At the southernmost corner of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is an unmarked white door. Passers-by would never notice it, but beyond lies hallowed ground: the Windsor Suite, the private lounge used by popes and presidents, ambassadors and royalty, where everyone from the Dalai Lama to Vladimir Putin has paused for a pre-flight drink or restorative tray of biscuits.
The lack of signage is deliberate. “If you’re supposed to be here, you won’t need directions,” says Anita Newcourt, the lounge’s manager, as she swipes her pass and the door sweeps open. “We want to stay the airport’s best-kept secret.”
Inside is a light-filled lounge, with bombproof glass roof and marble floor, white leather sofas, bonsai trees and sculptures on plinths. More striking for a sizeable room in Europe’s busiest airport is that it is empty apart from one man in a suit, making a mobile phone call. “He’s a fixer for the Saudi royal family,” explains Newcourt. “You’ve just missed Harrison Ford.”
Ford’s presence is symptomatic of the change afoot in the Windsor Suite. He may be one of the world’s best-known actors, but until the start of this year, even he would have been denied entry to that anonymous white door. No amount of money or fame could win access – that perk was reserved for those whose names were on a list maintained by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which originally funded the lounge, and its offshoots in Heathrow’s other terminals. The list included those on diplomatic visits, parliamentary speakers, chief justices, the chairmen of central banks, the secretaries-general of the UN, Opec, Nato and – somewhat incongruously – the mayors of Hillingdon, Hounslow and Spelthorne, the airport’s local boroughs.
In 2008 the FCO withdrew its funding, instead paying a fee to BAA, the airport’s owner, for each guest of the British government to use the suite. At first little changed – BAA continued to use the FCO’s eligibility list but this year decided it needed to put the suite on a more commercial footing, so has opened the doors to all who can afford the £1,800 fee.
That covers one departure or arrival, for a party of between one and six. BAA has yet to publicise the service (I’m told I’m the first journalist invited inside) but says word of the suite’s existence is beginning to spread among the travelling elite.
Clearly such passengers are unlikely to be flying economy, so will already have access to a business or first-class lounge, and thus all manner of food and drink, films and magazines, sofas, desks and computers to choose from – and all of it for free. What can the Windsor Suite possibly offer beyond that: champagne-filled Jacuzzis and roast swan?
In fact, as with many really top-end travel experiences, less is more. As Newcourt shows me from the glass-roofed entrance hall into a corridor lined with interesting artwork, she stresses that the emphasis is on privacy and convenience, not luxury. Off the corridor are eight separate lounges, the largest suitable for up to 20; each party gets its own room. They are smart and business-like rather than palatial. There are Eames loungers and leather armchairs by Italian design brand Minotti, Noguchi coffee tables, plumped cashmere cushions and attractive pot plants. There is wi-fi and a large television, but the magazine rack in the room I’m shown runs to only three newspapers, two copies of Polo Magazine and a BMW brochure. The slick design (by Katharine Pooley) is slightly compromised by the presence of a portable oil-heating radiator of the kind you might find in a Portakabin.
There are no shops, though several upmarket brands such as Dior will bring their products for a private shopping session. Catering is limited to tea and biscuits or drinks and nibbles, rather than hot food. I am served a decidedly average glass of white wine and three bowls containing cheese and onion crisps, raisins and peanuts, and mini-pretzels. It’s abundantly clear that this is a service that has evolved to cater for the demure tastes of senior ministers, rather than the lavish demands of lottery winners. (To be fair, the catering is about to be upgraded, though the wine list will still only run to a choice of two reds, two whites and two champagnes).
The real selling point is neither the decor nor food but that just along the corridor is a private security screening area. This means that provided they are dropped off by car at the private entrance, rather than using the train, Windsor Suite passengers can pass through the airport without ever seeing a member of the public.
While they wait in the lounge, their passports are collected and taken upstairs to immigration to be stamped. A few minutes before take-off, they are called from the lounge, taken through security, then driven in a fleet of BMW 7-series limousines right to the aircraft door. Newcourt’s team liaise with the airline to ensure that the Windsor Suite passengers are the very last to board.
Arriving passengers get the same benefits. Cars meet them at the plane and staff collect bags and passport stamps while they wait in the lounge.
For the super-rich, for whom privacy and time are greater concerns than the quantity of complimentary wine or the choice of crisps, the Windsor Suite might even seem something of a bargain.