Americans are known for the delusion that everything about their country is divinely ordered and that every aspect of the country and life in the country are superior to everything else in the work, but the English are not far behind in the delusion department.
Case in point: the CEO of London’s Heathrow Airport thinks that its the best in the world. I’ve bee to third world airports the function better and I prefer. In a P.R. puff piece on BBC, he made such absurd comments as
(We have the) “best baggage system in Europe/one of best in world”
(Heathrow has) “two world class terminals”.
Why was he speaking to the press? The baggage system broke down last week, with many people still not having received luggage after 5 days. He blamed a computer glitch and the need to sort baggage by hand.
If you ask me, this guy must not have traveled to other countries or in and out of his own airport. I have always found Heathrow to be one of worst. Arrival and depart is bad enough, but transferring terminals is a disaster. Terminal 5 gives priority to shops and not passenger flow. Lines are long and slow-moving for check-in and security. The word efficiency does not come to mind…ever.
In case no one noticed, I admit to slacking for the past few days. I have avoided computers during my visit to London, not wanting to be distracted from all the city offers, which is not available at home.
We were delayed departing from Frankfurt due to bad weather in the vicinity of Heathrow. The weather system moved off to the north, opening the skies on our route. Peering out my window, I noticed that little had change of the landscape since my first flight over England decades ago.
When landing to the west, plane fly directly over central London. Anyone with sharp eyes will be able to spot the Thames River and the London Eye in the photo below.
If you are interested in such tourist attractions and taxpayer burden, Buckingham Palace is located in the centre of the photo, between St. James Park and Hyde Park. Of interest to only me, is that I could spot our hotel on the edge of Hyde Park. Also, a bit further along the approach path, I could see that the road into London from Heathrow was jammed with traffic: we took the train.
As I mentioned a few days ago in my last contact with the outside world, I had expected to arrive at a new Heathrow terminal. Unfortunately, Lufthansa has elected to wait a few months to ensure smooth operations. They do not trust the English, who have a track record of operational disasters, to get things running on the first day. So, we arrived at an existing terminal and received a time-travel treat of a 1970s experience. The only upgrade to this terminal, since original construction, has been in the departure area, where brand retailers invest heavily to separate travellers from their money. No one spends money on arrival, so why bother.
Cliché has it that rain always falls in London (well, it did earlier in the day!). In all my trips to London, good weather has outweighed bad weather. Perhaps, this was in compensation for the pain of arrival and departure at Heathrow. Anyways, we enjoyed three days of marvellous sunshine and warm temperatures.
One of the reasons I avoided computers is the amount of stuff one must do in London: shopping, bookstores, shows, movies, restaurants, bars, walking around, visiting friends, just getting from point a to point b in a taxi, and so on. There’s hardly a minute to rest, although the hotel did have a pool, which we used before breakfast, and hotel bars offered a chance to recuperate.
Speaking of taxis, there was a time when I avoided them except in desperate circumstances. Public transportation—subway and bus—was good enough, fast enough, and cheap enough. The price difference was so great, that one stopped to think. And, often, the Underground was faster, due to crammed streets and motionless traffic. With no traffic, the trip from the airport into town or vice versa is faster with a taxi; if one wants to be sure of making a flight, then the Underground is a safe bet. London’s Underground is famous, despite being old, crowded, dirty, and requiring long walks and climbs of stairs. Occasionally, escalators work. This time, I learned that the price differential has changed dramatically, due to new price tactic of the Underground management: to entice people to purchase bulk tickets, they have raised the price for single fairs. Of course, this affects tourists, who don’t know how to buy the cheaper tickets. I considered taking the Underground for a few stops to avoid a traffic jam, until I learned that the price was £4.80 per person (I recall fares of 80 pence not too long ago for all of central London). We elected to take a taxi and paid only £8.00 and avoided stairs, long walks, and crowded cars. One more thing wrong with that country….
Because our flight was at midday, we experienced no traffic to the airport. Check-in was easy and the flight left on time: everything one wants in air travel…and seldom enjoys.
Even those with poor eyesight can spot Heathrow Airport: one needs good eyes and a sense of orientation to spot London in the distance. The flight to Frankfurt took one hour; we waited one half hour for the luggage to travel the few hundred meters from the plane to the carousel; and the taxi needed over one hour to reach our house in rush hour traffic, a journey that usually takes one half hour. So, one needs most of the day to travel to a city that is one hour away…
Yesterday, I was forced to endure a trek through Heathrow Shopping Mall to reach our plane to Frankfurt. More space is devoted to retail than to security checks, seating, or boarding gates. Because all ground operations have been subcontracted to the highest bidder (who must fleece people to make a profit and pay fees), one has no contact with airline personnel until stepping onto the plane. This is not a problem, if one has no problems, but is a problem, if one does.
Heathrow continues to dwell neat the top--if not at the apex--of my least-favorite airports in the world. I can think of nothing positive say. Most, if not all, trips to London have been less pleasant because being book-ended by that special experience.
A study has been conducted on customer satisfaction with the world's major airports.
My own insightful appraisal of Heathrow Airport has been confirmed. It ranked 99 out of the 146 canvased. In my opinion, it should have come in even lower. Not surprisingly, airports in Asia lead the list. One must merely compare changing flights in Singapore with the indignities suffered in London. It is bad enough, if one endure a change at the new Terminal 5; switching between terminals is a form of torture.
Asian airports are designed to facilitate the movement of the flying public, while offering convenient shopping and dining. Heathrow is a shopping facility, which happens to permit airlines to drop off and pick up passengers. Sales have priority over convenience and movement of people.
While we're on the subject of cultural/national differences, let me throw out another obvious measure: airport baggage carts.
Traveling the world over the years, I have noticed distinct differences in these things. At some point, I realized that they reveal characteristics of the nation in which they are found. One gets a first glimpse of the preview of the country and its people, when one arrives at the airport.
The best baggage carts are found in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. These things are like top-of-the-line Mercedes: well-engineered and solidly built. They are capable of riding escalators. Despite being in countries with high fees and high taxes, they are free. And, despite being in high-wage countries, where supermarket carts must be rented and returned to the rack to receive reimbursement, workers collect them and return them to the pick-up point for new arrivals.
The worst baggage carts are in Britain (and its former colonies). These things are like English cars of the 50's and 60's. They are not worthless, but almost. Each of the four wheels has a mind of its own, which makes the bloody things almost impossible to steer. The invention of wheels on luggage has relieved a lot of frustration at Heathrow. Of course, the Brits would never accept good ideas from abroad and would not spend money on convenience for the masses.
Baggage carts in the United States are what one would expect, if you know the country, but surprising to all first-time visitors that still harbor illusions of a land with streets paved in gold (a few of this species still exist). Carts are of basic quality (although design is questionable) and, of course, they cost money. Someone is making money off travelers, but the expense is touted as a benefit. Perhaps, the spirit of competition to these things is what prompted the invention of wheeled luggage...
Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to advertising professional to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.