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It is one of the wonders of the modern world of travel; a soaring £2.5bn glass and steel toast rack building that attracted 17.8m paying passengers last year.
Heathrow Airport Terminal 2 proudly boasts that it is The Queen’s Terminal, named after Queen Elizabeth II who formally opened it in June 2014. It was voted the world’s best airport terminal this year in the annual Skytrax awards, beating 500 other airports worldwide. But as a seasoned traveller, I beg to differ.
Welcome to Heathrow Airport Terminal 2 (T2), or not so welcome for people with mobility problems that come with advancing age. You do not have to be disabled to feel the pain — a gammy leg, creaking knees, incipient arthritis, heel spurs, bunions — any of these make the long walks through the terminal tough.
I first encountered T2 when departing on a Lufthansa flight. A comfortable experience sustained by the food, drink and newspapers in the lounge, then a walk of 150 metres down the long escalator, through the shopping palace, to the gate close at hand.
The return journey, landing at T2 on a flight from Asia, was a struggle. Up a small escalator and then a walk of several hundred metres to a huge down escalator. Was that immigration below? No, the trek went another 500 metres or so along walkways to another steep escalator. The immigration queue finally beckoned another 150 metres further on.
Altogether, I estimate this was a kilometre-plus hike after a tiring 12-hour flight. However, the exact distances are evidently a state secret — Heathrow’s media centre failed to respond to several requests to supply this information.
Lufthansa and other short-haul European airlines in the Star Alliance (the main client of T2) occupy the A gates close to the central area. That makes economic sense because European flights turn around quickly. Long-haul flights may stay on the ground for two or more hours. But that consigns long-distance passengers flying to and from the US, Asia, Africa and Australasia to the B gates, which are much further away (signs inside the terminal tell passengers to allow for a 20-minute walk).
In normal life, I am neither disabled nor handicapped. I ride a bicycle every day, but if I have to walk for more than 200 metres or climb stairs I take along a foldable stick. The last time my doctor checked she found damage to my knees and feet, but said this was “normal wear and tear of an active 70-year-old”.
If you can’t manage the distances to T2’s B gates, you could ask your airline for a wheelchair. Heathrow’s wheelchair of choice is the Staxi, which can carry 600 pounds of weight, has space for a bag underneath and can turn within its own circumference.
But for passengers with moderate disabilities like mine, wheelchairs are not efficient — not least because they have to be pushed, one by one. Although I struggle with the walk to the terminal, I can just about manage it. If I booked a wheelchair, would I deny someone in greater need the opportunity of using one? A passenger train to the B gates could greatly ease the journey, but sadly, this choice was never made at the planning stage. So the obvious alternative is electric carts.
T2 has some open golf carts, run by a private company. These are used by All Nippon Airways, Singapore Airlines, and Thai Airways to transport VIP passengers, (though in Singapore’s case only to the gate, not for arriving passengers). They are easy peasy to use, there is space for luggage, and the carts fit comfortably in the lifts.
There are also larger carts run by the airport, sometimes available for “wheelchair passengers”. These are a tight fit and claustrophobic because they have doors. Drivers normally refuse to start until they are full and everyone is buckled up with luggage bunched uncomfortably on knees. Twice I have walked away from these enclosed buggies rather than fight for space with obese fellow passengers.
An electric cart ferry service would be a solution, but might easily be overwhelmed by demand. It would be easy to reduce this demand with a small charge of say £5, but this could easily become a bigger charge when airports seek to drive profits ever higher.
A partial solution is hand luggage push-carts. These store luggage and take the strain off knees and feet, besides allowing passengers something to lean on during the long walk.
Mark Schwab, the chief executive of Star Alliance when T2 was under construction, promised me that there would be plenty of carts available. There were a very few when the terminal opened, but they since seem to have disappeared. One airline executive I spoke to cited the “health and safety risks of discarded carts” as a reason for their removal. But other airports have no such problems — and what about the health and safety of passengers forced to walk a kilometre? Again, Heathrow’s media centre did not respond to my repeated e-mails on this topic.
Heathrow T2 is not the only airport terminal with long walks. Dulles, serving Washington DC, has an awkward walk along a narrow corridor to the “people movers”, the slow transporters to immigration. Frankfurt and Hong Kong have long walks mitigated by train systems and hand carts, and Hong Kong offers buggies with seats for £7 per passenger.
Bangkok has long walks, but there are plenty of electric carts and hand carts. Singapore has signs warning passengers that the walk to their departure gate may take up to 40 minutes, but Singapore has electric carts for hire and plentiful supplies of free hand carts. Haneda international in Tokyo has free electric carts which can be hailed like a taxi.
Is it lèse-majesté to suggest that the Royal household should urge Heathrow Airport to make T2 fit for our elderly queen? At 92, Her Majesty looks good on her feet, but I am sure that she would never have to walk to the B gates. The terminal that bears her name should ensure that older travellers need not face so much of a long haul.
Kevin Rafferty is the former FT Asia Editor, a former World Bank official and professor at Osaka University. He travels over 150,000 miles by air every year.
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