At the end of the runway

I had business in London today. For me London is a bit like New York – there is a sense of being in the whole world at once. The sheer diversity of the place radiates energy. But there is a catch. To get to London from here, you have to travel there. And all too often, that means Heathrow. And if London itself is one of the places I really like, Heathrow airport is possibly the place I dislike most in all the world. Everything about it is wrong, as far as I am concerned: from the excessively congested skies above it, to the chaotic lay-out, the 5-mile walks you seem to have to do to get anywhere at all within it, the near-inevitability of baggage loss every so often. And then there is that special disaster area that you have to pass through if you are travelling to or from Ireland, that outlying area of Terminal 1 connected to the terminal itself by those weird walkways which, whatever the weather, are always too hot and sticky.

And they have just managed to make it all even worse. You didn’t think that was possible? No, I mightn’t have, either, but it’s true. For some reason they have decided that they need to separate incoming and outgoing passengers. And to do this they have created separate walkways, but only to a point. In order to decontaminate the outgoing passengers from the incoming ones, they have put a regulated traffic system in place, so that suddenly, without warning, you get locked into wherever you happen to be and have to wait there while the other lot are whisked past. Well actually, not whisked, they meander past quite slowly. While you wait. And while you begin to realise that unless they let you out and on to the next area you’re going to miss your flight. But the officious looking man who is separating you from the incoming lot isn’t at all interested, and only suggests that you could have come earlier and you wouldn’t have had a problem.

I understand that some people actually make their travel arrangements deliberately so as to fly to or via Heathrow. I just cannot get into the mind of a person who would do that. They are a total mystery to me, like birdwatchers or flyfishermen. And I am not alone in my dislike.  The chief executive of Virgin Atlantic (which uses Heathrow as a hub) feels the same way.

Sometimes when in Heathrow I console myself that I won’t be there long. Like hell! Because the chances are that your flight will be delayed, and you’ll only find out when you’re already in that completely soul-less departures area they lock you into, from where you cannot emerge except into the sky. When that will be depends on air traffic control. And they like to keep you there for a while. And today there was the added entertainment of a little baby girl screaming her head off. But then again, who could blame her?

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10 Comments on “At the end of the runway”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Before Christmas, I went Dublin-Brussels by air. I was off the plane and on a train in twenty min’, no bullshit. In Dublin I thought they wanted me to walk there. What the dickens is with that anyway, surely to heavens it would be more efficient to have the majority near the main building rather than the up hill and down dale hike, with a visit to Cavan tossed in.
    And you are correct about those who use Heathrow for transit. But then if one does not know any better how can you blame them. I never did get the moaning the Limerick people went on with when the Shannon slots were moved to Belfast.

  2. Jilly Says:

    It’s been quite a while since I used Heathrow: but although I certainly don’t seek it out, I can nominate several airports which are at least as bad:

    Paris Charles de Gaulle – the most confusing terminal layout in the world, takes forever to make transfers, no-one seems to be able to give directions, and mystifyingly for a French airport, there’s no edible food.

    Chicago O’Hare – another crazy layout, and the international terminal has no food or coffee services beyond security, despite the obvious fact that these are the passengers who have the longest check-in times before their flights, and might want something to eat.

    Frankfurt – another blow to ethnic stereotyping, because it must be the most inefficiently-run airport in Europe, and it holds my personal record for the longest time spent in a check-in queue (2 hours, and there were only about 15 people in front of me in the queue. To this day I don’t know why it took so long).

    • Well, my experience of Chicago is better. But I agree with you about Frankfurt. In fact, I had forgotten all about Frankfurt. Apart from having some of the longest walking distances anywhere, it is perfectly easy to find that once you done the 20 minute hike to the proposed gate that they have changed it and you have to walk all the way back. Another one I found terrible, but on the other end of the size scale, was La Rochelle in France. That’s where I have had my longest check in. So long that time somehow stopped. And there wasn’t a cup of coffee to be had anywhere.

      But where are the best airports? I think my nomination might be Changi airport in Singapore.

      • Jilly Says:

        Hmm. Best airports are much tougher question than worst. I’ve always found small French regional airports, such as Nantes, very workable and pleasant, but clearly your experience of La Rochelle suggests that they’re not universally great.

        Some smaller British ones are OK too: Birmingham is a bit of a hidden gem (well, in the ungemlike world of airports, anyway). It’s small enough to be workable, and has a train station that will get you out and into many other parts of Britain fairly quickly. It’s by far the best way to get from Dublin to Oxford for example, without ever having to go near London.

        Amongst larger airports, I think I’d nominate Schipol. Their staff once got me from my delayed flight from Dublin onto my connecting long-haul flight to the far east, complete with a successful transfer of my hold luggage, in less than 20 minutes. That was impressive.

  3. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Oh but Heathrow is my favourite airport; JFK second. LHR is so generous with everything, people, distance, chaos, fights, nowhereness and diversity. I like it most because it forces people into private moments in public space; like those office women who where flats on the bus and heels at work, the crowds in LHR live in a space more private than public, more public than private. I find it almost unbearably touching.

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      where -> wear in the above; the internet is another liminal space, in my research related writing I am very careful to hide my dyslexia, in private I don’t give a damn and comments on a blog is a public-private context; just like LHR.

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        And of course, it should be “comments-on-a-blog”, the hyphens turning it into a place not a set, hence the singular verb.

        I will stop now.

  4. Emily MFG Says:

    I managed to miss 2 international connections (from Terminal 1 – Irish arrivals – to Terminal 5 – International departures) TWICE in the space of a single month. One of which resulted in having to spend the night at Heathrow. And both of which were a result of Aer Lingus being a half hour late, and not giving me anywhere near enough time to make my connection. Arrrrgh.

    I second the nomination of Singapore’s airport as the best I’ve ever visited. No charge on currency exchange? Orchid gardens, a swimming pool, showers and a cinema? Free city tours (to/from airport) based on your length of layover? Hell yeah.

  5. London is a fantastic city. I have lived here for a number of years now and really enjoy it. You have various venues and great historic centres, as well as parks. But I don’t agree to the extension of the airport for pollution reasons.

  6. Brick Paving Says:

    London is a great city and a good airport, but O’Hare has to win for the sheer scale and capacity. I think Heathrow can be confusing and it is sometimes difficult to get around.

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