Heathrow, the Worst Major Airport in the World

Tim Bray has an unburdening post up about his hatred for London’s Heathrow Airport. My last experience there was grim and straight-outta-Brazil — it involved pettifogging bureaucrats, hanging ductwork, and a spiraling misunderstanding — but that was more than six years ago, and I’ve determinedly not been back since.

Anyway, in particular be sure to read the comments to Tim’s post. It’s all familiar stuff for we unhappily frequent business travelers, but it’s liberating to know others feel the same, especially when confronted with stuff like this:

As to staff, they are usually scrupulously polite, yes. But their assignments are poor. For example,
  • To get through security one has to get one’s laptop out of the (single) carry-on one is carrying. Do it too early, however, and there are yellow jacketed staff waiting by the line to challenge you to put it away again since it constitutes a second carry-on according to the rules.


  1. I left Heathrow two weeks ago.
    Staff instructed me, on the way into the security checkpoint, to wrap my laptop case inside my foldover shoulder bag, as had been permitted in the past.
    Staff past the x-ray screening informed me I was violating the one bag rule and spent some time debating whether to send me back to check my laptop case. They finally relented.
    Several years back, arriving at Heathrow, I was hassled to present my boarding pass in order to get off the plane!
    It’s a miserable, bureaucrat-ridden place.

  2. The woes of Heathrow cannot be disputed but I believe that for BA customers, who will start using Terminal 5 from March 2008, life would be much better.
    As national character goes, THAT you cannot change much, whether you build a new terminal or not.

  3. Having read Tim Bray’s post, I am a bit confused.
    If all these people complaining are the frequent fliers they claim to be, why are they not using Airline lounges eating the free food, quaffing wine, reading glossies, watching cricket on TV and generally turning their noses up at the hoi polloi, who have to sit in the seating areas?
    As for security checks, I think they do not visit the US or at least suspend their sense of criticism when they do. At least, the Brits
    are polite; the American security staff scowl and stare and keep talking AT people, whose individual IQs may be, in truth, vastly in excess of the whole security team’s. And if you are not white, and not American, God help you.

  4. The two bag rule, sorry one bag rule, no hold on, the one bag that you can put another bag into to make one bag to rule them all… no hold on, ah hell, why both bother….

  5. Agree 100% that Heathrow is worst of the worst, hell on earth. Off on a tangent but the other growing irritant when flying now is ever-lengthening ‘security’ announcements once you get on the plane. “Please remove your ipod sir, we want to assault your ears and intelligence for the next 20 minutes whilst we witter on about seatbelts, smoking, on-board shopping opportunities, saving the world’s starving children…”

  6. You missed out missing luggage and missing valuables out out your bag. The way many of the terminals look filthy and bad signposting.

  7. You think you have it bad? Wait till you are a darker shade of pale and in Heathrow. You will get hassled irrespective of whether you are an American citizen or not.

  8. Heathrow is normally a horrible airport but it is much better than Charles de Gaulle in Paris. CDG is larger, poorly organized, with very little signage and arrogant unhelpful staff. Last week I had to run accross three terminals as my flight was one hour late. When I arrived at the connecting gate, the plane was still there but the doors had closed. The staff refused to let me on the plane which resulted in a 24 hour delay as I waited for the next connecting flight.

  9. Heathrow is not the worst. Frankfurt is, IMHO.
    And it’s true that life is a lot better if you can stay in the Airport lounges during your wait.
    I recommend reading (or re-reading) Hesse’s Siddhartha. It contains the keys to travel enlightenment: “I can think. I can wait. I can fast.”

  10. I definitely vote for Heathrow to! The measures to “increase” security are far beyond ridiculousness. Sombody should try to explain them that harassment and annoyance does not by default increase security.
    I account the great “liquid matter transportation rules” directly to the UK. It is the most nonsence set of regulations I currently can think of.
    It is so uttely humiliating to see how the braindead staff strictly applies those rules and take away plastic water bottles from elderly peaople in order to “increase” security.
    I do not want to blame the staff, they simply process the rules defined by others, but this is not the society I want to live in.
    The western society is to my understanding an open society. If it has to defend itself by morphing to a closed society it looses the most important foundation. It looses the beauty it once had…

  11. From England says:

    Mate Kydroon, considering you write your own blog in German, nobody was expecting you to stand up and say yes, Frankfurst is also scheisse!
    When you refer to liquid rules, it is apparent that you have not boarded a flight to the US since these rules came into force on the US’s insistence. NO LIQUIDS at all are allowed on flights to the US, but on the flights to the UK, you CAN bring fluids.
    As for old grannies etc. being harrassed, I have had the pleasure of tying old Ecko shoes back on to the feet of old people, also flying from Logan to Heathrow, who were too old to bend and who had tears in their eyes from the humiliation. The outcome? The TSA officer asked me – a non-white female – if I were related to these old, white Brits. When I said I was not, he asked me why I was helping them tie their shoes. Enough said.
    If you do not want to live in this society, good for you. Where are you headed back to then?
    The western society is founded on some basic assumptions. When they are challenged, the solution is not like an old communist state to force people to fall in line. It is to try and do the best they can while still trying to allow people to be free (as much as non-western terrorists will let us be).
    Taking a cue from John Cleese, we are not mentioning the war but oops, talk about that beauty again, will you?

  12. I am struggling between London Heathrow and Paris CDG.
    Heathrow you go through so many underground passageways (from Heathrow express to terminal 3 takes about 20 minutes if you dont get lost – longer than from city to Heathrow ) and scans…2 months ago at Heathrow went through 2 passport checks and one xray scan and next one just for shoes. Not sure why these cannot be consolidated….
    Paris they bus you around tens of $ 200 million jumbo jets. Last year I got off a Delta flight – the connecting Delta flight was parked next to it. They bused us to a terminal 100 feet away, had us go through passport and xray controls (guess don’t trust US security we had flown in from), then made us WALK back on the tarmac to the conencting plane. I am no Israeli security expert but I could point out 10+ flaws in that process. And when you transfer to another airline the busing can take 20-25 minutes.
    So lots of underground passageways or busing passengers by $ 10+ billion in airline equipment – which is higher security risk?

  13. I used to love flying out of heathrow until a couple of years back when it started to get well overcrowded. Since the tightened security the ques have just become longer and longer. I don’t mind so much the rules cause if you can carry a hand luggage which is almost as big as a suitcase that should suffice and you can stick your laptop in there. Regards to liquids – just stash them in the check in luggage and buy a drink from the waiting lounge – no biggy.
    This star Alliance crap is another thing that gets on my nerves. The whole point is to improve customer service and efficency but it doesn’t work. The ques are just longer and the check in staff are too few. You end up queing with passengers for 17 airlines instead of just those for your airline. It fails in Heathrow in my opinion. CDG – i hate too – i had to wait in there for 6 hours once but it can’t be as bad as what heathrow has become. Unfortunately heathrow remains a major hub and there are not many alternatives at the moment.
    I still think that flying was safe and still is safe. Whether these new “security” checks improve safety is debatable. One thing is for sure – its almost enough to put you off flying and taking the ferry.

  14. I predict JFK will challenge LHR and CGD in a couple of years like it did in the years when Pan Am was in sunset…5 years ago it was a dream without the congestion in flights…two years ago withe the new buildings and rail it was still ok…now we are back to congestion with both Jetblue and Delta expanding there …and of course, the union issues common in NYC persist…last 3 flights from there have been 2-3 hours late…

  15. And for all those wondering, the issue is now on the political agenda.. It was front page news in the FT (UK ed) yesterday:

  16. You must be kidding . . . and your travels must not have taken you to Paris, where the airport is seriuosly below the standards of a very wealthy Western nation. Frankfurt is pretty bad as well, just below Heathrow in my opinion. And if we’re taking staff into account, I concur with both Shefaly and from England.

  17. You must be kidding . . . and your travels must not have taken you to Paris, where the airport is seriously below the standards of a very wealthy Western nation. Frankfurt is pretty bad as well, just below Heathrow in my opinion. And if we’re taking staff into account, I concur with both Shefaly and From England, JFK ranks quite low there (as well as Houston IAH if you’ve ever been so fortunate).

  18. Nick Rougier says:

    I haven’t been to Paris for too long but Heathrow is such a nightmare I dread it. Last time ALL the self-service check in computers throughout the airport were not working. Heathrow is especially shocking when you come from or live in America. I’m British and live in Chicago – even bigger and busier than Heathrow and yet seems less crowded, everything works, everything looks clean and tidy and throughput is quick. As an Englishman I describe Heathrow as the most graphic and visible shrine to British inefficiency and managerial lethargy and incompetence.