Best and worst UK airports: Heathrow fails to impress and Manchester has shocker

Small airports have beaten big-name rivals to be crowned best in the UK this year

Passengers queue to check in at Heathrow's Terminal 2 at the start of the summer holidays in England and Wales in July 2022. PA
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Many of the UK's larger airports have been crippled by excessive delays and cancellations, says a new report by Which? that asked almost 7,500 members to rate their experiences over the past two years.

At the UK's busiest airport, Heathrow terminals 2, 3 and 4 were in the bottom half of the table.

The airport's Terminal 4 achieved a customer-satisfaction score of only 48 per cent.

It rated only one star for the variety of shops and two stars across all types of queues, as well as for the overall experience delivered by staff.

One respondent shared that there was "much room for improvement", while another said the "queues were ridiculous".

On Wednesday it emerged Heathrow's losses have widened, despite an improvement in passenger numbers, as the London airport warned demand may not recover “for a number of years”.

About 18 million people passed through the London airport this summer, making it the busiest hub in Europe over the period.

The airport predicts passenger numbers this year will reach 60 to 62 million, about 25 per cent less than in 2019.

“Headwinds of a global economic crisis, war in Ukraine and the impact of Covid-19 mean we are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic demand for a number of years, except at peak times,” it said in a statement.

Heathrow’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye said the hub could be proud of its summer performance, with the “vast majority experiencing good service”.

"Spacious" and "modern" Terminal 5 performed best of the Heathrow group among the Which? list, achieving a commendable four stars across all types of queues and an overall customer satisfaction score of 60 per cent.

“This is an amateur survey with inaccurate and misleading conclusions," a Heathrow representative said.

"What is clear is that Heathrow has faced unprecedented growth this year, as passenger numbers rose faster and higher than any other European hub, with more than 18 million passengers using the airport this summer.

"We have seen thousands of people joining or returning to work across the 400 companies that operate here.

"After the two years of international travel lockdown, this was always going to be a tough year and colleagues across the airport have put in a monumental effort to meet those challenges.

"Our focus continues to be on building back capacity so that we can deliver the consistent, high-quality service our passengers expect at Heathrow.”

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Among London airports, City came out well above the rest, taking joint third place in the tables overall with Southampton, while also being the only London airport to make it into the national top 5.

It achieved an impressive five stars across all queue types, from check-in, bag-drop, security, passport control and baggage reclaim.

It also rated four stars for quality of seating available and helpfulness of staff.

Respondents who rated the airport highly praised their experience as "slick", "pleasant" and "painless", and conveniently located.

It was Doncaster Sheffield Airport that topped the consumer champion’s survey for the fourth consecutive time. But the airport is due to shut down imminently, with the last flight departing in the next few weeks.

With a customer score of 85 per cent, travellers praised the "fantastic, helpful staff" and "faultless service", awarding the airport's employees a full five stars.

The airport also scooped five-star ratings for queues through security and at baggage reclaim, as well as for seating and toilet facilities, with one respondent saying the experience was "how air travel should be".

But the airport did drop to four stars for queues at check-in and bag drop, while it received its lowest ratings for the shopping experience offered — three stars for the price of goods and two for the range of shops.

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Exeter and Liverpool John Lennon Airports tied in second place in the survey, with a customer score of 83 per cent.

Both earned Which? Recommended Provider status for the first time.

Exeter scored a near-perfect set of five- star ratings, dropping to two stars only on the choice of shops available.

Several respondents commented on the "small, friendly" feel of the airport, with travellers praising the ease and convenience they experienced, and notably, a lack of queues.

Liverpool also rated highly for waiting times, achieving an impressive five stars across check-in, bag-drop, security, passport control and baggage reclaim.

Respondents praised the airport as "uncrowded" with "minimal queues", while also singling out an intuitive layout that made it "easy to navigate".

Dropping one point to four stars on seating, staff and toilets, like Exeter it received its lowest star rating for the shopping experience, achieving only three stars for prices and range of shops.

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Its performance is in sharp contrast to its north-west rival Manchester, which scooped the dubious accolade of taking the three lowest spots in the rankings.

At the very bottom of the charts with a customer satisfaction score of just 38 per cent was Manchester’s Terminal 3, which scored a lowly one star for queues at security, seating, prices in shops and the range of shops on offer.

It managed no higher than two stars in any of the remaining categories.

Travellers dissatisfied with their experience at the terminal described it as "chaotic", "heaving" and "an end-to-end shambles", with many expressing their disappointment at long queue times, not just through security, but even for refreshments.

Manchester Terminals 1 and 2 fared marginally better, with customer satisfaction scores of 41 and 47 per cent respectively.

Like Terminal 3, they scored just one star for queue times at security, although Terminal 2 distinguished itself as the only Manchester terminal to score 3 stars in any category, which it achieved for seating and toilet facilities.

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“This year we’ve witnessed unprecedented chaos at many of the UK's largest airports," said Guy Hobbs, Editor of Which? Travel.

"Travellers reported extensive queues and unhelpful staff, with resources pushed to breaking point.

“Just a few years ago, travellers may have paid little attention to their choice of airport – but now it may just make or break your trip.

"Wherever possible, we’d recommend opting for smaller airports, which have generally offered a smoother and less stressful experience for their passengers over the last two years.”

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Updated: October 27, 2022, 8:35 AM