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