Heathrow is hell

It is a truly awful place to fly from – and expansion will make the agony even worse

Heathrow isn’t an airport. I don’t mean that it isn’t an airport worthy of the name – though as you’ll see from this tale, that’s also true. No, I mean it literally isn’t an airport.

Earlier this year, my partner Jo and I, together with our nine-year old son, set out from the Yotel in Heathrow Terminal 4 at an ungodly hour. We’d stayed there before, in precisely these circumstances – a flight so early (6.30am) that you can’t face getting up to travel to the airport from home. Stay at the airport overnight, nip between terminals on the Heathrow Express, job done.

Only this time it was a Sunday morning, and we found on reaching the Heathrow Express that the service starts later on that day. Too late to make our flight, in fact. No matter – we still had loads of time. ‘Take the Tube,’ said the man at the gate. ‘That’s running.’

Over at the Tube station, we found locked gates (not the ticket gates – the big ones they draw across the front of the station) and a loud alarm going off. We surmised from this that the Tube was not, in fact, running. A Tube employee wandered into view, and confirmed this. It would have been nice if he could have done so without shaking his head, scowling, muttering ‘no trains’ and turning away. But you can’t have everything in life.

Still we didn’t worry – there was ample time to get a taxi to Terminal 2. We went up to the rank. It was empty. There was a small cubicle in which a man who looked vaguely like a Heathrow employee was sitting. We asked if any taxis might be imminent. He said they all waited off-site. Could he call us one, please? OK. How long might it take? He didn’t know. Could he guess? It might be 20 minutes.

Sensing now that an easy and unhurried departure might not, after all, be guaranteed, I left Jo dealing with the taxi wrangler, and went back inside the terminal to ask another employee whether she could help. (Rule one in places like Heathrow: if you don’t like the first answer you get, ask someone else.) This lady said she could indeed help. She had an iPad in her hand, which boded well. But she did not use that iPad to call up an icon that said ‘Bollock Taxi People, Tell Them To Hurry Up.’ Nor did she use it to call up a list of approved local minicab firms, ones the airport used all the time. Such a list seemed not to exist. No, she started searching the internet for local minicab firms. Something I could have done just as easily from my iPhone.

She called out the numbers that appeared, and I rang them. None had any cars available. Eventually Jo’s persistence with the wrangler paid off, and a black cab appeared. By now we knew things were getting pretty tight, but still, with a fair wind we should make it.

This, though, is where you’re reminded how enormous Heathrow is. Driving from Terminal 4 to Terminal 2 isn’t a short hop – it’s a massive trip round the perimeter, with several sets of traffic lights on the way. It took about 15 minutes. And by this stage that was time we could ill-afford to lose. We arrived at the desk to find we’d missed the flight by four minutes.

Cue £800 bill to fly three days later instead. Foolishly we comforted ourselves with the thought that we could claim that back under the ‘missed flight’ section of our travel insurance policy. But because American Express are as useless as Heathrow itself they refused to pay out. Or rather AXA (who actually administer the policy) refused, citing those two old chestnuts, ‘terms’ and ‘conditions’.

Our flight three days later was even earlier (6am), meaning check-in opened at 4am – so we thought sod it, we’ll arrive at the terminal at midnight and just wait. We found a quiet corner, my son slept on the floor, Jo and I read, all was well. We knew that with a 30 yard walk there was zero chance of missing the flight.

As 4am grew near, we joined the check-in queue (in effect the bag-drop queue – we had of course checked in online). This was already a few dozen strong: plenty of people seem to take the ‘overnight’ option, possibly having had similar experiences to us. We soon realised the queue was barely moving. Then we noticed there was another queue feeding into the same point from the opposite direction.

And this is when you realise just how hopeless Heathrow is. Massive buildings, bright lights and policemen with machine guns lull you into thinking you’re dealing with a state-of-the-art facility. But the only member of staff who counted at that point was the guy in charge of the queue. It can’t have been more than a year or so since he was taking his A-levels. God knows how many he failed to end up in this job, but he was ineffectual to the point of invisibility. Several times I (and other passengers in the same position) told him that we had 6am flights to make, but he simply kept repeating his mantra that if our flight time got too near we would be called to the front of the queue. A slightly less inefficient superior came along and told him to make sure there was only one queue, but Inferior had little success in achieving this.

When 5am ticked by, I decided to act. Taking advantage of a momentarily-open gap in the queue-rope, and pretending to be confused, I got us to the desk and we dropped our bags. If I hadn’t done that, and had played by Heathrow’s rules, it’s anyone’s guess how close we could have got to missing a second flight. Even once we were through security (as joyful an experience as ever), the walk to the gate was still so long that boarding started not long after we got there. This despite being in the airport six hours before take-off.

Which explains my opening statement. It is sometimes said that Los Angeles isn’t a city, but rather a collection of towns joined together by freeways. In the same way, Heathrow isn’t an airport, but rather a collection of terminals joined together by roads and various means of public transport. Which, if they fail at the same time, make it impossible to get from one terminal to another. And they’re planning to make this place bigger?


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