, we had been looking for a gift. The 2nd part of 'Relax and Shop' fell flat on its face at this point too. There was very little choice, a bit of perfume, a few watches, some chocolate and a few bags and everything out of my price range even if it had of been suitable. I'd advise heading to town before heading to the airport if you have chance, choice and price were not on our side here, we gave up and left it for another time.

So feet aching and having wolfed down hot soup, albeit delicious hot soup, we headed off to the gate. The gate system at its heart, is as before. The difference now, is that you're upstairs to begin with and instead of been led out into the long gate corridor you're heading downstairs to get to it. The stairs back to the ground floor are labelled and this is where the 'gate boards' directed us. So it was to 'Gate C' or more aptly Stairs C for us.

The stairs led us down directly into the path of arriving passengers making their way into the baggage reclaim area. We found ourselves stuck into a mass of held up people. People who were heading different directions and trying to work out where to go next whilst not getting sucked into the wrong queues that scattered down the sides of the corridor. We made it beyond this bottleneck of people and kept walking, still not a clue where our destination was, we just kept walking. The logic was that it is just one long corridor and we hoped since we had been directed down the set of stairs closest to this end of the line, that it would be somewhere around here we were expected to find our way to.

At the very end of the corridor was our actual gate the number of which was never mentioned at any point, Gate 10. Just to put the icing on the cake we were led out from the corridor onto the apron and to our awaiting plane via gate 9. I couldn't help but laugh.

So overall we didn't have a very good experience, it was probably made all the more disappointing because personally I liked the old lay out of the departure lounge which had more than adequate seating no matter how busy it seemed to get. Maybe if they put in more seats into the new layout rather than having huge walkways between single rows of seats along the walls of the place, it might improve it. I doubt the prices will fall, that's the joy of shareholders wanting profit. So although 'shop' is never likely going to be a pastime most suited to an airport, surely for what is at the root of its existence, a giant waiting room the 'Relax' surely can't be that hard or costly to get right. A waiting room after all needs places for people to wait otherwise its just a very poor shopping centre.

All being well, the bugs we experienced will be ironed out and the modernisation of the airport facilities won't cause us too many departures in the long run like we experienced last month. The Bushmills Bar, the Cafe's soup and the security area all seemed improvements. The view from the top floor was also an improvement when we got the chance to enjoy it.

I guess in the end the important bit was that we took off in the plane on time, had a nice flight and arrived at Manchester Airport safe and sound.

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