For those who live nearby the constant roar from overhead is a constant reminder of its omnipotence. For passengers, the filth, delays and lost luggage are a constant reminder of the incompetence. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to London Heathrow, a British icon and the world’s busiest, and probably worst, airport.
Heathrow Airport is the first experience many visitors have of the UK, and on the whole it’s rarely a good one. A sprawling micro-city of concrete and chaos, it was once, along with British Airways, a byword for glamour in a time when air travel was reserved for the rich and famous. Today airports in Beijing, Bangkok and Budapest eclipse Heathrow for efficiency, comfort and cleanliness.
First used as a military airfield towards the end of the First World War, the site, 22km west of Central London, became the Great Western Aerodrome in the 1930s. The Second World War saw the site come under government control and a tiny collection of cottages, called Heathrow, flattened to make way for runways for the Royal Air Force.
Following the war Heathrow was given over to civil aviation and in 1953 work began on the first of its modern runways. In 1961 the opening of the Oceanic Terminal (now Terminal 3) saw Heathrow handling long haul flights. Terminal 1 opened in 1968, when Heathrow was already processing 14 million passenger journeys a year.
Terminal 4 was opened in 1986 by the Prince and Princess of Wales, and in 2008 Terminal 5 was opened to a fanfare of criticism as over fifty flights were cancelled or delayed, thousands of bags lost in the £4.3 billion terminal’s first day of operations. T5’s opening day was also hampered by 300 hundred ‘passengers’ simultaneously taking off their tops to reveal signal red T-shirts with the slogan ‘Stop Airport Expansion.’
The fact that Heathrow manages to function in any capacity at all is a miracle considering the size of operations. The airport handles over 67 million passengers a year, using over 90 airlines flying to 170 destinations – 11% domestic, 43% short-haul international, and 46% long-haul. The most popular destination is New York with over three million passengers annually flying to either JFK or Newark airports.
Staffing and maintenance remain a problem at the airport, as Heathrow struggles to balance the needs of its passengers with the clamouring calls of shareholders for increased dividends. Consequently much of the airport is poorly maintained, with dated and often dirty facilities creaking under the pressure of so many transient end users.
Staff at the airport are few in number, obviously ill-trained and ill-mannered, leading to lengthy delays at check-in, passport control and baggage collection. In light of the recent economic crisis, brought on by the excesses of the UK banking system, such a seriously lacking airport could threaten the London’s position as an international financial hub. After all, they can do sums in Shanghai too.
If first impressions really do last, Heathrow really needs to clean up its act for the sake of the UK.