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Drowning, Not flying

Craig Dalzell 

I have a small confession to make. I may have inadvertently misled readers into presuming a level of resilience from an organisation that I clearly overestimated. Last year, I wrote about the climate threat to Scotland’s airports from sea level rise. In that study I marked Edinburgh airport as “probably one of the least vulnerable” airports in the country. I did caveat the entire article by saying that I was looking only at sea level rise and not at other weather and climate events that could affect the place. However…I got a taste of those latter impacts at the tail end of last year.

My wife and I decided to spend Hogmanay in Germany with her father. He lives a fair bit away from the city so travelling does take a bit of planning. For a start, the nearest airport – Cologne – is quite expensive to fly to. Driving or taking the train is, for the near future at least, out of the question and that essentially leaves us with flying to a small, former UK military airbase turned into a commercial airport – Niederrhein – approximately two hours drive from our destination. Given the appalling imbalances in the global travel economy (and the equally appalling lack of solar-power airships!) we pretty much have to take the latter option and arrange for family to drive to the airport and pick us up. That’s fine, and we made all of the arrangements.

The saga started with booking our parking at Edinburgh – you’d be amazed how profitable it can be to allow someone’s car to sit on a half dozen or so square metres of tarmac for a week. I’m starting to wonder what happens to the business model for airports (even if we climate-proof flying at its current rate…which we probably won’t) if we replace all of our private cars with decent public transport and car-sharing/robot taxis.

The business model for Edinburgh is essentially that you pay more to park closer to the terminal. A LOT more. When we booked, the terminal car park and a five minute walk would have cost around £180 whereas the Long Stay park further away was only £35. It used to be that you’d get a bus from the Long Stay to the terminal but the airport cancelled that service at the onset of Covid and haven’t brought it back – it turns out that it’s far cheaper to have passengers walk (or pay more to park closer) than it is to pay a team of drivers to run shuttle buses. But fine, we thought, it’s only about a kilometre which – while possibly onerous for some – was within our own capabilities.

I don’t know if you remember the night of the 30th of December. “Blawin a hoolie” would be an understatement as the fallout from the collapse of the jet stream over North America manifested itself in Europe as a heatwave and in the Atlantic between the two as a major storm. By a miracle, it had actually briefly stopped raining by the time we arrived at the car park but the walk to the terminal turned out to be…interesting. The car park is badly lit, very badly signposted and extremely poorly maintained (it’s amazing how cheaply you can maintain a bit of tarmac if you just…don’t). Since the cancellation of the shuttle bus didn’t actually coincide with any upgrades to the route to the buildings, they’re not particularly walkable – even for us. This was compounded by poor drainage, flooded roads and running waters that, assuming they didn’t contain actual sewage, at least smelled…disturbingly organic. Farewell to my wife’s shoes. They went straight in the bin. I’ve since been told that the airport is in the process of “upgrading its wayfinding strategy” which sounds a lot like they’re blaming us for not being able to find our way through their dark, flooded potholes.

Once we got to inside – total chaos. I’m no stranger to flight delays, especially during bad weather, but there was something particular about this instance. Flights were seeing their gates change at random, sometimes multiple times. Ours changed four times – requiring us to walk from one end of the airport to the other and back again. As usual, very little information came out of the airport’s information services (though – to be absolutely clear – every staffer we spoke to was great and told us exactly what they knew…it just happened to be “nothing”). At one stage, the airport’s info board told us we were leaving from Gate 12 in ten minutes, the official website app told us we were leaving from Gate 4 at an undefined time and another third party app told us that our flight was already in the air and heading to Germany.

Almost two and a half hours late, we finally boarded the plane and heard the full story from the pilot. He had been waiting outside our (original) gate since the normal arrival time with his previous flight’s passengers still on board till about 30 minutes before we got on. It turned out that as bad as our walk from the car park was, the entire section of the port where Edinburgh had stored their gate-to-plane shuttles was underwater and they didn’t have enough to service all of the flights. This explained why flights were changing gates so much. They were trying to shuffle buses around and get planes into gates that were walkable.

The fun didn’t stop there though. We finally got into the sky (just shortly before we’d been delayed long enough to claim compensation – I don’t think this was a coincidence) only to be told the next problem. Both Ellen and I were starting to fall asleep so we almost missed it when the pilot said “unfortunately, we don’t currently have anywhere to land. Niederrhein has closed for the night. They often stay open late to let us land when this happens but not tonight. I’ll update you when we know more.”
Not long after, it was confirmed that we were being diverted to Cologne. Which left us in the position of being ironically closer to our final destination than we would have been but with our driver – who arrived at Niederrhein before we left Edinburgh – completely out of touch with us and an hour’s drive away from where we’d be. Luckily, and unbeknownst to us, she had been chatting to someone else who was there picking up someone on the same flight and who got an alert on his phone about the diversion coincidently just as we were passing overhead.

The rest of the flight was unremarkable. I did take about four times longer going through border control than Ellen did thanks to Brexit and my shiny new “Global Britain” passport that needed to be questioned, inspected and stamped while she sailed through as an EU and German citizen – and I was viscerally confronted with the systemic racism of border controls where even that delay was as nothing compared to folk in the same queue who were more than a couple of shades darker than my pasty Celtic thòin and whose passports had to be triple-checked by multiple people before they were allowed through. But that all passed and we got, finally, to our destination and enjoyed a wonderful week of doing nothing but chatting and playing board games.

All of that trouble would have been avoidable if Edinburgh was thinking seriously about climate change and the impact both it is having on the climate and the impact that change is having on their operations. Storms like December 30th are becoming more severe and more frequent as a result of our carbon emissions. “Once in a generation” events are rapidly becoming “once in a decade” or even “annual” events. Infrastructure that was designed for a pre-climate change world will have to radically restructure itself to survive and adapt to a post-climate change world and almost nowhere is immune from that. Not even the airports that, on a passenger.km basis, have done more to cause the problem than almost any other form of transport. Not even the ones that sit above what will soon be the high tide line. Edinburgh Airport’s climate strategy makes a big deal about them being “net-zero” for their direct emissions (Scope 1) and energy use emissions (Scope 2) but they get a bit more vague in their language about “Scope 3” emissions (that’s the emissions from the flights themselves) that make up 95% of their pollution. They have a target for that becoming net-zero by 2040 but I’ve yet to meet anyone who has a serious plan to decarbonise air travel without drastically reducing the volume and speed of that travel (airships are wonderful…but they’re also slow). Neither option is particularly positive from the point of view of a business model based on infinite and ever faster growth.

And until then, the damage humanity is causing to the planet will keep mounting. As will the bill for mitigating that damage, which should be encouragement in itself to do the work now instead of waiting till it hits profits more to continue delaying. I can only hope that businesses like Edinburgh Airport will start to take their responsibilities as seriously as the science tells us they need to on both the mitigation and adaptation front and don’t just run the place like they can extract more profit from customers by having us wade through things best left undiscovered in the murky depths of what should be their customer car park.


Update, 24th January, 2023 – I received a message from Edinburgh Airport’s Customer Support Team shortly after this article went live. I have reproduced it below, with identifying information removed:

Our long stay shuttle bus was suspended in 2020. The car park is an approximate 12 minute walk to the terminal and we find it to be a manageable distance for most customers. Those who find the distance unmanageable can contact us directly to discuss how we can support them. The long stay car park is marketed as a facility that does not have a shuttle bus and this is confirmed on our website and booking confirmations. Our team are aware that during adverse weather puddles can form within the walking route. We are currently looking into the most suitable solution to rectify the issue. Please accept our apologises for any inconvenience caused.

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