Olympics Medal for Heathrow
Have you ever arrived home on a late-night or early-morning flight, breezed through a deserted customs area, and awaited your bags in an cavernous baggage claims hall? Has it ever happened to you at London’s Heathrow Airport?
I’ve been through London’s Heathrow Airport several times. It’s always an experience. My first time was shortly before 9/11. I was rather taken aback when my passport was checked no less than five times before I boarded my flight home. Little did I know that just a few months later, Heathrow’s approach would become the new normal.
We all know that Heathrow can be a total disaster. Recently, there’s been much ado in the press about long queues at LHR. But, it’s never been on the top of my list of Airports That I Hate (CDG and JFK continue to battle for first place). I think that’s partly because I always approach LHR assuming that both arrivals and departures will take FOREVER and I’m pleasantly surprised when they don’t. Luckily, I’ve never had a true LHR trauma.
So, I was of two minds when I booked a flight that arrived in London the day before the start of the Olympic Games. On the one hand, I prepared myself for an epic wait at customs, as well as a stampede at the baggage carrousel, and the need to wedge myself on to the Tube.
On the other hand, I knew that London had been preparing for this day for months, and had been under fire for months. So, I started to think that perhaps the dedicated planning, and finally staffing the booths at capacity (which I’ve never seen in any airport in my entire life) might just make this LHR experience my best yet—the smoothest landing, quickest disembarking, easiest customs clearing, calmest baggage collecting, and most efficient transit riding ever.
Then the PCS, the union of the UK’s border guards, customs agents etc. announced a planned work stoppage on the day before the Opening Ceremonies, and visions of an airport apocalypse danced in my head.
When the strike was cancelled—with labour issues to be resolved another day—I drew a sigh of relief. But my own cynicism didn’t put me completely at ease. Workers forced back to work are rarely happy, and it was still going to be the busiest day at Heathrow in history.
So what happened when I finally landed at Heathrow? It was a little eerie. Other than having to walk a marathon to get from the plane to passport control, my arrival at Heathrow on Olympic Eve was the smoothest landing, quickest disembarking, easiest customs clearing, calmest baggage collecting, and most efficient transit riding ever.
After reaching customs, I walked straight up to a waiting agent in the All Other Passport queue, who pleasantly chatted with me about the weather and sights in Iceland, which events I was seeing, and the trouble with getting tickets. He didn’t ask me if I had anything to declare, or to produce proof of my departure, and his demeanor was positively cheery. I waited a few minutes for my bag under an AC vent—refreshing after my disembarking marathon. And frankly, other than the large pink signs on the wall and empty reception queues for officials and press, you would hardly know the biggest world event was about to start.
And when I got to the Underground entrance (another half marathon away), it was practically deserted—I rode a nearly empty train into London, and only after Hyde Park Corner did the Olympics crowds materialize—typical in size for London, but not many Londoners among them.
It may be because the threat of a work stoppage lead travellers to change their plans; it may be because I arrived from an European country, at Terminal 1, in the evening, and my seat was at the front of the plane so I got ahead of the crowd; or it may be because it was simply good timing.
But whatever the reason, from wheels on the ground to ringing the buzzer at my friend’s flat took exactly 2 hours and 15 minutes, and only 47 minutes of that were spent in Heathrow itself. It may not be an Olympic record, but it’s pretty darn close.
I fretted for weeks, but it turns out my arrival at Heathrow airport was a Personal Best.
This post originally appeared on Travel + Escape.