You can tell a lot about a country's business culture from its airports, and especially from the terminals that handle long haul, intercontinental traffic.Dubai's Terminal Three screams of ambition, glamour and slickness; Paris Charles de Gaulle is sleekly efficient, speaking eloquently of years of compound infrastructure investment; New York's JFK is brash but egalitarian; Dublin is homely and slightly chaotic.
These stereotypes have been strained by the financial troubles of the past 18 months. On a recent trip to Dublin, even the normally garrulous airport taxi drivers seemed overwhelmed with property market blues. And I'm sure I've noticed just a little less swagger in Dubai of late. The immigration officials, dismissive to the point of arrogance in the boom years, have even begun to smile a little as they swipe your passport.
The examples I've used here have one thing in common: they are run and owned by governments or municipalities, and overseen by state-appointed regulators whose job it is to ensure the terminal and its environs conform to essential standards of efficiency and safety. There is a basic coincidence of interests between the owner, operator and regulator which works in the interests of passengers and operators.
They may sometimes make money for their owners, but that is not their main purpose. Their principal function is to provide the infrastructure foundation for efficient air travel.Now let's take a look at Terminal Three at London's Heathrow. As a frequent flyer between Dubai and London, and usually a customer of Emirates Airline, I have had the misfortune to use Heathrow T3 on many, too many, occasions in the past few years. As the main terminal for Asian and Middle Eastern airlines, the state of T3 can only be intended as a deliberate slight on those parts of the world, and on anyone looking to do business with them.
It's hard to single out a particular aspect of the "LHR T3 experience", it is such a uniformly depressing and painful ordeal. On a recent trip, it began on the very moment of touchdown. The Emirates flight was a commendable five minutes early after a seven hour flight, and passengers were looking forward to a quick disembarkation and getting on with the final stage of the journey.However, I was just about to learn the difference between the aviation terms "landing" and "arrival." In this case, it was not just the difference between the time the plane's wheels hit the tarmac and the time you get off the plane; it was also 54 infuriating, frustrating, tut-tutting minutes.
The pilot, obviously embarrassed that his professional efficiency had not been matched by that of the airport ground crew, explained that the plane on the stand our Boeing was supposed to occupy was delayed because the catering company had not delivered the inflight food. By about the 50th minute I was mentally inflicting high altitude starvation on the outbound passengers, if only I could get off the plane.
At most airports, stepping off the plane into the tube linking you to the terminal is a moment of liberation, when you start thinking about the details of your visit. At LHR T3, it is just the beginning of your ordeal. The long, long walk to passport control is dismal and depressing. The "sights" of London portrayed on the walls of the tubular walkway look dreary and washed out, fitting perfectly into the overall colour scheme of hospital grey.
The hell of the immigration hall awaits you inexorably. If Hieronymus Bosch were alive today, he would need no further material for inspiration than this horrible room. The lighting is just bright enough to let you pick out the dinginess of the decor, unpainted for decades surely, but not to actually light the place.Exhausted, blinking passengers shuffle forward at a snail's pace, made all the slower by the fact their feet adhere to the filthy carpeting. After this ordeal, even the surly face of the immigration officer is a relief, a return to humanity however ugly.
But you are wrong to think it's all over. The real disgrace of LHR T3 is the baggage collection hall, a freezing, filthy warehouse of a place. The hours I've spent there go down as some of the most frustrating in my life. But at least that's almost the end. After a walk through customs (always a tense experience) and a trot through what must be the tattiest, least-inviting duty free area in the world, you are there: the arrivals hall of LHR T3.
Welcome to London, one of the great business centres of the world and capital of the European financial time zone. Open to the world for commerce, including Grupo Ferrovial of Spain, which, in 2006, paid £10 billion (Dh58.63bn) for BAA, the British group that owns Heathrow, and has evidently starved T3 of investment ever since. The interests of owners, regulators and passengers have never been more out of kilter.