Here TWP debuts a new review set: Airport reviews! As far as I know, no one reviews airports for comfort and convenience, especially not for folks with disabilities (hidden or otherwise). These reviews will tell you what to expect at an airport, what’s good, what’s bad, and how to make it work. So, without further ado…London Heathrow!
Curb and Counter
As with most airports these days, automated kiosks scattered about the Departures area make it reasonably simple for travelers who have “checked in” via the Internet before arriving at the airport.
Different British Airways counters have different purposes–be sure you’re in the right line before suffering through a long wait only to be told you need to go stand in another line. Line lengths vary hugely, depending on when you’re at Heathrow, where you’re going, and on what airline. I lucked out, but you might not. Be prepared for hideous lines to get at the clerks.
The good news: Heathrow’s procedure for taking checked bags is pretty simple and logical. You go up to the single-purpose counter, show your boarding pass, and surrender your bag.
I’m sure that Heathrow gets the wheelchair service bit right sometimes. They just didn’t manage it for me, either when I arrived or when I departed.
Upon arrival, after a dozen hours in the air, I found no wheelchairs at the door of the aircraft. Inside the terminal, an electric cart and a few hand wheelchairs manned by two guys who seemed not to know how many wheelchair passengers to expect or where each passenger needed to go. After 15 frustrating minutes, which included quizzing my fellow disabled passengers and discovering that most of them needed to make connections, I decided to hoof it. This turned out to be a good call–I tied the electric cart in the race to the luggage carousel.
Departing Heathrow proved no better when it came to wheelchair service. That long, unmoving line for Assistance was the only place from which to request a chair. After only 5 minutes, I again decided to try my feet. By some stroke of magical, mystical luck there was no line at security, so I got through much, much faster (and in less pain) than I would have had I waited for a chair.
The worst of this: the line at Assistance. It’s standing in stationary lines that’s absolutely the worst thing for me physically. The fact that they make disabled passengers stand in line to get chairs appalled me.
Getting Through Security
My dad, who goes through Heathrow several times each year, warned me that Heathrow’s security can be excruciating. They’re used to terrorists in London, and their airport security has been tight and strict for decades. The metal detector is set to sensitive–expect jeans rivets to set it off. But you do get to keep your shoes on.
As mentioned, I managed to be at Terminal 5’s security checkpoint at the one hour that month when no line snaked through the huge area set aside for the purpose of waiting to get through the detectors. Don’t count on emulating me. Instead, plan to stand, or cope with the pain-in-the-butt process of getting a chair to avoid the back-shattering lines.
Heathrow is huge. Huge. Plan enough time to walk or roll through enormous and crowded concourses, wait for sometimes-late trams that run from the departures area to the gate area, or to trudge through customs and passport control on the way in.
On the Concourse
Seeing a good thing in the ever-shifting airport crowd, London’s merchants have set up major retail outlets on the concourses of Heathrow. You can shop at Harrod’s, Fortnum and Mason, and legions of other stores while waiting for your plane. Keep a hand on your wallet as you wander! Pickpockets aren’t common; tempting and expensive merchandise is everywhere.
Heathrow has a wide range of services for travelers who have several hours on their hands, including a full-service spa and a chair-massage spa, all sorts of food offerings, and a capsule hotel. I like these kinds of amenities–they can make long layovers and unexpected changes far more bearable.
At the Gate
The gate areas feature seas of seating and still more shops, plus the requisite overpriced bad food and watered-down liquor. Restrooms are reasonably clean and accessible.
Signs everywhere promote available WiFi, but it’s not free. In fact, it’s quite expensive so I opted not to partake.
Boarding and disembarking generally take place via long indoor jetways. If you can’t walk at least 50 feet, I recommend insisting on remaining in your wheelchair and getting assistance down the jetway as far as the door of the plane.
Is baggage claim. No better and no worse than any other airport I’ve slogged bags through.
Passport Control and Customs
Passport control is no better or worse than in any other international airport. Passport lines are divided into EU and Other. On flights from the States, we filled out the immigration on board the plane with no particular hassle.
Going through customs, doors are divided into Declarations and Nothing to Declare. A random smattering people get pulled aside to have their bags rifled on the Nothing to Declare side. If you’re not among them, you just walk on out and head for Ground Transport.
As one of the world’s major airports, it’s not surprising that travelers can get to and from the airport every which way. I took taxis, because that’s what’s easiest for me because of the pain. It cost 55 pounds to get from Heathrow to South Kensington, and took about half an hour during a non-rush hour time of day.
Other means of getting to and fro:
- The Underground
- High-speed train
- Private shuttles
The Bottom Line
London Heathrow is a bustling, hustling, crowded, massive international airport. Ask any two people what their experiences at Heathrow were, and you may think they’re talking about different airports on different sides of the world. As for me–I love the amenities, find most of the basics tolerable, and the wheelchair service abysmal.
Heathrow’s grade: B-minus