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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Heathrow Airport: Terminally Ill

This past week I once again had the displeasure to travel via Heathrow Airport as I visited London to attend the US-England International Football (Soccer) match. This was probably the 10th or so time I had been through Heathrow in my life, but traveling into and out of London on different days once again emphasized how poor the experience is, and why savvy business travelers go out of their way to avoid Heathrow and by extension London.

The U.K. I have maintained for years is the most inefficient western country. The recent flap over the opening of Terminal 5 placed BAA, British Airways and the whole nation once again in a terrible light. Unlike most American airports, or even better designed and more efficient European airports like Frankfurt Int'l, Amsterdam-Schiphol or Zurich, connecting at Heathrow is bigger ordeal in many cases than the flight itself. For example if you land at Terminal 4, which up until April was Heathrow's newest terminal and was used by primary tenant British Airways to Terminals 1,2,3 (Terminals 1 &2 host the majority of intra-European routes) you can expect a long walk out of T4, and then a bus ride upwards of an hour to one of the other terminals. Terminal 5 is situated closely to T 1,2&3, so that too represents a hike from T4. Complicating matters further is the length of immigration lines at the airport. Every time I have flown into and disembarked at Heathrow going back over 20 years, it seems the passport control lines have been under staffed and amazingly slow for an airport that prides itself on transiting more international passengers than any other on the planet. My passport control line the day of the US-England match was close to an hour long despite only one flight arriving in T4 at the time.

The debacle around the opening of T5 has been well documented so I won't repeat the depressing details. However it speaks loudly to the inefficiency of entities within the UK, and the inefficiency of the privatization of previously Government run entities pushed by Margaret Thatcher and the Tories in 1980s.

Transportation in and out of Heathrow continues to be survival of the fittest and I clearly wasn't the fittest. Not only do very few signs exist that point you towards where public transportation exists and as always is the case at Heathrow, the workers aren't particularly helpful. London 's public transportation is legendary for its scope and usefulness. However you have to be able to find a bus or tube route that suits you and have to have the money to pay for it in today's climate of high fuel costs and a weak dollar.

Heathrow has a train system between its terminals and the city which is a new service which opened only a few years back. However £ 17.50 is a pretty pence to pay for a trip to nearby Paddington Station. Also bus service to nearby hotels, including mine which was right on one of the runways cost £ 4.00. With prices like this, traveling to London which for many English speakers be it in the US, Australia, India, the Middle East or elsewhere represents the traditional first trip outside ones home region is simply not affordable. Add these prices to the general inefficiency of Heathrow, and the many gifts of London itself may seem less enticing for travelers in the future.

I'll have my review of Wembley Stadium and the transportation to/from the facility in the near future.

1 comment:

Lowell said...

Oh glorious Heathrow!

I too have experienced the joys of Heathrow, however my fondest memories are of the Duty Free shops and needing smelling salts to get rid of the perfume smell in my nostrils.

In the more than 15 times I've gone through customs at Heathrow however, I can honestly say I never had a long line. Perhaps it was flight times, or the fact my landing card was filled out, but I've never had to wait. Waterloo station (Chunnel) however is a different story. That line was crazy.

If you complain about the train fee from Heathrow to PAddington, then dont fly into Gatwick either. RT was close to $50! You can drink on the trains which can be nice, but at 9:30am there's no need.

All-in-all Heathrow is a better option than Gatwick, but your origination city and carrier will dictate your arrival destination.

I will admit is much easier to drive at Gatwick than Heathrow, but then again you have to take that into perspective. If you are staying in London, then Gatwick is a long ride away.

I think the food options at Heathrow are better than at Gatwick. There's even a Wendy's at Heathrow while Gatwick has some cafe with pricey sandwiches (gas station style).

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I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.