Live From London Heathrow Airport Terminal 3

I am on my way back from San Francisco to Pune and have a stop over at London Heathrow. I am writing this live from the ‘Internet and Additional Seating’ area at London Heathrow Airport Terminal 3.

I have been through Heathrow a couple of times before and visited London on a business visa a couple of years back. While countries (even the US) issue visas for 10 years, UK then made me go through a lot of procedure, including submitting a dozen financial and other documents, charged me a hefty fee and gave me a measly 6 months visa. That visa expired in 2006.

I was planning to get out into London today, during my 10 hrs stopover on this trip. I had checked the Heathrow website in advance and saw that there was a provision for a 24 hours transit visa on arrival. I thought that’s good and appropriate for me. I was again supposed to pay a big fat fee for this visa. I got into the immigration queue rather confident of getting the 24 hours visa. I had an earlier visa, had a confirmed ticket for an onward journey and had even checked my baggage through to India. So I could see no reason why I would not be given the 24 hour visa.

The Heathrow website says –

Stopover information

You can apply for a 24-hour visa on arrival. This is at the discretion of the Immigration Officer, who must be satisfied that you have a confirmed booking of onward travel within 24 hours.

I was in for a surprise on getting to the immigration counter. The officer there questioned me on why I had not got a proper visa from my country. I told him that the process was tedious and considering that the Heathrow website mentioned the 24 hours transit visa I didn’t see the need. The officer stunned me by reprimanding me for my actions. He said that he won’t give me the visa. I again referred to the site, my earlier visa and even said that doesn’t UK encourage people to visit UK so why am I being denied a visa? I have a past UK visit record, a US visa and stampings from some other countries as well. I also had documents to prove my business and credentials. He won’t listen.

I told him that the website said that the 24 hours visa is at the ‘discretion’ of the officer and was supposed to be given if the onward journey was a confirmed one. He got back saying that the word wasn’t ‘at the discretion’ but was a ‘concession’ to me made in special cases. He didn’t see why he should make the concession for me.

Ridiculous! I was in no mood to argue further and decided to return to the “Flight connections” area and spend my 10 hours at the airport.

I hate putting a racial twist to things but I wonder if ‘young asian male’ was again a factor. Would he have rejected the visa if it was say a Swedish woman wanting to see London while she had the time? Would that be a special case worthy of making a concession?

As for the airport, I had not liked Heathrow airport on my previous visits and this time is no different. I am aware that my immigration desk encounter will affect my review this time, yet I am trying to make an unbiased review.

Passenger Facilities – Heathrow is like a shopping mall. The shops are the focus of the airport and the passenger facilities are incidental. So I am surrounded by about a 100 stores selling perfumes, cigars, goggles, liquor, etc. but in the entire area there are just 2 toilets and 2 water fountains. On my first visit I had not found the water fountain at all as there are no signs marking it.

Today I had to hunt around for a good 15 minutes to find a power supply point to charge my laptop. The T-Mobile HotSpot where I bought the Internet connection had a few power points but not one of them worked. The boarding and departure gates are a good 10-15 minutes walk from the main area and these gates are at the other extreme, with no shops and restaurants

Seating – The “Additional Seating” area is perhaps the only place that has good cushioned seating arrangements. The other areas all have chairs that you cannot relax or even sit on for an extended duration.

Walk – You have to walk quite a lot to get to and from any gate. There are motorized moving walkways in a few places but a lot more are required.

Crowded – All the passengers are crowded in the restaurants and stores area as that’s where all the action is.

Look & Feel – The airport has low ceilings and is dimly lit in all places except the shops, giving the entire place a closed and cramped feel.

Shopping – Shopaholics might like Heathrow as they would be too busy going through the stores to notice that there’s little else.

Food – The food options are good, with a number of restaurants catering to various cuisines.

Internet – 5 internet browsing machines at 1 GBP for 10 minute are available. WiFi rates are 5GBP for 60 minutes 10 GBP for 24 hours. Not bad, but considering passengers need for connectivity, a few free browsing terminals would be a nice feature to have.

Overall, Heathrow is struggling to stay with the year 2008. It is nowhere in the league of airports like Hong Kong. HK is clean, bright and spaced out. Passenger facilities are the focus while the shopping areas are incidental. I haven’t seen the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow and hope that the learnings from the other terminals have been used there, to provide a more passenger friendly airport terminal.

Of course there are many airports worse than Heathrow, including most in India. Will write about those if and when I get stranded at those airports.