Heathrow is a Killer!

T5 - 1

T5 – 1

Arriving

Last time I flew to London, the pilot announced as we came into London Heathrow, that we would be landing on the West Runway.

Now I wondered why he was telling us this and assumed it must be unusual to land there. I found out that it was way, way out in the sticks and took me 75 minutes to get to the exit. This involved miles of walking down boring empty passages, and a train ride, called a transit. It’s ‘free’; presumably included in the extortionate Airport Fees and Taxes for Heathrow, but that doesn’t make it any more fun.

There are endless queues at passport control, even if you hold a British or EU passport; even longer if you don’t. Baggage claim is usually miles away too.

Now I don’t know if this is just special treatment for planes arriving from SA, or if other travellers find the same. But after a 12 hour flight, the last thing you want to be faced with is Heathrow!

This time, we also seemed to land in the middle of nowhere. So far away from ‘civilisation’ in fact, that they had to get some mobile stairs to be driven up to the door. These were very steep to get down. They also got buses to come meet us and drive us to the arrivals area. This was again a long trip, at speed and it seemed to me that we weren’t even at T5, but another terminal altogether! However, they did deposit us right at the arrivals lounge and passport control, so I didn’t mind too much standing and being thrown all over the place as the bus swerved round all the bends.

It is very nice to be met at T5. This time my old school friend and her husband met me and drove us all to Windsor for a few days’ holiday.

So arriving at Heathrow is pretty much just “Let me get out of here as quickly as possible!”

Security – The Pat-Down

Security at all airports is very tight these days. Normally I walk right through their scanners with no problem. However, at Berlin Tegel airport, I set off the alarm. Up steps a very stern-looking official to pat me down. And didn’t she just! First she passed her hand-held scanning device closely all over my body. Then she patted me down with her hands, going so far as to check under and around my bra, and inside the waistband of my jeans!

She did this on my front and back, then while my back was turned to her she distinctly said, “Klaar,” which in Afrikaans (the Dutch-related SA language) means finished, so I started to walk away. “Madam!” she called after me. We obviously weren’t done yet! Next I had to put each foot up on small stool so she could scan my shoes. Apparently now all clear, I could reclaim my bags from their extensive scrutiny through the conveyor belt machine.

I must admit I was feeling a little singled-out: no guys were being scanned. I could only think they had set the scanner to such a sensitive setting that it was picking up the under-wire in my bra.

Then I noticed that every single woman who passed through their security gate was also beeped and also underwent the rigorous screening! Even the stewardess in her uniform, who submitted to the procedure with a smile; obviously having done this many many times.

T5 - 2

T5 – 2

Departing

I had 6 hours to pass at London Heathrow T5 on my return trip from Europe to Cape Town, South Africa. This is a shot of my ‘quiet place’, way over at the A Gates.

I could have made the lay over four hours, as I flew in from Berlin, but since I was then taking my 12 hour flight back home, there was no way I wanted to be stressing about missing it and would rather wait endless hours than miss my flight entirely.

Departing is a whole different story.

Security is insane! My luggage and I had already been through a rigorous security check, for BA, at Berlin Tegel (the Pat-Down above). However, when I landed at T5, I was dismayed to find that I had to undergo yet another rigorous security procedure. This involved standing in a snaking queue 7 coils long and inching slowly forward for your turn to be processed. Once again you had to show your liquids and throw away (recycle) your water bottles. I had just bought one for 3.50 Euros at Berlin Tegel, so was very annoyed about this.

You have to show your passport and boarding pass for your next flight, then queue even more to go through their scanning machines yet again! I am not claustrophobic, but find it very uncomfortable to be herded like cattle in this manner and pressed far too close to complete strangers.

Finally through all this nonsense, which took 45 minutes, my first priority is to buy more cold water.

T5 - 2

T5 – 3 View from my ‘bed’ at A22

Cold Water

I had learnt from my short time in Heathrow earlier, on my way to Berlin, that the only place to buy cold water was way down at the A Gates, numbers 18 to 22. Yes, you can buy large (375ml) bottles of warm water at any number of shops along the way, even getting a free one of these if you bought a paper. (I did consider this, to take the paper home to my husband to read for fun, but then I would be carrying the heavy thing for the next 6 hours!) And I’m sorry, but I am simply not paying 2.50 to 3 pounds for warm water!!

My place at Gate A18 has an automatic drinks dispenser. When I discovered this the first time, i placed my hand on the glass front and found it was blissfully icy cold! You can get coke and other fizzy drinks, but more importantly, life-giving cold water. And it only cost 1.70 pounds! I put in my 2 pounds and when I took my change I discovered that the previous person had forgotten to collect theirs, so I got 60p instead of 30p. Even better!

Quiet Time

Once I have my water I just sit for a while and breathe. It is pretty stressful coming from a place (Cape Town) where I can mostly avoid crowds: I feel like a country bumpkin! Sitting here in A18 to A22 is usually quiet. Now and then a flight will be leaving from one of these Gates and it will fill up for a while. There are also some toilets towards A20 that are spacious and quiet, not like most of the others where you have to queue. (Well the ladies have to queue – guys may fare better!)

Oh, while I’m on about toilets, it is a good place to go to escape the constant noise, stress and bustle of the airport. Why? Because they play really beautiful calming music! There were various pieces by Mozart and Beethoven, Chopin’s piano concerto and Pachelbel’s Canon in D. All a soothing balm to my poor battered spirit. Such a shame about the hand driers! Heathrow has fitted the loudest driers I have ever heard. They literally blow the skin off your hands along with any moisture that dare linger and deafen you with such decibels that your ears ring.

While you’re at A18 to A22, look out for the one or two seats that have an arm rest missing. Then you can lie down in a little ball of misery for a few minutes, until the Gate begins to fill up again! I’d found my broken two-seater at A22, then people started to arrive to catch a plane to Aberdeen, so I moved on.

My daughter told me there was a designated quiet area, but I had walked the length and breadth of T5 umpteen times without spotting it. Finally, shortly before it was time for me to think of taking the transit to C Gates, I found it! It is tucked behind A13 and A14, but was hidden by large panels and building stuff. Here was a row of reclining plastic chairs. I don’t know who they were designed to fit, but if you reclined in them you couldn’t, for example, read a book or do a cross word, nor could you sleep, as the angle was all wrong. They were not comfy at all. Still, it really was quiet in that no-one was speaking or on their cell phones. However, my peace was short lived, as a child bounced into the chair next to me and proceeded to fidget constantly. As the seats were connected I was jolted continually, so I got up and left; my seat being taken immediately by someone else.

Time to Go

Then it was time to travel miles to the C Gates, where my plane departed. Yep, on the transit/train again and then more miles of empty corridors to traipse down. Once there I decided to treat myself to a nice cup of tea, as you can wait a long time to be served a drink once on the plane. The only place to get a cuppa was Starbucks. Where was this? You got it! Completely the other end of the long, long C Gates lounge from where my plane left!

T5 - 4

T5 – 4

Despite all my moaning, things could have been worse. I could have been wearing an Oreo Cookie costume!!

 

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28 thoughts on “Heathrow is a Killer!

  1. faburlifekhloe

    Sorry to hear about all the pain you had to go through when travelling to UK! 😦 I can totally related to it when I I was travelling to Porto. Big airport is good, but it takes like forever to reach the gate. 😦 I couldn’t believe the underwire bra thing and their security system is a bit too sensitive in my opinion, but glad you landed safe 🙂

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  2. blosslyn

    I know the exact feeling, leaving Heathrow a nightmare, arriving at Washington DC a nightmare and the same on the return trip. The part I enjoyed was the flight and going by business class, worth every penny, makes up for the airports. I know it makes flying a lot safer, but they opened every one of our 6 suitcases and broke the locks, one small one was just full of shoes, amazing. I also had the pat down treatment, the same as Grace Jones the singer who was in front of me, she was not happy, they really went to town on her, this was at Heathrow and she was only flying to Germany. Anyway my husband who hates flying said make the most of it we are not flying again if he can help it. Mind you they are a great place to take photos 🙂

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    1. scifihammy Post author

      I do understand the security thing, but it seems to be a bit overboard! Opening ALL your suitcases?? Thank goodness I only had the one big airport.
      As to not flying – it is the only sane way for me to travel the 10,000km to see my family, so I’ll be doing it again!

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    1. scifihammy Post author

      I remember all those bombs, as I was living in Manchester as a student. I’d see the headlines at a news stand on the way home, then phone my Mum in Yorkshire to tell her I hadn’t been in town and hadn’t been blown up, because I knew she’d be worrying. It was all horrid.

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  3. dizzylizzie72

    This sounds like quite an adventure. We have some horrible airports in America too. One is in Dallas, Texas. This story just shows me why I choose not to go by air anymore than necessary. The pat down sounder awful. I know you are glad to be home.

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  4. Rachel M

    We had a terrible time when we came over for Ben’s sabbatical and opted to spend a few days in London first. Big mistake! You can read about it here:
    http://rachelsquirrel.com/2013/07/28/were-in-london-be-afraid-be-very-afraid/

    I’ve since discovered that landing in Heathrow is great when you’re in transit but it really sucks if you want to visit London. I’ll never arrive in London by air ever again. Now our final destination is always Aberdeen and it’s quite nice because the transit lanes tend to be smaller. It’s still a big and busy airport though but nothing we can do about that. Aberdeen by contrast is pretty tiny and quiet.

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    1. scifihammy Post author

      I am sure Aberdeen airport is nice – so is Cape Town – because so much smaller. Funny but I thought of you when I was waiting by the A22 Gate, and everyone came to board the plane to Aberdeen! 🙂

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  5. Ady

    Oh my !!! It’s more like adventure in the urban areas and not less rigorous in any way to that of jungle ! Now I am starting to worry about my possible departure in October ! This will be my 1st international trip, so far the simple 2 hour domestic flights are tiresome, and by reading your account, I am scared ! What a terrible ordeal and the commuting to long distance to catch the flight is really most boring. I usually travel alone and the buses are super slow and the feel they have all the time in the world to reach the plane or gates ! 😦

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    1. scifihammy Post author

      Really don’t worry about your overseas travel! I first flew when I was 22 – all by myself – and it was fine! You are much younger than me and that makes all the difference. I was just moaning, and hopefully telling a bit of an amusing tale! 🙂

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  6. Midwestern Plant Girl

    My dad worked for United Airlines as a mechanic back in the day. He would check the planes we would be traveling on personally! As a child, we would never have to go thru security, just take the employee bus to the correct gate and board the plane. On top of that, we would fly first class. This was before ‘upgrades’ and the whole front of the plane was my bro’s and mine playground! Here’s the kicker. .. When the pilots would come out of the cockpit and see us, they would chat with my dad and ask if we wanted to ‘fly the plane’! Of course! We would sit on the pilots lap with the wheel in our hands! I assume on auto-pilot… However, we didn’t know that.
    Now I’m just a nobody that seems to resemble a terrorist. Last time I flew to St. Thomas, I was singled out 5 times for random searches. I’ve not been felt up like that since high school. 😠
    I will only fly out of desperation now. I will have to fly this October. I will be on a high dose of anxiety meds….

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    1. scifihammy Post author

      Wow! Your childhood experiences are amazing! No wonder nothing nowadays could compare!
      I think most of us fly out of desperation. Certainly the 10,000 km from SA to UK is just too far to do any other way.
      Good Luck for October – and I hope you don’t get random searches!

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  7. Garfield Hug

    I call this your airport adventure! Yup! Heathrow is brutal! 2 years ago I had the luxury of special treatment on account of health and had a buggy pick up and immediate boarding. But last to disembark! But waiting time in Heathrow was terribly long. Thanks for sharing this. It was as if we readers were with you 🙂

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