With all roads leading to Heathrow now that the London 2012 Olympic Games has ended, the famous airport has the responsibility to crown or mar the impression many visitors have of the British system. No one can deny its being one of the most influential international airports in the world, being the busiest in Europe. But the performance of Heathrow had caused a lot of anxiety prior to the commencement of the Olympic Games that ended on Sunday.
It had romanced with the notoriety of holding passengers on queue while recording flight delays that made even UK authorities panic in months that preceded July 2012. The reaction of a passenger then responding to a media story on the issue would accordingly frighten a potential visitor to the mega city.
The passenger had cried, “Heathrow is to be avoided like the plague. Last time we missed our connecting flight because of the so-called security checks. Then had to deal with a rude and thoroughly incomprehensible BA ‘service’ rep whose (cockney) accent was so broad that he could not be understood by any of the other five brits in our party – and we were all British born and bred for God’s sake! A filthy place, full of rude staff imbued with the eternal British disease of disdain for service and crappy stores taking up passenger space – Amsterdam or Frankfurt have plenty of connecting flights to provincial airports.”
But the influx of an estimated 6.5m visitors comprising athletes, officials, spectators and tourists that came to witness the biggest sporting event did not record many peculiar hitches. This is thanks to the huge fund, energy and intelligence injected into the structure of the airport as the games drew near. Like many other Nigerians that were part of the sporting fiesta have noted, the experience of this correspondent at the point of entry on July 25 was, for instance, not bad at all.
The queue was long but the checks conducted were largely swift. The most memorable of the three questions the female immigration official asked was a demand for any document that could establish that he (visitor) is a journalist. The PUNCH identity card easily doused her curiosity, although a comedian in the mould of Ali Baba can reason that the similarity in the textures of the skins of the official and journalist might have brightened his chances. The complexion of the British immigration official is as dark as the correspondent’s.
Now the party is over and the guests are eager to go. The question thus is: how smartly will the immigration, other security officials and airline staff be able to manage the crowd outflow and repeat the initial feat.
According to a media statistic, about 200,000 people have been predicted to leave London daily. The airport’s authorities predict that 116,000 passengers will travel from its terminals on Monday, while up to 70,000 are expected to pass through Gatwick each day next week. To make the job less cumbersome, Heathrow has set up a special Games Terminal which will start operating on Monday, when it will attend to some 8,000 athletes, each expected to be carrying between three and five ‘out-sized bags’.
Of course, the officials should be preapared to deal with as many ballooned bags as possible – per head. One’s experience at a popular mall like Westfield in Stratford, where many athlethes and spectators – vistors particualrly – poured in morning till evening, especially in the last few days, indicates that Heathrow may host more than the number of sacs envisaged.
And trust Nigerians, even if their athletes failed to win any medal, they could easily claim gold in the shopping event. As usual, many of the government officials, athletes, artistes and journalists had a bag-swelling time moving from one shop to the other. So, the same Ali Baba may want to sing. “Arise o, Heathrow…” as the proverbial agbe bird is set to fly back home.
Apart from the need to give the visitors a good second impression, and make their memory of London’s feat at organising the games last forever, the airport also has to justify the fever it had gone through for the sake of the Olympics. According to an account given by CNBC’s Kelly Evans, it took Heathrow five years of planning, 150 rehearsals this year alone, with five members of the staff dedicated to preparations for the Olympic Games.
While justifying the investment, saying achieving a great games means a lot for Britain’s reputation, the Chief Executive Officer of the airport’s parent company – BAA – Colin Matthews, has, however, noted that he is not resting on his oars.
He says, “We’re absolutely keyed up on the front of our seats to make sure the experience is a good one. Olympic departures present a fresh challenge with new facilities like the Games Terminal being used for the first time. But we have been preparing for seven years to deliver a farewell of which the whole country can be proud.”
Appointed BAA’s CEO in April 2008, Matthews has led a number of service and industrial businesses in several countries. Prior to joining BAA, he was group chief executive of Severn Trent Plc, managing director of BA Engineering for British Airways Plc, and later executive director of Lattice Group Plc and group chief executive of Hays Group Plc. Yet, as the agbe bird is bent on returning to its land of dye, and aluko bird eager to fly back to its home of cam wood, with white-winged lekeleke yearning for its heritage of chalk, the ball is indeed in Matthews’ court.
Culled From The Punch
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