Heathrow passengers run the gauntlet of airport chaos

While many passengers enjoy a smooth departure, a flight from Heathrow is a nightmare for some

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At the entrance to Heathrow Airport, driving into Terminal 3 from London, a scaled-down version of an Emirates A380 plane sits on a roundabout as a proud welcome.

But if Heathrow has its way, that model may be the only Emirates plane some travellers will get to see, after the airport ordered the airline to cancel some flights to help keep passenger numbers below a self-imposed daily limit of 100,000.

The airport says it cannot safely cope with current levels of demand after the skies reopened as Covid restrictions lifted.

Emirates released a sternly worded statement on Thursday accusing Heathrow of having a “cavalier” attitude towards customers and setting impossible deadlines for airlines to reschedule flights. Emirates rejected the order and said it intended to fly as normal.

Heathrow, in turn, has blamed airlines for not doing enough to help amid a major staff shortage, which has caused huge delays, massive queues and mountains of left baggage. It said airlines should stop selling summer tickets to help end the chaos.

Many passengers have taken to social media this week to vent their anger and frustration after flights were cancelled at the last minute, with few alternatives, as queues stretched outside the building.

The National spent several hours on the front line at the airport on Friday to see what passengers are being forced to endure and how their travel plans are being disrupted.

A model of an Emirates A380 jet at the entrance to Heathrow. Paul Carey / The National

Braced for take-off

On arrival at Terminal 3, initial impressions were positive — no one was queuing outdoors. It was still fairly early, but a heatwave in Britain means a lengthy wait in the sun is ill-advised.

Inside, it was a different story.

The queue to reach security on the second floor began on the ground floor, stretching almost the entire length of the terminal.

Passengers who had checked in were guided to the back of the line by staff members holding “queue starts here” paddle-boards, leading to frustration for those at the wrong end of the building. It also meant stairs, lifts and escalators were cordoned off to ease congestion in upper areas.

The queue was moving at a rapid pace, however, as staff marched slightly confused passengers along the line, but shouts of “keep it moving, keep going, security this way” created a slightly frenetic atmosphere.

For anyone planning a relaxing break, it was not a relaxed welcome.

One passenger, Lucas, who had travelled from Australia and had a 13-hour stopover before heading on to Portugal, described it as “controlled chaos”.

He was sitting at the entrance to the terminal, bracing himself for what was to come in a few hours when he needed to check in.

“The line covers the terminal but it moves pretty fast,” he said. “The staff seem to know what they're doing, but it doesn't look fun. I have all day to chill and use the facilities then make sure I get through security in plenty of time.”

 

Nearby was Thomas Moosburger and his girlfriend from Germany. They were also expecting to spend the entire day at the airport after missing their connection to Los Angeles the previous evening and having to spend a night in a hotel. They did not know when they would be able to fly out.

“We arrived two hours late at Heathrow and waited an hour on the plane before we could get out,” Mr Moosburger said. “We were at the gate for our connecting flight but we were too late.”

Where are my bags?

Mr Moosburger filmed the baggage reclaim area where there were mountains of cases, but unfortunately, none of them were his.

“We went through Terminal 3 and there were huge loads of luggage lying on the floor. They couldn't handle the situation, bags and suitcases all over. I'm not sure if I'll get mine anytime soon. I don't know where it is.”

The entrance to Terminal 3 of Heathrow. Paul Carey / The National

He said there was confusion between British Airways and American Airlines about who could help and that they had been told they would have to find a hotel themselves.

“We don't have any information yet about how long we have to stay in London, how long until we can get a flight to LA, it's pretty bad information management,” he said.

“We tried to talk to people to help us, but they said they can't. We can't go and see London because we don't know if we might get a flight this afternoon or this evening.”

Another passenger in a similar position was Francesca, who was travelling from Malaga, Spain, through Heathrow to Los Angeles. She was delayed landing at Terminal 5 only to be met by a nightmare in trying to find information.

“Every service line was 50 people long to one person at the desk. I finally recovered my bag but I missed my flight,” she said.

After spending an hour trying to speak to staff to get help, she was finally directed to Terminal 3 only to find all flights had gone.

“It was 8pm and it was hard to find a hotel. I ended up mistakenly in a staff line with retired staff trying to travel and they couldn't believe how bad it was. They said they'd never seen anything like it. British Airways was severely understaffed.”

After paying for a night at a hotel in Slough, west of London, she was back at the airport seven hours before her rearranged flight.

“I had nowhere to go and had to check out of the hotel. It looks busy here but it's nothing compared to Terminal 5 last night.”

A digital board displays how busy security is at Heathrow. Paul Carey / The National

Things were running more smoothly at Arrivals. A couple coming in from New York said it had only taken half an hour get their bags.

“It was a bit sticky coming through passport control, but we kept moving at least. It was worse at the other end in New York — we had to queue for two hours to check in.”

Different terminal, different story

At the train transfer station to reach other terminals, it was mostly deserted — except for those panicked passengers who found themselves in the wrong place.

One man running off the train had mistakenly been at Terminal 4 and now only had an hour before his Miami flight.

“I hope I make it!” he said, out of breath.

Another family trying to get to Pakistan seemed equally confused.

“We're looking for a taxi now to take us to the right terminal. We don't know where we are going and we're running out of time,” said one woman in the family, balancing a child plus several cases on her luggage trolley as she asked for directions.

On the transfer train, some passengers who had recently arrived on flights from Kuwait and Qatar said they had no problems at all. Three Iraqis sitting together said they had heard about the chaos and expected it to be bad but had only spent 20 minutes waiting for bags.

“Perhaps it's worse with the European airlines, but we've been fine,” said one traveller.

At Terminal 5, it was a similar picture: the departures board showed a few cancellations, but check-in desks were quiet. The giant sign for security also showed it was at level 3, but, unhelpfully, did not say how many levels there were.

Terminal 2 was a scene of similar frustration. Christopher Spring was holding a running Twitter battle with the airport while he waited for his partner to arrive from Canada. It took her more than two hours after landing to get her bags. She texted him to say “getting through immigration was fine but we were told 'not to count our chickens' before baggage reclaim”.

Weeks of chaos at Heathrow — in pictures

He tweeted: “I dread to think what my parking charges will be”, followed by, “I think the charges you're levelling on loved ones of those travelling immoral and completely over priced. I arrived 15 minutes after the plane landed and still waiting an hour later for my partner to come out. Insane”.

Speaking to The National, he said that he was annoyed over the additional charges he was forced to pay just for picking someone up from the airport. It ultimately cost him £14.50 in parking charges, plus a £5 drop-off fee when he takes his partner back to the airport.

“That's nearly £20 in car privileges at an airport near on impossible to reach unless you live in London.”

Heathrow has been given an ultimatum by the UK government that it must explain its plan to resolve the problems witnessed in recent weeks. That response is yet to be made public.

Driving out of Heathrow after several hours chatting with passengers, some stressed and others relieved to have avoided chaos, workmen were busy painting the area surrounding the Emirates plane on the approach road.

But it will take more than a fresh coat of paint to gloss over the row between the airline and the airport and to persuade passengers it's a pleasant experience to travel through Heathrow once more.

Decades of flight at Heathrow — in pictures

Updated: July 15, 2022, 6:04 PM
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