2012 Date Europe Geography Miscellaneous Travel

Heathrow Terminal Three – “Welcome to the Third World”


Do the English realise that their transport infrastructure is now operating at sub-Third World levels?

It is a disgrace. No amount of neat signage advising you that “With tougher checks now in place at the border you may have to wait a little longer to get into the UK, especially at peak times” can change the dismal facts.

I arrived at Heathrow Terminal Three this morning at 7am, on a Singapore Air A380 flight. At roughly the same time, two fully loaded Qantas jumbos landed.

Of course, we parked at the furthest possible arrival gate, and as I walked from the plane to the immigration hall (for 10 minutes, no travellators; I pity the aged and infirm), the crush of people from the various arrivals increased from a trickle to a stream to a torrent, until eventually I was walking shoulder to shoulder in a fast-flowing river of humanity.

On entering, the arrival area was packed with literally hundreds of people, lined up in neat rows, corralled like cattle between crowd control barriers that snaked back and forth across the length of the cavernous hall. An incredibly bored looking Indian woman in a uniform was rather pathetically trying to direct people to the relevant queues, but the look on her face said it all – my guess is she would at that moment have considered it a far easier task to direct traffic at the Connaught Circus roundabout in central New Delhi.

I was lucky enough to be in possession of a “Fast-track Pass”, which meant that my “express” queue was relatively short. Including the walk to the immigration hall, the scrum to find the right queue and the 30 people ahead of me, it took me only a meagre 35 minutes to get to see an immigration officer and obtain official entry to the UK. I looked back at the “plebs” – hundreds of economy class travellers in the “normal” queue, tired and dishevelled after 20 hours on the plane, packed cheek to jowl. And I noticed that despite this human crush, there were only four immigration officers on duty to serve them.

Do the math, people: four immigration officers, processing one person per minute, means in aggregate 240 people per hour. That is to say, those unlucky enough to find themselves at the back of what was at least a 500 person queue were going to be waiting for about two hours to secure their entry into Her Majesty’s domain. “Poor bastards” was all I could think, followed by a mild wave of euphoria that one of those poor bastards was not me.

The baggage collection hall was even more chaotic – more than is worth even trying to describe. At least, given the time I had spent getting here, and the fact that my luggage was priority tagged, I only had to wait another 10 minutes for my bags.

So, in total, from stepping off the plane to exiting the baggage hall of Heathrow Terminal Three, with the benefit of a visa-free entry, a Fast-Track Pass and priority luggage tags, I was out in just under an hour. And, my experience today was certainly not a unique one-off: I have entered the UK via the very same Heathrow Terminal Three immigration hall about a dozen times in the last year, and at least two-thirds of the time, the experience has been no different.

Indeed, this snippet from the UK Border Agency web-site about what to expect on arrival in the UK: “An officer will check your passport and give you permission to stay, if you need it. We aim to see you within 45 minutes”. Fuck me – 45 minutes isn’t an apology, but the official “target” for arrival in the UK. Are you kidding?

So, here’s the thing: if I asked you to name the worst, most chaotic airport in the world, the one where you thought a 45 minute or more wait at passport control would be “de rigueur” Heathrow Terminal Three would not spring to mind, although perhaps either of the international airports in Almaty, Kazakhstan, or Bogota, Colombia, just might.

I have had the need to visit both places, twice each, in the last 12 months.

Both are old, falling apart, chaotic structures. Both are crowded and dirty, and bursting at the seams with people of all shapes and sizes. Both look like facilities that would be more comfortable in the Soviet Union, circa 1960. Both are places that are capable of sending the internal stress levels into the stratosphere.

And both, despite all this, despite the formidable language barriers and the ever present gun-toting security guards who scare the shit out of you, are places where you can get off a plane, get through immigration, collect your baggage and clear customs, in under 30 minutes flat. Even if you fly economy; even if you have large suitcases and complicated entry visas that need to be processed and scanned; even if like me you are swarthy Mediterranean type sporting a 2 day stubble, and thus worthy of intensive interrogation lest you be a covert Al-Qeda operative. Finished and out in 30 minutes or less – not once, but every time.

That’s what to expect at Almaty and Bogota airports. Don’t even get me started on comparing Heathrow to other “third world” airports like those found  all over China, India or Vietnam, compared with which the experience at Almaty and Bogota really is quite painfully slow and inefficient.

Faced with the personally verified realisation that Heathrow Terminal Three is fundamentally slower and less efficient than even El Dorado International Airport in Bogota, Colombia, the questions I keep coming back to are stark and slightly disturbing: “when are we arrogant first-world citizens going to finally wake up, and realise that we are no longer winning the efficiency game”?When are we in the “West” going to notice how crappy our crumbling transport infrastructure and associated services really are? What’s wrong with us? Why are we complacently sitting by as we lose our edge?

And of course, what are we going to do about it?

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