Mike Vouri: Reflections on Connections: The Heathrow Shuffle
- Written by Mike Vouri
(NOTE: This piece should have been posted a week ago, but it took a while to finish, thanks to the unwanted souvenir of Rhinovirus. I will have to admit that I was unprepared for the crowds we encountered throughout the trip. And so were many of the Italians who had time enough to share with us. I had always considered myself an experienced international traveler, but this time around I felt like a neophyte, as you will read in the whiny diatribe that follows. MV)
Coming in on final approach at London’s Heathrow airport, we were treated to this view of Windsor Castle. Photo by Rebecca Smith
I could not suppress a sense of dread as our flight from Venice turned on final approach at London’s Heathrow airport. Thanks to a miscalculation in travel arrangements, we had just over an hour to make a connecting flight to Seattle and eventually home to Friday Harbor.
This would involve making our way from Zone A to B in Heathrow’s Terminal Five, which is proudly billed as “…the UK’s largest free-standing structure,” and if you’ve ever attempted the journey across it you realize at once that this is no hyperbole. Built at a cost of £4.2 billion and opened in 2008, airport authorities were still trying to figure out how to run it efficiently when the pandemic struck in 2020. First, it curled up its toes while pigeons winged happily in its vast, empty halls; then it was overwhelmed by a tsunami of travelers in 2022 that still hadn’t abated when we transited there in late October.
I pinched this image from the web. Not our trip. But you have the main idea of the Heathrow shuffle.
I was blissfully ignorant of all this when I made last-second plans to avoid a similar connections nightmare ongoing at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, where labor unrest resulted in strikes that have paralyzed ground operations. The international news media was full of horror stories, and we were receiving messages by text and email from our carrier to report to Schiphol four hours early to avoid missing our flight.
As we were transiting and not entering the airport from the street, we blew this off. We thought we’d be cool with 2.5 hours to pass from one terminal to another to reach our USA-bound flight, even with transit security and passport control. But with less than a week to go before our return home, we were reading reports of connecting passengers stranded at checkpoints and missing flights. Moreover, the terminals were so ensnarled that the airlines were canceling flights altogether.
We did not want to spend the night in Amsterdam and then rise early and stand in a four-hour line just to get into the terminal.
We were, by now, well aware of connection scrambles. On our outbound journey, we had to pass through transit security and passport control at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, where, after a 10-hour flight, I was drifty enough to leave my iPad and liquids in my bag and not display them in a separate tray in the conveyor. I watched the clock tick as the security worker pawed through my belongings, which included eight pairs of quick-dry underpants, shirts, socks and a harmonica, which created a sensation when she couldn’t figure out how to open the case. This had happened before a few years back at London Gatwick, at which time I opened the case, produced the instrument and bent a few notes, which drew immediate applause and an enthusiastic pass. Not so in France. Once she solved the mystery of the case, she glowered, considered me for what seemed like an interminable amount of time and at last waved me through.
By then, one of those two-decker Airbuses had arrived, disgorging its passengers into the system, which overloaded the passport control lines, which heretofore had presented clear sailing. I watched the clock in alarm as fellow travelers fiddle-faddled with the automatic passport reader to the occasional muttered “merde” from the attendants. You place your passport onto a screen, which gathers your information then opens a gate, which swings shut once you enter. You stand before another gate while a camera reads your face. If you pass muster the gate opens and a live human stamps your passport. Some folks simply could not handle the machines.
We made it to the gate for our flight to Florence, at the far end of the concourse, hustling like Olympic walkers and running sweat. I only dropped my bag once, stopped to tie a shoelace twice and fidgeted on the wheezing escalators. By the way, people don’t move aside on escalators anymore in Europe, once a courtesy to those in a hurry to make their flights. They’ve taken a cue from the United States, where no one has ever done it in my experience.
Was the flight on time? Of course not. It didn’t board for another 20 minutes.
But back to London.
While on board the flight from Venice, I first off asked the cabin manager what our chances were of making our connection. He was wisely noncommittal. It “should” be OK, he said. But it all depended on gates and security. He assured me that he would double check the gates before we landed. All right. Not quite satisfied with his answer, I also asked one of the flight attendants as she was serving a creamed pasta dish (as if I hadn’t had enough pasta after three weeks in Italy). She was more sanguine. Oh, it will be fine, and you won’t have to go through security or anything…but I will check just the same. That’s when a jovial fellow in a polo shirt, florid and pushing 60 chimed in from across the aisle.
“That’s not quite right,” he said. “You’ll have to go through transit security and a baggage check…but if you’re pushed for time show the security folks your ticket and they’ll pass you to the front of the line.
“You dinnae have to worry!”
Andy Patterson, a Scot from Aberdeen—“Two t’s means I’m an Irish Scot”—was eager to get home to his wife and twin daughters. We spent the next hour talking about our homes, our work, books and the late Queen.
“Being from Scotland, I’m not keen on the monarchy, am I?” he said. “But she was a good old girl, wasn’t she?” I agreed, of course.
Meanwhile, the cabin manager found me, relocated next to Andy, and was more positive this time around. He said he’d have the gate number of our departing flight and if there was a problem there’d be someone from the British Airways ground staff to escort us through. However, he cautioned that we would be disembarking onto the tarmac, then board one of those lumbering, standing shuttles, which would drop us at the main terminal. We couldn’t tarry in the shops.
“See, you’re all right,” Andy chimed in. “Have another glass of wine, why don’t you?”
If you’re unlucky enough to to disembark on the ramp, you can look forward to this means of this standing conveyance.
So…with a bark, the wheels touched down and we taxied, and taxied, and taxied. I looked out the window. There were the shuttles. We stopped, and they rolled up two sets of stairs, front and back. As we filed out, the cabin manager thrust a scrap of paper into my hand with our departing flight’s gate number.
“Queue at the opposite door of the shuttle, so you can file directly into the terminal door,” he said. “And good luck!” I wish he hadn’t added that.
When you travel internationally, especially if you’re transiting or arriving in London, expect to walk at least a mile before you reach any sort of control point, while navigating endless corridors and three-story escalators (where no one stands aside). As in France, we followed the signs: First to “All Connections,” and then “Terminal Five Connections.” Finally we reached a control point where our tickets were to be checked. We had flown premium so we could use “Fast Track,” which was supposed to speed us through this particular serpentine of stanchions. But so had everyone else it seemed, and all were in a panic to make their flights, ganging up on a poor woman stationed there to check tickets, thrusting their ducats into her face.
Another agent, with arms like wagon tongues, stepped in. “Back off!” she yelled. “One at a time!”
Once order was reestablished, we passed through in minutes only to confront another three-story double escalator, which led to the final transit security checkpoint. A FULL security checkpoint, I might add, with belts, coats and hats off, laptops and iPads and telephones separate, liquids out…and pockets emptied! We arrived at the top of the escalator, where the screening machines and luggage conveyor belts were humming, but before we could get to them we would have to wait in a line that stretched to infinity and then doubled back…about three double-decker Airbuses worth. We were screwed.
Then I remembered what Andy advised.The final passport and ticket check was to my immediate right on the other side of the stanchion tape. I got the attention of the agent functioning as the gatekeeper.
“We only have a half hour until boarding; can you let us through?”
He regarded me a moment, long and hard, then checked our tickets and, incredibly, opened the tape and admitted us directly in front of the conveyor with its gray, plastic trays. Andy was spot on. I owe him a beer, somehow, somewhere, someday. I promise.
“You’re all right, take off your belt!” a security guard ordered. Uh oh. When you wear the same pair of trousers for three weeks, sans laundry, they tend to expand (not to mention stand by themselves). When the belt slipped off, I had to catch the waist-band before they pooled around my ankles. This created a problem in the screening booth. With arms extended above my head, I had to spread my legs as far as the stenciled footprints allowed, to keep them from falling down and exposing my last pair of clean, quick-dry underpants. The attendants got a big bang out of that, before calling me aside and subjecting me to the wands.
After they let me go, I began the process of gathering my things and then saw that my bag was on the inspection side of the conveyor behind a sheet of Plexiglass. What could it possibly be now? The iPad and liquids were out and even the harmonica, which I’d slipped into my jacket pocket. The agent, unsmiling, had me open the bag and then went through my things with another variety of wand, this one with bristles on the end. He shook his head. “Ok, pack it up, you’re done,” he said.
We had 15 minutes to reach our gate, which now required taking a three-story escalator down to the shuttle train, which would speed us to Zone B. When we arrived at the platform, the crowd was mounting and by the time the train arrived we were stuffed standing into the Rhinovirus Super Spreader Express. I felt like a Hormel canned tamale. Woosh! Off we went, speeding along the dark subterranean right of way, holding onto our bags with one hand, and a chrome bar running the length of the car with the other (if you could reach it). When the train threw on the binders about a minute later we didn’t have to worry about losing our balance. We were packed so tightly there was no room to fall.
We spilled out at the Zone B stop and were swept along with the current up another three-story escalator. We then discovered that our gate, 43, was at the far end of a room as cavernous as Husky Stadium. However, as far as I was concerned, it was just another ant farm, as we hurried along with our burdens, halting to avoid oncoming traffic, dodging gigantic plastic strollers or those who stop dead-still in traffic to check, answer or dial a phone. We staggered toward the finish line, minutes ticking down and then... Boarding was delayed a half hour.
They were cleaning the airplane, which had arrived late. There wasn’t a chair to be had in the common waiting area for several gates. People were anxious to board because they longed to stop moving, queuing, jostling…and sit down. But we’d made it. The wide-open trails of San Juan Island beckoned, just over the Pole…we were heading home.
How to avoid the frenzy of connections in foreign fields:
Build your trip so that you have ample time to make connections. An hour, even two hours doesn’t get it if you’re connecting anywhere in Europe these days.
Ensure that you choose a single airline (or partner) for both flights. And travel on one ticket. If you miss your connection the airline will place you on the next available flight, and perhaps even put you up for the night if the replacement flight isn’t until the next day. It all depends on your ticket. If you buy separate tickets on two different carriers and miss your connection, you’re out of luck.
Do a little research about airport hubs before you travel. How easy is it to make connections? Do you have to go through transit security? (Some hubs don’t require this if you remain airside, the presumption being you have already been screened at your outbound airport.)
Even better, on the way home, spend the night near the hub airport before boarding your long-haul flight, especially if transit security checks are required. As long as you have to go through security you might as well do it at your leisure. Doing it all in one gulp is no fun at all.