When you say you’re off to Heathrow, people breezily assume that it’s Virgin Upper Class lounges – again – shag pile rug to mirrored wall luxury travel. Well, that has been true in the past, but not today. Behind the veneers of shimmering plasma screens, foot massages, cocktails and retail. Away from the vast metal birds and the armies of staff tending their voracious appetites. Regardless of visas and immigrants, asylum seekers and international men of mystery.
Shove aside the whole travel thing and Heathrow is a set of unglamorous buildings. Facilities that have to be maintained and fettled in the way that anything in the built environment has to be. I’m here today with the good people who mend, patch, fix and generally keep the whole thing going.
The place is bewildering in so many ways. The sheer numbers of people that flow through this port daily can make you giddy. We’ve all been here. But we’ve all – do you mind me speaking on your behalf? – been singularly focused on getting aboard our flight, collecting our relative and worrying where we’ve put our passport. After parking the car – more of which later – it a rendezvous at a double deck clustered Portakabins. A temporary structure that was popped in almost 10 years ago and is in intensive use everyday still by 20 office staff and 50 plus site workers.
Overheard last week: “Did we get rid of those rodents in the kitchen?”
Overheard yesterday: “Is someone going to get round to the rodent issue or wot?”
We skip breakfast.
Following our meeting, my contact offers a site tour. One lengthy form and slightly less lengthy queue at the Engineering Centre later I am stood barefoot in crew security getting thoroughly searched. Clutching a newly minted “airside” photo pass and my passport – in case I fancy boarding a plane? – we are suddenly walking around amongst the jets.
A380 and a new jetway
As one of Britain’s foremost industrial tourists this is a treat. K walks me along and around and underneath and beside. We are heading to his site which is the transformation of a boarding gate to accommodate the biggest of birds: the A380. It’s a mile walk. All the usual airport hubbub is carrying on around us, despite us, and it’s properly fascinating. We pause between two nose to nose Triple-Sevens – Air Canada & American – and ponder how the Malaysians could lose such enormous bits of kit? It points to the enormity of the oceans. We kid ourselves: “Small world.”
Presently, we are regarding his site team who are making the airport a better one. They have some very complex tasks with a myriad of operating permits to carry them out. Day and night shifts. Rules and regulations. I ask K if he ever wants to board a plane and jet off. “I don’t do ‘olidays.”
Every now and then, above the general noise, a louder plane takes off or – noisier still – and empty luggage trolley thunders past at 10mph. You are constantly reminded of the fluid nature of the place and the vast efforts in making it work. Back inside we are in retail land and reminded of the vast amounts of money spent here. The designer stores here take more money per square foot than anywhere else in the land apparently. I’ve heard it said that Heathrow make more money from retail than aircraft.
We slip through doorways that are off limits to the public, up and down stairs, check installations, discuss with foremen. We are invisible in high vis’ jackets, hidden in plain sight. Again it strikes me to be at the airport and not travel is peculiar. Yet, to the thousands who call Heathrow their workplace, it’s just another day.
Finishing my day with the client I return to the car, parked in the only feasible option: a multi-storey carpark. My credit card is relieved of £36.40. That’s 14p a minute to park a car.