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The Chaos at Heathrow

Omkar Goswami


In an interview with the Financial Times on 29 July, Kitty Ussher, Britain’s new minister in charge of the City, said that London’s status as one of the world’s leading financial centres risks being undermined by excessive delays at Heathrow Airport. According to her, thanks to mounting “Heathrow hassles”, global companies will increasingly question the rationale of holding their meetings in London. “I don’t want [the MNCs’] New York or Dubai executives saying ‘Oh God, I don’t want to go through Heathrow’”, said she.

Ms. Ussher’s concerns come not a moment too early. Heathrow is a mess. Terminal 4, once a showpiece of functional modernity, is dysfunctional. The other three terminals are much worse off, and in many places “held together by sticking plaster” — this said by Tony Douglas, Heathrow’s CEO who quit two weeks ago.

The first problem is sheer traffic. On the date of writing this column (1 August), between 6 am and 11 am, Heathrow will have had 332 landings and 381 takeoffs. Assuming an average payload of 200 passengers per flight with 1.25 checked baggage per passenger, this translates to dealing with 142,600 fliers and 178,250 pieces of checked baggage just for five hours in the morning. And there is the same amount of traffic between 4 pm and 9 pm every day. Heathrow’s tired facilities just can’t handle this sort of volume any more.

That’s why my experience at Heathrow on 29 July was hardly atypical. I arrived at Terminal 4 at 6.30 am from Delhi, to connect to an 8.30 am flight to Edinburgh departing from Terminal 1. Two hours are more than enough for a leisurely inter-terminal connect, right? Wrong. This is what happened.

The queue for terminal transfers was some ten people wide and at least 150 deep. After 20 minutes, I realised that there was no hope of making the connection in the usual manner by inter-terminal bus. So, I opted to go through immigration in Terminal 4, expecting that the ‘Fast Track’ card which I had would help.

Not a chance. The Fast Track passport control line in Terminal 4 was being serviced by just three immigration officers, and was already backed up by at least 250 passengers. For other non-EU citizens, the lines were thrice as long. It took over 40 minutes to get my passport stamped.

Then there was a mad rush to get out of Terminal 4 arrivals, and on to the Heathrow Express to reach the station for Terminals 1, 2 and 3. It took10 minutes to get to the station; 10 minutes of waiting for the train to leave; another 10 minutes of furious walking to arrive at Terminal 1 security; then a line that took 20 minutes, before I was pronounced safe for flying. I reached the gate for the Edinburgh flight minutes before takeoff. Believe me, there were hundreds, nay thousands, like me that Sunday morning, huffing, puffing, sweating and groaning throughout Heathrow.

The second problem is baggage handling. Over the last few years, British Airways has specialised in losing checked-in baggage. According to the Association of European Airlines, BA lost 23 bags for every 1,000 passengers carried during 2006 — which is way more than the average of 15.7 for all European airlines. At Edinburgh airport I met a BA passenger who was without his bags for three days, and finally got it a few hours before returning home.

The third problem is heightened security. Ever since the fear of liquid gel bombs and the more recent attempt at Glasgow airport, Heathrow has probably the strictest security protocol in Europe. That elongates lines, causes delays and creates further hassles.

Finally, British Airports Authority (BAA) which owns seven UK airports including Heathrow is a monopoly. And being one, it has not made sufficient investments to keep pace with the growth in traffic. Thus, according to the International Air Transport Association, Heathrow and other UK airports owned by BAA provide “embarrassingly low service levels by failing to invest in appropriate equipment and staff to meet demand.”

All in all, Heathrow has become a right royal pain in the you know what.

Published: Business World, August 2007



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