London Heathrow Branded As "Worst Airport In Europe," I Think Not!

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29/04/2008 – London Heathrow Branded As “Worst Airport In Europe,” I Think Not!

Can a bad airport also be good? This is a tricky question, but in regard to London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) I think an airport that has recently been referred to as “The Worst In Europe” (have they been to Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci – Fiumicino Airport, aka: FCO?) can also be a good airport.

I see the downside of London Heathrow. The airport is a bit run down; it has high delays; it could use a 3rd runway to reduce congestion; the opening of the new Terminal 5 was a disaster; immigrations takes longer than some flights (unless you are in business/first class on an airline that pays for the Fast Track); there is a significant homeless population who live in Heathrow; the cost of transiting Heathrow is more expensive that transiting through other European hubs………… and the top “downside” to Heathrow is probably that Immigrations Officers always seem so grumpy with the asking of questions, as if every foreign traveler is seeking to enter the country under false pretenses.

With the downsides of Heathrow out of the way, I am going to buck the trend, go out on a limb and also say that I also see the airport’s upside. For starters, I like Heathrow. Overall I find Heathrow to be one of my five favourite airports to be stuck in, have a long layover in and even to sleep in when I have a “missed connection.” I know most people don’t view airports this way, but I have slept in Heathrow more than any other airport, with the exception of San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

Despite a large, and growing, homeless population Heathrow is a safe airport. Those who are homeless and stay in Heathrow tend to try and act like travelers so they will no be thrown out by the police. The homeless in other airports tend to not blend in, and from my experience tend to be more prone to criminal activity than those at Heathrow. I have been approached by people begging at London Gatwick (LGW); been solicited for drugs at Newark’s Liberty Int’l Airport (EWR); woken up to find a homeless man peeing on the wall a few feet from my head at Paris’ Roissy Charles de Gaulle Int’l Airport (CDG); watched a clearly homeless and mentally ill woman picking through the trash at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), but at London’s Heathrow there is none of that.

For very long layovers the Heathrow Express is a convenient way to get into the city for a few hours. To lighten your load if you misconnect and have to spend the night, Heathrow has very convenient “Left Luggage” operations to store you bags for a few hours, or overnight. To go plane-spotting to kill time the parking garages have quite a few good vantage points for the operations. For long walks, to kill time, most terminals are connected via underground passage ways which makes walking between terminals a breeze.

Overall I have had some of the best long conversations in the middle of the night on topics ranging from foreign policy and economics to choice of computer operating system while sitting in Heathrow. People in airports tend to either be a “pack mentality” or open and welcoming in conversation. In general conversations at Heathrow tend to be more in depth, more intellectual. I am sure it is a fluke this happens at one airport more than another, but it does……and I have extensive experience sleeping in airports all over the world for various reasons.

From a business stand point, Heathrow is the airport all the airlines want to fly into. Yes, London has five commercial airports, yes four of them can handle long-haul international traffic, yes two of them handle a significant amount of international traffic, but overall Heathrow is the one that business travelers tend to use. It is probably because of the train that departs for Central London every 15 minutes. It could be the considerable number of international airlines that fly into Heathrow, it may be that you can fly nearly anywhere in the world from Heathrow (many of those places non-stop) , it could also be that many long-haul airlines have “arrivals lounges” that allow passengers to freshen up upon arrival before heading out to meetings, or it may be that many airlines that call Heathrow home have top-notch departures lounges for their frequent flyers that have significant amenities over those offered at Gatwick.

I think that anyone who calls Heathrow the ‘worst airport in Europe’ needs to check out the facilities at Paris’ Roissy Charles de Gaulle Int’l Airport (CDG), Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci – Fiumicino Airport (FCO) and Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport (SVO) in terms of not only on-time arrival/departure but also ease of transit to the city, safety of delayed passengers, access to electrical outlets and ability to sleep before branding Heathrow as the worst.

So, can an airport that is being referred to as the ‘worst airport in Europe’ be good? I think it certainly can be.

Happy Flying!


  1. I second the nomination to make the de Gaulle airport the worst airport in Europe. If I can avoid it I will.

  2. “…and the top “downside” to Heathrow is probably that Immigrations Officers always seem so grumpy with the asking of questions, as if every foreign traveler is seeking to enter the country under false pretenses.”

    As a non US or UK citizen who passes through Heathrow and LAX regularly – I’d have to say that compared to Immigration at LAX, Heathrow Immigration officers are positively welcoming!

    Just found the Blog, by the way – great work!

  3. I’m with anonymous. CDG is just awful. Every trip (four or five) where I’ve transited through CDG, my bags were delayed at least one direction. And none of them had short lay overs. On one of the trips, I had to go to a clients office in Moscow in shorts and a t-shirt. Luckily there was an employee of my client who was on the same flight from Houston to CDG, and his bags didn’t make it either.

  4. I fly into/out of/through LHR quite often. Once the “Only 1 carry on that must be smaller than the large carry on you can get away with in the US” rule was dropped, it is not so bad. There are great places for shopping, killing time, even showering (very useful on a long flight home from Bangkok). Security is respectful and efficient.
    The real problem at Heathrow…British Airways. After a total f*up with luggage last year, a BA Customer Service Supervisor told me that once Terminal 5 came online, their baggage troubles would be less because of a state of the art baggage system. He asked me why I was laughing…so I told him I lived in Denver. And Terminal 5 showed that we seem to never learn from history.

  5. “As a non US or UK citizen who passes through Heathrow and LAX regularly – I’d have to say that compared to Immigration at LAX, Heathrow Immigration officers are positively welcoming!”

    As a U.S. Citizen I completely understand what you are saying. I have no problems in other countries, coming or going most of the time. Only ever had secondary screening a handful of times.

    As a US Citizen, born in New York, traveling on a US Passport, I have endured more secondary screenings upon reentering the United States than anywhere else in the world….combined.

    I still would not call LHR (or LGW) Immigration Officers ‘welcoming.’ They are more welcoming than US Immigrations Officers generally though.

    Happy Flying


  6. Daniel:

    Whenever a new airport lists it’s self as ‘state of the art’ it seems like it is doomed to fail.

    DEN turned it’s self around. It is now a fantastic airport, one which is very easy to use for a destination or a transfer. Hopefully LHR-T5 can turn it’s self around as well.

  7. Nikki:

    Yep……except Terminal 2F, which is actually comfortable and modern!

    Happy Flying!

  8. Amen! I’ve been flying regularly to/from Norway for almost 20 years now, and most of the time we go through LHR, and I have to agree with you on pretty much everything! If you want to talk worse airports, I’d venture to say JFK is one I avoid like the plague. At least at Heathrow I too (and younger woman) feel totally safe, plus I love to spend my layover time in their bookstore, which is far superior to any airport bookstore you’ll find in the States. And definitely the worst part for me is always the Immigrations officers.

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