Heathrow Airport does lots of things well, but at Terminal 5 there is still room for improvement.
The sun, sand, excitement, culture and adventure of a glorious holiday overseas makes travel one of the most aspirational products in the world. Everyone looks forward to their summer holiday. Unfortunately the process of actually getting there is not quite as glamorous. Airport check in, security and immigration normally involve a wait – short if you are lucky, long if not.
Because most people do not go through airports often, the experience can be tricky. If there are long waits or difficult staff it can be downright painful. Even the largest and most advanced airports, London’s Heathrow for example, often get things wrong.
Heathrow has undoubtedly got better over the years. For example, when Terminal 5 opened the lifts took forever to get going because the doors opened and closed extremely slowly. They re-opened and closed when a call button was pushed, so people could not get on their way and crowds of frustrated travellers were the result.
The lift problem was solved some time ago. And we wrote recently about how the Heathrow staff app helps any member of staff anywhere in the airport help a passenger with any issue (see article). That is great.
But from experiences on two recent trips there are still some things we woulddo differently if we ran the airport’s Terminal 5. Read on to find out…
When I went through the south security channel at Terminal 5 on my way to Montreal two weeks ago it was not too bad as I arrived at a quiet time. But it was still painful, avoidably so.
There was no queue and my bags were on the trays, laptop and tablet out, in less than a minute. Unfortunately the staff then decided to have a chat for a full five minutes (I timed it) while my trays were sitting at the entrance to the scanner.
They did not seem to be looking at the scanner or fixing a problem, they were up and out of their seats wandering around chatting. Was it really impossible to have my trays and those belonging to the guy behind me scanned so we could get on our way?
At some point “soon” new scanners will be available that should speed up security a great deal. The new equipment will be able to assess electronics and liquids while they are still in bags. Passengers will be able to put their bag on a tray and move straight through, which should reduce queuing time.
But these new scanners would not solve the pain point that I experienced. So here is the first thing that we would do if we ran the airport – if you can get a passenger on their way before doing something else, do it.
Pop all your thoughts in a rubbish bin
Coming out of security, there is no opportunity for passengers to give immediate feedback on how the process went. This is a shame as every passenger passes this point, which is a time of high stress. Without real-time insights on how people are feeling at the scanners, Heathrow is missing data on a big part of the experience.
To make things worse, I saw a recycling bin at the end of the security process. It reminded me of a scene from British comedy “The Inbetweeners” where nerdy schoolboy protagonist Will suggests writing a memo on his project’s progress to his teacher Mr Gilbert. Mr Gilbert, who does not like Will, says “pop all your thoughts in a rubbish bin and they’ll get to me”.
With the current setup, it seems like Heathrow has the same attitude.
The departures boards, known in the trade as Flight Information Departure Screens (FIDS) are comprehensive but can get a bit annoying. Some of them are set up in pairs and while the ones on the left are full of the most imminent flights, the ones on the right cycle through all the day’s other flights.
Unfortunately, the right hand screens often show a fixed number of cycles, regardless of whether there are enough flights left to fill them. Towards the end of the day, passengers need to wait as the FIDS show blank pages before they get back to the latest departures.
This one should be an easy fix.
Delayed gate announcements
Blank screens are not the only issue with the FIDS. Different screens in different parts of the terminal sometimes show the gate numbers at different times. On my way to Montreal two weeks ago my flight was not shown on the FIDS nearest me until 30 minutes prior to departure, with boarding closing at 20 minutes.
But when I got to the gate I was one of the last to board. Clearly the FIDS nearest me showed the gate much later than others.
A similar thing happened on my way to Toulouse last week. The flight left from satellite terminal B and when I saw “go to B gates” appear on the FIDS nearest to me I headed over. By the time I reached the gate, again most people had boarded. This was not just annoying but genuinely inconvenient.
While the Montreal flight is a wide-body with plenty of space in the overhead bins, Toulouse operates with a single-aisle and it was difficult to find space for my carry-on.
As a disclaimer, I was lucky because I had lounge access on both flights. Perhaps Heathrow want people to stay in the lounges as long as possible. I disagree. I think passengers should have a choice about whether they want to board or stay in the lounge, and passengers should be notified when they need to leave the lounge to arrive at the gate shortly before boarding opens.
While FIDS might not have enough space to display this information, a passenger’s app certainly does. If we were running Heathrow this is where we would look to develop a solution.
A further issue with the fancy lounges at Heathrow Terminal 5 is single-unit lavatories that contain a loo and a sink behind one lockable door.
While this setup does offer high privacy, it also leads to unnecessary waiting and queuing while people use the sinks and not the loo. We would have installed a more traditional setup with private cubicles and common sinks. It is frankly odd that Terminal 5’s lounges offer neither sinks alone nor urinals.
Frequent flyers tremble at the sight of A10 on the FIDS. This is the bus gate, so instead of boarding directly through a nice air bridge passengers have to board a bus and climb steps, sometimes in the rain.
My flight to Montreal left from A10. At least it was sunny…
Unfortunately, because the gate was announced so late on the FIDS I was one of the last to arrive. Not the last to arrive, just one of them. If I had ‘boarded’ earlier I would have been among many on a bus that would have loaded quickly and been on its way to the plane where a comfy seat and a drink would have been waiting for me.
Instead, a few of us had to sit on the bus for ten minutes while we waited for stragglers. It was frustrating.
Heathrow Express opportunities
As a reasonably frequent flyer I take the Heathrow Express from central London. The tube is much cheaper but it is also a great deal slower. Getting to the airport by London Underground is fine every now and again, but it becomes a bit of a hassle when you have to do it a few times a month.
The Heathrow Express is a much faster service but it is also much more expensive, £37 ($45) in Standard and £55 in First Class. Unfortunately Heathrow seemed to degrade rather than enhance the experience during last year’s refurbishment.
The previous interiors, introduced in 2012 at a cost of £16 million, were plush and comfy. Standard seats were spacious enough and well-padded. First Class was incredibly roomy, with a generous 1+1 abreast, wide seats, large tables and plenty of legroom.
The new Standard seats are the ‘ironing board’ style more commonly found on commuter trains with minimal padding and low comfort. The new First Class seats are narrow compared to most on British railways and both tray tables and arm rests are tiny. The tray tables are arguably not fit for purpose – my laptop does not fit on one.
Soft features are poor too. The Standard upholstery used to be a snazzy purple, blue and yellow mix. Now it is bland purple. The First Class vestibules used to have stylish lighting and obsidian-effect wall panels, and the seats featured a plum antimacassar. Now the walls are bland white and the seats are just as dull as the ones in Standard.
For such an expensive ride passengers should expect better.
Why cannot Heathrow justify better interiors on its connecting rail service? One possibility is the pricing.
When the Heathrow Express is busy, it can be difficult to get a seat. When it is not busy, it tends to be empty. Mainline rail operators solve this problem by offering capacity controlled tickets that offer a discount in return for taking a specific train, the idea being that cheaper fares on empty services would stimulate demand by capturing market share from the tube and the taxis.
It may not be feasible for Heathrow Express to offer this type of fixed-train deal for passengers arriving at Heathrow because their flights or bags might be delayed. But it should be possible to offer a deal in exchange for committing to a specific train out of London. Another thing we would do if we were in charge.
Tools like Surveyapp are the key to finding insights like these
Heathrow Airport gets a lot right at Terminal 5. All the things we mentioned in this article are minor points in the grand scheme of things, but they are still important for many passengers.
Details like a long wait before a bus transfer leaves or a blank display screen can be easy for passengers to forget about when they complete a post-trip e-mail survey. Real-time tools like Surveyapp are more likely to capture this data because they are ‘instant’, capturing a passenger’s raw emotions as they feel them.
The final thing we would do if we ran Heathrow would of course be to use Surveyapp.
oliver AT surveyapp DOT io
savio AT surveyapp DOT io