02 Feb 2016 18:50 IST

All is not well with Heathrow

A hub airport is expected to connect passengers to onward flights quickly, easily and at low cost, without adding to travellers’ anxieties. Heathrow fails on all these counts.   -  Reuters

Taking a connecting flight from the busiest airport can be a nightmarish experience

All is not well with London Heathrow. Faced with extreme competition from West Asian hubs such as Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai, it is struggling to update infrastructure that, in some cases, is over 50 years old.

British Airways’ home airport, with its five terminals, was never meant to serve as many arriving and departing flights as it does today. The terminals are so far-flung that connecting from one to another is a nightmare.

On New Year’s Day this year, I landed at Terminal 3 on an incoming flight from the US on American Airlines. AA is the founding partner with British Airways of the huge Oneworld Alliance. AA depends upon BA to take its passengers to the various long-haul destinations that the former does not serve — in Europe, Africa, West Asia and South-East Asia.

The alliance is valuable to BA. Without the constant feed of AA customers, BA would have gone bankrupt a long time ago.

Membership in this exclusive club has its privileges, and so, AA was accorded use of Heathrow’s Terminal T3. Incoming AA passengers connecting to BA flights have to transfer from T3 to T5, from where British Airways operates most of its long-haul flights.

The nightmare

For the passenger, this is not as easy as it seems.

Getting to the transit bus that takes you to T5 requires running shoes. The route is long and winding, with dozens of turns. Moving walkways are few, making it hard for elders who are too proud to request wheelchair assistance but are not quite that able; women travelling alone with young children are hit hard. Having sat in an aluminium tube for more than eight hours, they have to toil with the release of their young ones’ pent-up energy while also navigating this long, arduous hike. The promising “Connections to T5” signs are everywhere but the actual bus that takes you to T5 continues to elude you.

Long bus ride

And what a miserable bus ride it is. The line to get into the bus is long, and rather than the bus waiting for people to get in, Heathrow has it the other way around. Enough people to fill multiple buses stand by nervously, looking at their watches and phones before the doors finally open to reveal a single bus that can accommodate, at best, a third of the passengers in line.

The lucky but tired travellers pile into the bus, which jerks free from the kerb — the first of many jerks. The narrow local road takes you through many turns and stop signs. The speed limit is 30 kmph and, given that the distance is far, the lunging forward-and-backward ride easily takes 15 minutes. If the bus gets stuck behind a tractor pulling baggage on the single lane road, the ride can extend to 20 minutes or more.

The British are obsessed with security, perhaps even more than the Americans. Although these travellers just got off international flights and are transiting in a secure airport bus with no stops, they are deemed to be not safe enough. They have to clear British airport security in Terminal T5.

Passport control is the first of many long waits. Then you get to the individual screening checkpoint, where the various signs and displays about what is not allowed onboard scare the living daylights out of you. Is it possible that in some strange corner of your carry-on bag, there still lurks a prohibited item? The frustration and tension only grow as screeners insist on even two-year-olds removing their winter jackets.

On the other side of passenger screening, T5 is so large that if you are connecting via the B or C gates, you will have to get on a short train after walking for some time again, manoeuvering through the Duty Free shops that mushroom everywhere like irritating pests. Why can’t these overpriced commercial establishments be tucked away in a corner of the airport, like the restrooms?

I timed my Heathrow transit — it took me exactly 75 minutes, from arriving at the T3 gate, to the departure at T5 gate on a slow, lazy day for travel.

Delayed arrival

On my return flight from India into London, everything was smooth until the plane flew over the English Channel.

Minutes from landing at Heathrow, our plane was placed into a holding pattern because of air traffic control, delaying our arrival by nearly 25 minutes. Heathrow has just two runways. By comparison, New York has four, Dallas has seven and Chicago O’Hare has eight.

With a two-hour connection back to an AA flight out of T3, I nearly missed my flight.

The trouble with the airport doesn’t end here. It is one of the most expensive transits to connect through. The airport taxes and fees on a recent flight via London came to $245. Abu Dhabi’s airport taxes totalled $15.

A hub airport is expected to connect passengers to onward flights quickly, easily and at low cost, without adding to travellers’ anxieties. Heathrow fails on all these counts.

How the airport claims in bold signage that it was voted the best airport in the world beats all logic.

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