x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Airport etiquette and the fine art of the upgrade

Modern travellers cannot consider themselves truly blooded unless they have experienced the delights of claiming back their value added tax at the airport.

That flying out of London's Heathrow airport is not what it was is hardly news, but I had hoped that when Martin Broughton, the British Airways chairman, recently pleaded for Britain to stop "kowtowing" to the Americans and imposing "redundant" security checks, we might at last be turning the corner after a decade in which silliness defined the philosophy of our personal safety and we Arab men were reduced to carrying very un-Arab quantities of aftershave in our hand luggage.

Mr Broughton's exhortations fell on deaf ears. Or did they? I was clearly not alone in detecting something very odd when, two days after his statement, we were told of the by-now-infamous Yemeni printer cartridge bomb plot. I am not saying that it was deliberately cooked up to maintain a high threat level (although a significant segment of the blogosphere does), but it did guarantee that passengers must still allow three hours before their flight leaves for check-in and security procedures.

If an international terror mastermind did want to slip in under the UK security radar, all he needs is a Learjet. On the one occasion I did fly "private" in and out of London (picture the scene: 12 motley Arabs landing at London's City airport) no one gave us a second glance and most certainly no one looked in our bags. Only those with foreign passports were cursorily checked, while I, as a UK national, could have had a thermo-nuclear device about my person. On the way out, we drove straight from Marble Arch to a runway at Stansted Airport and were in the air, bound for Beirut, within 15 minutes.

But modern travellers cannot consider themselves truly blooded unless they have experienced the delights of claiming back their value added tax (VAT), a process at which we Arabs have made quite a name for ourselves, given the high proportion of Lebanese and Gulf passengers struggling manfully with bulging bags at Heathrow's VAT refund counter. It is a reputation that was not lost on the cheerful woman whose job it was to check that people had their paperwork in order and to make sure everyone (for "everyone" read Middle Eastern passengers) stood in line.

We Arabs are kind, unfailingly polite, hospitable and generous. But the burly Egyptian with his four huge suitcases who walked brazenly to the front of a very long and slow-moving queue, demonstrated that we can also be predisposed to bouts of self-importance that border on the narcissistic.

He was gently prodded by the diminutive Turkish lady whose position he had usurped but stood his ground, staring straight ahead and clearly thinking that no one had noticed his breathtaking manoeuvre.

The cheerful VAT lady insisted he go to the back of the line, but still he said nothing. This would have been awkward at the best of times but in what the media likes to call the "current climate", bad behaviour can rapidly escalate into a "security episode".

And surprise, surprise, a trio of heavily armed policemen hove into view. The lady asked the man if he would like to explain his behaviour to an officer, an offer that prompted half a dozen Lebanese also standing in the queue to berate him (which, given our own national malaise of queue-jumping, I found mildly ironic). This seemed to wake him up as he began explaining, in Arabic, about his bad leg. But here's another thing about the "current climate": no one cares and soon the cheerful VAT lady was gently leading him by the arm to the back of the line amid our silent applause.

Travel is fraught enough without such incidents, but someone at check-in clearly liked the cut of my jib and I was upgraded. My fast-track boarding pass allowed me to move through immigration in less than five minutes. I guess membership does have its privileges after all, and Mr Broughton's concerns were quickly forgotten.

Say what you want about Beirut and its jaded reputation as a hotbed of mayhem and violence, but procedures at Rafik Hariri International Airport were much more civilised. Twenty minutes after the plane touched down I was clambering into a taxi. But as we pulled on to the main highway into the centre of Beirut I sensed something was not quite right. For a start, the stretch of road, which normally resembles the set of The Fast and the Furious had taken on an almost European sedateness. There were no 20-year-old 3-series BMWs tearing up the inside lane, nor were there gangs of youths doing wheelies on trial bikes.

"I can't go any faster," the driver explained. "The police have installed radars. Yesterday was the first day and over 3,000 fines were handed down."

He went on to explain that the state had imposed a speed limit - 100kph for highways and 50kph for built-up areas. The ministry of finance, he said, could generate more than US$30 million (Dh110.1m) in fines annually. "This is the only way it will work," he said. He was one of those Lebanese, you might know the sort, who is a stickler for the rules. "Someone will get fined and they will tell their family and then the neighbours will hear about and soon people will pay attention because they don't want to pay. That's the only way to do it in this country; hurt the pocket and people will behave."

We'll see.


Michael Karam is a publishing and communications consultant based in Beirut