Heathrow takes on Olympian task Tuesday with Games arrivals
July 24, 2012 12:25 PM
It is expected to receive 1,262 athletes and 3,008 umpires, technical and support staff, broadcasters, and other people associated with the Olympic and Paralympic Games, plus handle a range of competition-related baggage from pole vault poles to pistols.
“We are pleased that so far Olympic athletes and regular passengers have experienced a smooth arrival into Heathrow,” said Colin Matthews, CEO of BAA Airports Limited, which owns Heathrow and five other airports. “The Olympic and Paralympic Games are a marathon, not a sprint, for Heathrow. There are many more challenges to come.”
The airport usually handles a little more than 100,000 flight arrivals and 190,000 passengers a day, but on Monday, July 16, arrivals jumped to more than 121,000 and brought the airport a record 236,000 passengers.
During the course of the Olympics, Heathrow will receive 80 percent of all visitors to the London Games. It spent years preparing for them.
There were no issues today at Heathrow. The airport’s success so far, however, could be tested later this week if the union representing immigration and customs officials in the U.K. goes on strike, as planned, this Thursday.
The airport started planning for the influx of people during London’s bid for the Olympics in 2005. After the city won the 2012 Games, airport staff went to Beijing in 2008 and Vancouver in 2010 to observe the way their airports managed the massive influx of travelers that an Olympics delivers.
The airport started with a team of 50 employees devoted to working on the Olympics and increased that number to 1,000 by late June. Their goal is simple.
“Our job is to run a normal schedule so that the business person coming to or through London enjoys the buzz associated with the Olympics but his journey is normal and comfortable,” Matthews said.
The Olympics and the record influx of travelers over the next three weeks doesn’t provide any financial upside for Heathrow, according to BAA Commercial Director John Holland-Kaye. It did, however, help BAA justify investing $32.4 million to build a new terminal at Heathrow and has the potential to burnish Heathrow’s international reputation.
“The benefits to Heathrow of running a good Olympic operation is that our reputation for offering a good welcome to London will be that much better, so clearly it’s worth the effort,” Matthews said.
Heathrow’s executives are keenly aware that taking on such an enormous job could also backfire in the same way it did for G4S, the private security firm that failed to fulfill its contract for the London Games and watched its stock slump last week.
To avoid that, BAA enlisted more than 1,000 of its office employees as volunteers to greet guests at their terminals. Even Holland-Kaye signed up to assist. He and others have spent portions of the last week dressed in purple polo shirts, holding iPads with flights schedules and directing people toward customs and baggage.
BAA also redecorated the interior of some terminals to give them an Olympic feel. It found out that one of its corridors is the same width as an Olympic pool and laid out full photographs of deepwater along the walkway to give people the feel that they’re in a pool. They did the same thing with a 100-meter track in a different area.
“Those things will bring the scale of what athletes achieve to life for people,” Holland-Kaye said.
The one thing that BAA can’t control is the customs process. That is overseen by a U.K. government agency called the Home Office. The airport already has a reputation for long waits at customs, but the government put more resources into it after delays in the spring, and so far it has managed to avoid causing long delays.
Matthews and Holland-Kaye hope that continues.
In the meantime, they’ll be preparing for what’s expected to be the airport’s busiest day ever: Aug. 13, the day after the closing ceremony. Every seat on every plane flying out of the airport that day will be full, and 137,000 people are supposed to depart.