Moaning in the pub: Heathrow airport security.

In the old days, if you wanted have a good moan you’d go down the pub and tell a few of your mates and maybe one or two complete strangers your tales of woe. No one important would ever hear them, nothing would ever happen.

These days you post them on a blog and maybe a few of your mates will see them, and potentially hundreds of complete strangers will as well. There is always the risk that something might get done.

So it is with some trepidation that my latest blog entry is on what must be the world’s crappiest connecting airport, the beloved Heathrow airport in London. The only places that even approach decent at the airport are the places where they can extract additional money from you, so that would be the shops, restaurants and the car parks. Pretty much everywhere is dire, confusing and getting worse.
I checked in business class with American Airlines at JFK, itself not a paragon of virtue or modern wonder, but at least it’s got the parking, transport in and around the airport sorted. My luggage is checked through to Poland on a British Airways flight and I have my boarding pass. Assuming the JFK to Heathrow flight is on time, I have about 4-hours to kill, so I arrange to meet my parents at Heathrow airport and take them to lunch at one of the hotels.

I get off the American flight on time and walk briskly to the immigration checkpoint – Americans travelling business class are given priority passes and don’t have to wait in line, but these are not available to Brits on the same flight. I have never in nearly 20-years of transatlantic flying seen such a long queue to get into the immigration hall, let alone through immigration – strike-1 against Heathrow.

Rather than wait in line I decide to head for Flight Connections, I head downstairs and jump on the first bus which takes me to Terminal-1. There were no checks to see if I should be allowed to do this, but I assume since there were huge lines upstairs they were on the lookout for someone or a party of people. Strike-2 against Heathrow.

In a short 3-minutes, I’m over at Terminal-1, I walk up to and through the flight connections centre and take the exit signed for arrivals. No line for immigration, I pass through and out without question or discussion, having shown my passport. I head through the arrivals “duty free” scam without stopping, and out into the dismal T1 arrivals area. As usual, it is packed with slightly scruffy men in suits holding badly written signs with names of other travellers. I pass through these without pause; I am not the droid they are looking for. The escalator down to the underground passageway is out of order, strike-3 against Heathrow.

Down in the tunnel it’s smelly, many of the lights are not working, its is not air-conditioned nor is there any real air movement and two of the “travellators” are not working. Still HSBC obviously thinks this is a great place, they have advertising boards everywhere. By the time you get over to the Terminal-3 (T3) entrance you can easily understand while the tunnel smells, your sweat is now contributing to the smell. Strike-4 against Heathrow.

There are two elevators in the direction signed for arrivals, which is where I’m heading. Since you are underground, unless you’ve done this before you’ve no real idea where you are. Next time I must remember that it would have been quicker to follow the sign to departures. A four minute delay before either elevator arrives and unloads its crumpled masses; I get in a press the +1 sign for arrivals. I’m slightly confused when the elevator stops as I find myself in a car-park on possibly the first or second floor.

A quick look around, and there are signs that point to arrivals at the other end of the car park. I walk briskly over and take the walkway from what is the brand new T3 car park to the old T3 arrivals building. The walkway comes in on the mezzanine level, just what I want. It’s been 16-mins since getting off the plane and I’m in the AA Business/1st class arrivals lounge. Pity all those suckers still waiting in-line behind me. Not sure about the security aspects though.

After a shower, shave and some offline email as the AA Arrivals lounge doesn’t have wireless access, I meet my parents and we go out to the Radisson for an early lunch, which wasn’t great. But, heck I can’t blame Heathrow for that. Seeing my parents was great though. At 12.30a.m. Dad drove me back and dropped me off at T1 for my British Airways flight to Warsaw.

The confusion and cock-ups started almost as soon as I was back in the airport. As we approached the security checkpoint before going into the gate area, the smartly dressed, middle aged business woman in front of me was asked if she had any moisturisers, lipsticks or balms. She gave up her lipstick.

Ready with a wink and a smile I was about to say, “no I don’t have any lipsticks”, when I was waved through. It was only when I stood behind said business woman, I remembered that in fact in the small pouch I was holding with my laptop and phone chargers in fact had the lip balm and moisturiser I’d been given as part of the American Airlines business class kit that night.

Rather than hand them in, I figured I’d just put it on the belt and see what happened, if they took them away, no real loss. Shouldn’t have worried, they went through no problem, no inspection. As I’m putting my laptop away I notice a 2nd lip balm in the inside pocket of my briefcase, I’m becoming a secret lip balm collector, not a great thing for a white guy approaching his 49th Birthday. Shame Heathrow didn’t take any of them from me. Strike-5 against Heathrow.

[Edit: Having started working in Warsaw this morning I took a bunch of stuff out of my briefcase, not so surprised to find a small Tube of tootthpaste in a metal based container along with small toothbrush.]

Time is tight it is now 1:05p.m. and my flight is supposed to leave at 1:20pm, I can’t take in the delights of the hundred or so yards of shops I have to pass ;-) I walk to Gate-36 at T1, which is really in T2. There is a long line to board, so I slip in the Mens room to “freshen-up”. The signs over the sinks say - Water may be very hot during essential repairs – or something to that effect. Fat chance, there is no hot water at all. Strike-6 against Heathrow.

By now the line at Gate-36 has gone down, I walk through showing my boarding card and passport. Downstairs, I should have known, we board a bus. This is a massive bugbear of mine at Heathrow. There is not a single major airport ANYWHERE in the world where I’ve had to take so many buses inside the airport. They made us walk effectively from T1 to T2, except they call it T1 Gate-36, only bus us back to T1 to board. We wait a full 7-8 minutes and then bus sets off.

As the bus snakes through the belly of Heathrow airport one thing is obvious, last summers strikes at the airport didn’t do much to dent the number of people standing around not doing anything much except talking to other people standing around not doing much.

The bus lurches to a halt for the first of what becomes a common sight. There was a lone suitcase in the middle of the road. I thought, good the driver is stopping to pick it up. No chance, he was just manoeuvring around it. For our 5-minute journey from T1 Gate-36, to T1 Gate-109, we passed four bags in total like this, except in one case the baggage cart the bus seemed to be chasing actually stopped to collect two of the discarded bags. Strike-7 against Heathrow.

We finally arrive at the plane; the front of the plane is connected to one of the motorised walkways(jet bridges) that go inside the terminal. We on the other hand have to take the tradesman’s rear entrance steps onto the plane. When questioned a member of the crew said they were late getting in and the plane was at one of the domestic gates, so that’s alright then.

So after all the recent security scares, it appears Heathrow’s security is still little more than “cosmetic” (pun intended). The airport also blew its only chance to join the modern world when they decided to go ahead with Terminal-5 without first deciding to either:

a). flatten T1/T2/T3 and start again;

b). at least build a modern over ground train system that could take passengers from the M4/M25/T5 and assorted business parking, Long term parking fields scattered around the perimeter, feed it into the inner road between the terminals and pretty much force all non-essential supply and commercial traffic outside the train line and to provide JFK style “kiss and fly” drop-off areas adjacent to the train line. They could have then also considered Tampa Bays TXT Msg and Cellphone parking lot where drivers waiting to collect passengers can wait outside the airport until flights arrive and the flight numbers are posted on a giant display.

I suppose there is nothing to stop them doing this anyway and then the car parks at the airport, on the roads around the airport, at petrol stations and hotels won’t be clogged up with those ever so slightly scruffy men in suits who will do anything to avoid paying for parking while waiting. Ofcourse there would be all that lost “revenue”, but I’m sure that wouldn’t stand in the way of a good idea.

Thinking about it, the real problem was what ever went on politically in the early 1990’s when Stanstead Airport was rebuilt. Why didn’t it get much more air traffic? Why did Heathrow remain the UK’s and Londons largest airport? Stanstead meanwhile has become a hub for cheap flights, even at the best of times is underutilised and at other times bares more of a resemblance to a refugee camp, in which people travelling on the cheap, camp out where they can until they can get their next cheap flight.

After all this, I’m not actually sure I should be letting the cat out of the bag, imagine how much worse Heathrow could be if they fixed all these issues! Perhaps I should just go back to moaning in the pub?
  • Current Location: Warsaw, Poland
  • Current Mood: Kn*ckered
  • Current Music: Paper Bag - Fiona Apple
The interesting thing about Stansted (STN) is that it is still the government's designated airport for hijacked aircraft to land at. Look at the inconvenience that caused last time we had a hijack land in the UK.

Why they haven't made that Prestwick (PIK) which is one of the largest, least utilised airports in the world leaves me puzzled. Passenger volumes at PIK are 1/10th those at STN. (It could be due to the runway length.)

I agree that they should flatten T1, T2, the Queen's building, T3 and all the car parks in the Central Heathrow area and start again. It couldn't be much worse.
Dont worry I dont think the pommy's will figure out you're whining since you kept saying "strike" Now if you said foul thed be on to ya.

My friend here in Atl fly's for Max Air. Its one of the new boutique airlines that only fly's business class. They now fly from D.C and NYC into Stanstead. Maybe they might be an option for you. Although I guess not in this case since you needed to make the connecting flight out of Heathrow. My uncle was an air traffic contoller at Stanstead when one of the highjacked planes came in. That was pretty intense. I seem to remember back then the runway wasnt even big enough for the plane that came in and they had to throw up the barrier thing to stop it.
Well done on the moaning ...
Fantastic blog - couldn't agree more about Heathrow.

Dan ("Badger")
Business class?
How come you are flying business class. All ...UK employees can only fly economy class - even when they are going trans-atlantic. Are you some meg-high grade employee or something?
Re: Business class?
Well Anonymous, there are three simple answers to your question

1. Yep, meg-high grade employee, look me up. Band-D executive, Distinguished Engineer

2. Business class is authorised where flight is more than 8-hours and you have business meetings on day of arrival.

3. If you read through a some past entries, probably tagged
You'll see I'm an AA Executive Platinum card holder. One of the perks of this level of their frequent flyer program is that evry year you qualify, you get 8x 1-way VIP upgrades. Once you have a ticket for a flight, you call the Executive Platinum desk and ask for a VIP One Way upgrade and 3-days before the flight they'll confirm or tell you business class is full.

So, all three could apply here... Thanks for reading!