Two of the UK’s most hated companies in quick succession at Heathrow

We felt quite cheery as we set off for New York via Heathrow. Then we came across two of the UK’s most disliked companies in quick succession.  Encounters with WH Smith and G4S show how public distaste for a business starts with the people who connect with their “customers”.

Not all air travel has to be soul-less and miserable. There are bits which always will be miserable, of course – standing in the immigration queue at Heathrow, for example, while an array of understaffed booths and broken machines allow a few to trudge through at a time. UK Borders was once headed by Lin Homer and, like everything Homer touched, Borders has the feel of a torched landscape, with demoralised automatons going through the motions at their posts. HM Revenue & Customs was her last post; she goes off into an early sunset dragging her damehood and her golden pension pot behind her and with the smell of destroyed departments in her nose.

Other aspects of getting through Heathrow are tolerable given the pressures on both them and you. I am usually at Terminal 5. Though British Airways occasionally fall short, they don’t have the semi-professional indifference and customer-baiting which seems to be the norm at EasyJet or RyanAir (I say “seems” to make it clear that I would pay treble, or walk, rather than use either EasyJet or RyanAir and don’t therefore speak from experience). I particularly like the “Pods” at T5 which carry you from car park to terminal building like some vision of the 1980s as predicted in the 1960s.

I lost my British Airways Gold Card this year after being seduced by Emirates on my east-bound trips and so losing BA points. Would you like to fly BA to Hong Kong and Singapore, or save more than £5,000 by flying with Emirates? Real food on the plane and in the Dubai lounge? A car from home to the door? A big A380 or an ageing 747 rattling and squeaking through the skies? BA lost my business and I lost my Gold Card, which is how my son Will and I found ourselves relegated to BA’s Business Lounge for this trip. A mood-neutral sort of place – the same dishes laid out year after year; a slight sense of reduced choice / increased blandness; wine you might have at home to wash down a pizza; coffee machines whose espresso is tolerable rather than good.

So, thus far, the business of getting across the Atlantic has been all right, sort of. No great highs or lows. Nothing to write home about but nothing to write to the Complaints Department about. Even the “Transit” fails to dent our mood, despite the abuse of the language in its name and the I’ve-come-back-from-the-dead voice of the recorded announcer. Then comes a quick visit to newsagent, sweet shop and general crappery, WH Smith.

WH Smith is the EasyJet of stores. Vulgar decor, off-hand staff, queues to the door and those bloody machines to read your bar-code and take your money. I won’t use Smiths unless I have to (they have destroyed the small independents so they are hard to avoid); I won’t use the machines, partly because I see people gaping in frustration at them and partly because I like to see people in jobs behind counters rather than machines. The scowling assistant growled something about there being no counter service; I would have to use a machine.

Reluctantly I scan the barcode and try and stuff a £5 note into the machine. “Boarding pass” grunts the vile-mannered assistant lounging by the machine, pointing to a notice which does indeed tell me to scan my boarding pass. Enough. I abandon my purchase and walk out.

This boarding pass thing is not quite a fraud, not quite a scam, but certainly taking advantage of gullible punters. It works like this: VAT can be reclaimed on certain goods exported beyond the EU; linking the boarding pass to the purchase allows the retailer to reduce its costs by getting back the 20% VAT. What the shysters don’t do is pass that saving back to the customer, thus increasing profit by 20% on all vat-able goods sold. The government remonstrated publicly about this a few months ago and most shop assistants are instructed not to insist if the customer refuses to produce a boarding pass. You can’t negotiate with a machine.

A beep says I have been randomly selected for an extra security check. Be clear that I don’t mind the principle of extra security nor the idea that they are random. I am taken down to a table where stand a dozy-looking woman and a sour-faced man. They are wearing the uniforms of outsourcing giant, G4S.

G4S hold a particular place in British, ah, affections. It was G4S who contracted to provide security at the Olympics but cut so many corners in search of profit that the army had to be called in. If a prisoner fails to arrive in court it is probably because G4S have found they could save money by not bothering – the penalties are trivial and who cares if a court, a judge, court staff, barristers, solicitors and clients are kept waiting? If a child has been beaten up in custody, it was probably a G4S guard who did it, certain that his employer had skimped on supervision. Where other companies working for government have the occasional external audit, G4S is being investigated by the Serious Fraud Squad for over-billing on a tagging contract and has already repaid over a million pounds.

Whatever your view on outsourcing government functions, G4S is a bunch of shysters, running rings round the civil servants who continue to hand over lucrative contracts – lucrative, that is, if you skimp on staff and other resources confident that the pen-pushers are unlikely to catch you. It is not that the paper-shufflers are stupid, but making and managing outsourcing contracts is hard work, and you don’t become a civil servant to engage in hard work.

So here I am, interrupted in my progress to my seat by a couple of G4S operatives. The woman asks if she can open my bag. I signify consent and she touches things in a listless way, giving the contents less of a survey than the electronic scanner which they went though 30 minutes ago. The scowling man tells me to take off my coat, jacket, scarf, and hat. He grunts at me to remove my boots. I am by this time so pissed off with his surly manners that I mutter something expressive of tedium (I had taken them off and sent them through a scanner a few minutes earlier); this berk just gaped at them, clearly proceeding with the procedures rather than actually adding to the security. “No need for language like that” says Sulky, clearly oblivious to the fact that the tone of the whole engagement has been set by his sourness. He enters something on a printed form and I am told I can move on.

I suspect that G4S is now so tainted that decent people don’t want to work for it, don’t want to have to admit in the pub that they work for a company whose business model only works if they over-promise and under-deliver, and which depends on the civil servants being too lazy to vet them or check up on them. It is clear that this “extra security” is nothing of the kind – two bovine creatures, one poking stupidly in my bag and the other staring at my boots on the floor, add nothing to what the electronic scanner has given. The contract presumably says the service must be offered, but failed to define any qualifications for the personnel.

It is bad enough having to deal with stupid, rude people; it is worse to realise that our government is paying their employer very large sums to protect us. My willing submission to the extra checks is part of an implied deal under which others are subjected to similar scrutiny. If our protection in the air depends on G4S then we are at risk every time we fly; if it does not (because the scanners and main security checks have done that already) then why are we paying for this useless interference at the gate?

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About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
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