Heathrow’s Irish finally exit the gates of hell

Sure, Heathrow still has its dignity-stripping moments, but for the Irish the longest walk is no more

Airy port: The departures lounge in Heathrow’s Terminal 2. Photograph: Niel Hall/Reuters

Airy port: The departures lounge in Heathrow’s Terminal 2. Photograph: Niel Hall/Reuters


It was raining in London on Tuesday, a grim drizzle as we landed at Heathrow and began the long descent from to the arrivals area. Out into the long metal tube, where departing passengers sat, hungry, bored, trapped in the submarine-like Irish gate.

Behind them, that stern sign that tells them there is no turning back now. They have passed the security doors of no return. From here there are only the purgatorial pleasures of Pier 4A’s strangled light and the flicker of non-stop TV news.

Before Irish people complained about the long walk at Heathrow, they complained about the “coaching” – getting from gate to plane on busses of standing people and obtrusive luggage. The area was designed by the somewhat aptly called Grimshaw architects. It was built, believe it or not, as an “environment for movement”. This place, where even the air is tired.

Leaving the strip of gates, we headed out along the travelator where, on the other side of the plexi-glass, people headed in the opposite direction, on the final leg of the long walk to their gate, some having lingered at the last chance saloon that is the Wetherspoon’s Express.

One couple legged it, bags flailing, begging a lagging child to hurry up, a family engaged in that long-standing ritual of cutting it fine.

When it was opened to the Irish in 1992, the walk became an instant issue. There were complaints from business passengers, older passengers, passengers with young children, pretty much every passenger.

In The Irish Times, a spokesperson advised that “the journey could be broken up with a rest in the departure lounge, slightly less than midway through the 520 metre distance of the time”.

When you resort to talking about a cafe like it’s a base camp, it really must be a slog.

Anyway, on Tuesday we continued towards the exit, pulling our bags along that curved corridor of floor to ceiling glass offering a view of rain and roads. Another corridor. Then through the baggage reclaim. The quiet customs section. A quick dodging of the Heathrow Express salesman before the final swinging door released us. Then it was on to the Tube, a narrow barrel of metal that hurtles deep underground and still manages to feel less restrictive than the Heathrow’s Irish annex.

It was sunny as he headed out of London on Wednesday evening. There was a measure of promise and anticipation, too. It was the first day that Aer Lingus would be flying out of Heathrow’s new Terminal 2 – otherwise known as the Queen’s Terminal. Ominously, the trip from Tube to entrance includes an outdoor walkway that on a stormy day will likely whip the wax from your ears. Once inside, though, the only question was how far to the gate? Do we have to walk? How long do we have to walk? What’s the walk?

The departures board told us we should give it five minutes. In reality, the average person could crawl it in three. It took me two minutes and that included taking a wrong turn.

Obviously, it’s still an airport, meaning the food is at standard sky high prices. And to get to the gate involves the usual precursor of removing half your clothing in public, allowing security personnel rifle through your toilet bag, gulping down a litre of water before it’s confiscated as dangerous goods, having your face scanned a couple of times, your body patted down, a metal detector swept across your armpits, and made feel like you’re the single greatest threat to global security simply because you packed a too large tube of itch-relief cream.

But once you’re through, there’s a Heston Blumenthal cafe where they’ll make ice-cream using liquid nitrogen. And you can walk to the gate before it even thinks about melting. And here is the happiest bit. From Terminal 2, you can see across to Terminal 1. Irish passengers can see the building in which they used to be cooped up; can regale their disbelieving children with tales of the old days.

When travellers would wait the last flight out in a dead zone, picking at some pre-packed sandwich horror, the clock ticking slowly, flights delayed, shops closed, news headlines on turgid repeat, doors shut behind them, travelators flowing one way only, passengers lolling about, the life sucked from them.

No turning back. No way out. The long walk home. shegarty@irishtimes.com @shanehegarty

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