Just how bad is Manchester Airport right now? We flew there to find out and it wasn’t what we expected
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Staff shortages in the aviation industry are commonplace right now, but some airports have been hit harder than others.
Manchester Airport (MAN), the fourth busiest passenger airport in the United Kingdom in 2021 has received plenty of bad publicity in recent weeks and months for its passenger experience, particularly in Terminal 1. The airport owners admit they are grossly short-staffed and are actively recruiting, but there is a significant lag time between new staff accepting a position and being cleared to work in secure areas in the airport.
Passengers have faced security queues taking several hours, with some forced to queue to even enter the terminal, up to five hours before their flights departed. Some flights were delayed and others left without all checked-in passengers for the simple fact that those travelling could not physically get to their aircraft in time.
I’ve only flown out of Manchester Airport once before now, departing on a British Airways flight from Terminal 1 on a Sunday evening, six months ago. I recall the experience being quite unpleasant, with a long security queue staffed with surly officers barking at passengers and a confusing maze of hospital-like corridors to try and find a lounge to use.
I was curious how much worse the experience could get and if all the horror stories were true, so naturally, I booked myself an EasyJet flight from Terminal 1 to find out.
I was pleasantly surprised with my experience as a passenger earlier this week. Here’s why.
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Before leaving home
Two days before departure I received an email from EasyJet advising me to arrive 2.5 hours before departure because of delays at airport security. This was fine as I was planning to arrive around this time anyway.
What was more worrying was the following day, one day before departure I received another email asking me to arrive even earlier.
My flight to Hurghada (HRG) was scheduled to depart at 2:50 p.m., so arriving three hours before departure was not a big imposition on my alarm clock.
To try and make what I expected to be an unpleasant experience as bearable as possible I only travelled with cabin baggage. This meant I would not have to queue to check in any luggage. I also packed everything into a rollaboard suitcase rather than having anything in a backpack because this would be more comfortable to stand in a security line that could potentially take hours.
I arrived at Manchester’s Terminal 1 exactly three hours before departure at 11:50, as requested by easyJet and took a deep breath as I rounded the corner and saw the terminal entrance for the first time.
Would there be a queue out the door? Angry mobs chanting that they just wanted to get to Turkey? Airport management passing bottled water to those waiting to avoid them passing out?
There was none of that.
I spotted some snaking barriers set up outside the terminal entrance but they weren’t being used. I asked a bored-looking security staff member what they were for and he said early morning departures when the terminal became too full to allow more passengers to enter.
He explained the problem had recently been exacerbated by passengers arriving too early, before their flights had opened for check-in. There was no benefit for the passengers arriving this early as they couldn’t check their baggage in before their flight opened, usually three hours before departure.
All this did was add unnecessary extra bodies inside the terminal, hence having a queueing system set up outside.
Inside the terminal
I can see why Terminal 1 can get very crowded — it’s long but quite narrow and the security entrance is only a few steps inside the door. While the terminal was busy at midday, it wasn’t uncomfortably-so and seemed to be flowing smoothly. EasyJet check-in and baggage drop is as just to the right of the security entrance and its entrance was controlled by a staff member who checked which EasyJet flight the arriving passengers were travelling on.
Some holiday-makers had arrived more than three hours before departure and were told to wait nearby for their flight to open. This did cause some crowding in this narrow terminal space but it wasn’t unpleasant.
The key learning here? As tempting as it is, don’t arrive before your flight opens at Manchester Airport, there is no benefit to doing so.
I had already check-in online using EasyJet’s excellent app, so steadied myself and headed to the security line, preparing myself for at least an hour of frustrating queueing.
The low ceilings and winding corridors of Terminal 1 are reminiscent of a Disneyland ride queue — you can’t see the start of the queue and are constantly moving so it feels like you are not far from the ride, even though you could be hours away.
There were plenty of signs as I navigated the queues advising how passengers could reduce delays by preparing their liquids and electrics before they reached the screening point.
Some passengers were clutching these belongings before they even joined the end of the queue but I chose not to as I figured it would be very uncomfortable to hold a large empty water bottle, liquids bag, 15 inch MacBook, metal laptop stand (that is sometimes mistaken for a weapon) and my phone and wallet in my hands while navigating the queue.
There are about 15 security screening lanes in Terminal 1 (you can see the first three marked above), and around half of them were open. Less than ten minutes after joining the end of the main security queue, I was loading my items into bins to be screened at lane 12.
I had read that a major reason for the slow security screening was that almost everything was selected for secondary manual screening, a painfully slow process at even the most efficient busy airports. Miraculously, all three of my bins went straight through for my collection with no additional delays and I was through to duty-free less than 15 minutes after entering the security queue which I thought was an excellent result.
All of the staff were pleasant, efficient and professional to myself and my fellow passengers. They mentioned that in particular they were on the hunt for hairdryers, explaining that a number had not been taken out of luggage before screening earlier that day which had caused delays.
Terminal 1 is quite pleasant once you are through the cramped check-in and security areas.
There’s a light and airy central atrium with some great plane-spotting opportunities thanks to the floor to high-ceiling windows.
With my Priority Pass membership in hand, I followed the signs to airport lounges to try my luck at either the Escape or Aspire lounges.
I had read it is virtually impossible to access these lounges with a Priority Pass membership, and sure enough, both lounges had ‘we are at capacity’ signs out the front indicating they were only accepting pre-booked guests.
I imagine these signs are kept up for most of, if not the entire day as the lounges would make more money selling individual pre-booked entry rather than the lower Priority Pass reimbursement.
The 1903 Lounge remains closed which doesn’t make much sense given the other lounges are at capacity.
My flight was departing from gate 2, a very short walk from the main airside area of Terminal 1. With another EasyJet flight departing to Paphos (PFO) from the adjoining gate 3 just five minutes earlier, there was a crush of people in the narrow corridors with no real order. The EasyJet staff, however, did manage to separate the horde into proper boarding groups and I was soon on my way to board my flight.
My experience flying out of Manchester Terminal 1 was nothing like I expected but I think it was largely due to the time my flight departed. If possible, look for flights departing in the afternoon — had my flight departed at 8 a.m. that morning I imagine I would have had a very different experience.
Still, TPG’s Ethan Klapper recently flew from Terminal 2 on a Singapore Airlines flight departing at 9 a.m. and had a similarly easy experience.
If Manchester Airport’s security staff were stretched on my day of travel it didn’t show — they were cheery and staff and passengers alike were all in a good mood. This is certainly not my favourite U.K. airport but it was no worse than a Luton (LTN) or Stansted (STN) experience in London.
Provided I found an afternoon departure, I would use Manchester Airport again.
Featured image by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy
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