Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Lost in the Bowels of LHR

Ye who constantly ask me which airports I hate the most will now perk up. Your twisted curiosity will be slaked. But I will speak of only one—London’s Heathrow.

So why would I despise an airport with two marvelously long runways, great approaches, good competent English-speaking controllers and amenities American airports only dream of? But first the amenities.

The airport is huge and complicated with taxiways running

everywhere, but taxiing around Heathrow (identifier LRH) is easy as eating kidney pie. (Okay then, lemon pie.) Why? A row of green lights embedded in the tarmac suddenly light up—just for you. “Follow the green,” the ground controller tells you. Nothing else. No confusing instructions. Just follow the green-brick road. It’s like a train on the tracks. (Alas, some parts of LHR are not yet equipped for this.)

The other is the docking system. In almost every airport we go to in Europe no marshaller is needed to park you. A big LED sign with lights and symbols guides you to a smooth and precise stop exactly where you need to be at the gate. At American airports—even many of the big ones—we still must rely on a tiny man standing out front of the behemouth plane waving his wands, giving corrections and attempting to have us stop at the precise place where our nose-wheel is supposed to rest. Not easy to do, apparently. During the last 11 feet the marshallers are supposed to slowly move the wands together, letting them touch as the nose-wheel reaches the stop point. Many times they become lazy and suddenly slam the wands together forcing you to stomp on the brakes. The nose bobs down with a huge bow and you imagine 200 people in back cursing you while rubbing the backs of their necks. But not in LHR.

So what is it I hate about LHR? It’s not the layovers. I love the layovers in London. It’s not the crowded terminal either; I’ve never been in the LHR terminal!  A van picks us up beside the plane. You’re scratching your head. How could I not like that? But I do. It’s what comes next that I don’t like—and I don’t like it a very lot.

Last time I was there—which was typical of other times—it took the van nearly half an hour to get off the airport. To be fair that included a stop of less than five minutes so that the relief pilot (more commonly referred-to as the “Bunkie”)  could drop off the General Declaration at the customs office. After the long Atlantic crossing you just want to sleep but the constant stopping, going, turning, and careening is torturous. You sit back and try to relax while watching plane after parked plane go by on one side and the steel and concrete of the terminal structures on the other. One intersection after another comes at you. The driver takes one to the left, one to the right, then another and another.

Sign after sign grows in the windshield and whips by the side, all flashing arrows and acronyms known only (apparently) to the van driver. Suddenly planes disappear and you are emboweled in the dark alleys and recesses of the airport’s never-ending complexes of buildings and structures. You feel like a mouse scurrying around in a busy factory. You rub your eyes and try not to notice that you have been here before—not last week or month, but five minutes ago. Is the driver lost? Making more money on the time clock? Playing a sadistic game on you?

Overhead you see an endless canopy of structural steel, pipework, cables and concrete slabs flowing by as the driver shifts and revs, turns and swerves. You check your watch; you boarded the van more than 15 minutes ago. Your eyes fall shut. You hear the roar of trucks and busses passing you by and the whine of jet engines coming and going. Then a speed bump springs your eyelids open again.

Finally you see a gargantuan model of an Airbus 380 sitting on a pedestal in the center of a round-a-bout and you slump in relief—you are almost out. Then fields and trees appear and you are on the expressway into town. Ahh. Only an hour left.

Yes, it's only a model


  1. Wow! A wonderful post, Alan. I've never heard of taxi direction by 'just follow the green,' but I love the idea. I thought sure that I'd seen automated docking in Amerika and it sure looked like it. Now I have to wonder what it was; perhaps just information. As for the 60-75 minute van ride, no sympathy from me! The net time, airplane to hotel is far faster than anything I can buy.
    Do other European airports have the Green Light taxi system for individual aircraft? That is great!

  2. Sounds like you should argue for tickets on the Heathrow Express instead! Yes you'd have to get to the terminal somehow but hard to see how it could be worse than this...

  3. Yeah - and it will continue to be "not good" until the "new" terminal 2 is finished. Of course, then they are planning on tearing down Terminal 1. C'est la vie!
    (Of course I generally only use T5 - which is a lot easier)

  4. Answer to Cedarglen's question: Some U.S. airports have "Acupark" which is inferior to the European systems. I don't go to Europe much anymore but LHR is the only one I know of where you can "follow the green."

  5. A Concorde model used to grace that roundabout, but hey, I guess that's progress for you.....

    You ever make it to LHR again let me know and I'll buy you a beer...

    All the best

    Dave from the UK

  6. Dave: I'll shoot you an e-mail next time I get an LHR assignment. It is usually on short notice, though.

  7. Don't complain. You might have to start going through the terminal, winding your way through drab passageways like a rat hunting for cheese, and then getting in line behind all the other crews to have your passports checked. Then you go down escalators and squeeze between running children, and make the "perp walk" through customs, all while knowing that "they" are watching you from behind the glass to see if you look guilty enough to stop. Going through the doors, you walk out into the terminal, where everyone stares to see if you are long lost uncle Nigel who moved to Bolivia back in '73 and nobody has seen since. After another 5 miles of twisting tunnels, you reach the Heathrow Express, and 15 minutes later you're at Paddington Station. Easy peasy!