International Terminals – Race to the Bottom

Flying has lost much of its glamor. The flights I have been on recently are invariably packed to the gills, late, and generally unpleasant.

International travel, on the other hand, is thought of as more upscale. First class or business class has some amenities, and there are clubs to get a free drink and relax.

Leaving Chicago you may go through the international terminal. Although I have flown outside of the country before out of Chicago, it has been on US based airlines like American and United which fly out of the regular terminals.

I was astounded by how crappy the International O’Hare terminal is. Going in, there are a few fast food restaurants, a gift shop, and that’s about it. If you go through security, all you can buy is a double vodka and a newspaper – there isn’t even FOOD! We backed up and waited in the lobby before the security gate and at least sat in a fast food court which, relatively speaking, was the lap of luxury.

While the building itself is relatively new and fancy looking, the building is not very well designed for its current purpose. I would have taken a picture but didn’t want to get thrown in the clink, and not much to see, anyways.

London Heathrow recently opened a new International Terminal, also terminal #5, just like Chicago O’Hare. You’d figure that this terminal, understanding the new security requirements, would be better designed.

Certainly the facility is much nicer than the Chicago Terminal #5, as you can see in this photo. The shops are upscale and you can probably buy about anything under the sun, from clothes to mementos to getting an upscale meal.

And yet, in the most IMPORTANT element of a terminal, getting you on and off your plane, Heathrow Terminal #5 fails the grade.

When we arrived in London, after a long flight and landed, we sat on the ground for half an hour waiting FOR A BUS. Yes, a bus. Apparently, after spending billions and billions of dollars on a terminal, no one put much effort into the key function of the terminal, which is connecting planes to people. Here is an article from the UK explaining the bus situation, where British Airway says 20% of the flights will involve bus connections but that other writers say could be up to 50% of the flights.

Not only do you have to ride the bus, you need to walk up or down the stairs to get onto the bus. If you are old or infirm, you need to walk down a long flight of stairs, with your carry-on luggage, in order to get onto the bus, in the first place. Luckily it was a relatively nice day, or it would be cold and windy going down the long flight of stairs (there is a cover over the ramp, but it would be unpleasant).

When you get onto the bus, it is packed, and pretty much everyone is standing, to boot, which would make it even less fun for the elderly. It wasn’t fun for the fit or able, and this isn’t a short ride, either – it seemed to be about 10 minutes or so once the bus was loaded, full, and on the way.

Thus, in a race to the bottom, the crappy Chicago O’Hare terminal, with about 2 shops and nothing but booze beyond security, actually beats the heck out of the brand new, multi-billion dollar terminal in London, which doesn’t even meet the basic test of CONNECTING YOUR FLIGHT TO THE BUILDING.

Cross posted at LITGM

11 thoughts on “International Terminals – Race to the Bottom”

  1. I just didn’t want to risk taking a photo for security reasons. I think that there are rules against it and everyone was kind of jittery on the day I was there. Or maybe I am just paranoid.

    At Heathrow they not only had armed guards eying everyone – a couple were armed with machine guns, to boot. I wonder how they would use MG’s in a totally crowded terminal but I guess that is something that shouldn’t be contemplated too much.

  2. You can take photos in US airports, with the possible exception of the security checkpoints. Major airports are usually considered public places, which means that photography is allowed. Try it. Airports are great places to take photos.

    Here’s a good source of info about US legal rules on public photography.

  3. I agree with Jonathan wrt shooting photos in airports, I do it all the time.

    WRT to guards with MG’s at Heathrow, that isn’t anything new, I remember seeing them carry MG’s with amazement back when I took a trip to Europe in high school, back in 1985/6.

  4. I don’t remember how I got from the plane into the terminal in Heathrow – it could be on the bus; if that link escaped my memory, than it wasn’t very interesting or unusual, or particularly unpleasant.

    I had a different impression of Heathrow – that the place is overdesigned, especially where passengers’ convenience is involved. The circulation routes are the most convenient, the seating areas are arranged perfectly between consumer points and flight information boards, the major duty-free shopping areas are separated physically but not visually, the lighting is varied and follows function precisely, and the most amazing – the transportation hubs. Everywhere I’ve been so far in the world seems shabby by comparison. So perfect everything is – it becomes, in fact, unnerving. The voice that follows your every wrong move – and corrects you, dryly and pointedly. The Tube ticket machines – much more elaborate than modest NY ones (either in the subway or Grand Central). The elevators (lifts, they call them). The public bathrooms (sorry, washrooms) – I could see how intimidating they might feel for a person not used to gleaming plumbing-fixtures’ showrooms. You’re surrounded by sci-fi movie set – a working movie set.

    As much impressed as I was, I actually sighed with relief when the tube train left the airport and got to the elevated track to the normal-looking suburban scape in the windows.

  5. Terminal 5 is brand new and unless you flew out of Heathrow in maybe the last 6 months or so you didn’t go through it. But I agree that the rest of it is breathtaking. They just didn’t focus much on the basic function of connecting planes to buildings, which is what I thought the whole damn thing was for.

    For taking photos at O’Hare terminal 5 the whole front is right next to security and the itty bitty crappy food court is too so probably could get a photo if discrete. You can take a million photos past security but there is nothing to see except for a pathetic booze cart or two and a guy selling newspapers.

  6. Having been thought both I agree they are bottom rung, Along with JFK which sucks. However if you ever travel through Seuol or Mexcio City, both are very nice.

  7. Terminal Five….Breathtaking…..Brand New……Crap!

    All you have, after a ten year planning enquiry and a Five Year construction programme is a very large SHOPPING MALL with connections to where airliners sometimes arrive and depart on time.

    Until the Data protection people started shouting, the B.A.A. clowns (the owners of this shambles) were preparing to take everyone’s fingerprints for identity checks because once past security, everyone gets mixed in together, because that makes it easier for the shops to get a captive audience!

    They still take your photograph, but the Security people SWEAR on whatever they believe in that the pix are destroyed at the end of the day! Yup, and there are fairies at the bottom of my bloody garden!

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