I must remember never to shop at Heathrow, it only encourages BAA

12 December 2005

When you land at most airports, being early is generally a good thing. That does not seem to be the case at Heathrow where it seems to lead to instant banishment to one of the few remote stands that the airport has. You would think, given the amount of time most aircraft have to stack over London to get close to the airport, ticker tape and bunting would drop out of the overhead bins at touchdown any time the pilot managed to sneak in early.

However, even on a Saturday morning, Terminal 4 is busy, busy, busy. So, after a long wait on the taxiway, the pilot announced that BA292 from Washington Dulles had drawn the short straw and was to be parked somewhere close to the perimeter fence and not very close to Terminal 4. The problem is that, even at the best of times, Heathrow is not good at dealing with remote stands. It's not like Frankfurt, or indeed Dulles, where you can expect a convoy of buses to be parked alongside pretty soon after you get there. At Heathrow, you can wait a long, long time for anybody to notice that somebody has parked a plane.

The buses, this time, turned up relatively quickly - by Heathrow standards. I've been on a late flight from Munich (one that often ends up being parked outside because the rest of the terminal is shut) where they had one bus driver left for the night and it took close to an hour to get everyone off. This time around, we had buses and almost enough for a nearly full 747-400. But no steps. Actually, that's a lie, we had steps. But no-one to drive them up to the side of the aircraft and give the nod to let people off. That took, by my estimate a good half hour to sort out. It took another 20 minutes to get most of the people off the plane. So, you would think that by the time even EU passport holders got through immigration, the bags would be waiting. I think you know what happens next. There is a big, empty rubber band going around but no bags. Apparently, BAA, the airport operator, did not just have problems locating people to drive steps around, but the baggage handlers had some difficulty getting to the aircraft.

This is where I guess BAA would argue this is why it needs Terminal 5. Yet, most of the problems come down to inadequate staffing levels and a general ambivalence to the traffic that passes through the airport. If you want to shop, great. BAA has stopped at nothing to renovate the shopping malls that seem to be spilling over larger and larger parts of each terminal. But basic facilities in all four existing terminals are tatty, dirty and a laughable advertisement for "the world's busiest airport". With all the gate fees BAA is scooping up, they might think about employing one or two more drivers to deal with the additional remote-stand traffic they get (although BAA does have to hand back £1.50 per passenger to an airline for each time it dumps an aircraft onto a remote stand).

BAA seems to believe that its incentive revolves around collecting more money from passengers in shops than providing them with a service they have already paid for. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) issued a consultation paper on this in November, having already canvassed British Airways and some others for thoughts - the bit about the £1.50 rebate came from a BA submission. However, as a near monopoly provider of airport services in the UK, I'm not optimistic about any changes. And the airlines only have themselves to blame. Just as I set out from Washington to come home, I got an email from BA saying the airline had decided to shift some of its Munich services from Gatwick to Heathrow. I guess BA likes getting that £1.50 rebate.