Heathrow reopens, but there's little sign of celebration inside its eerily quiet terminals

Lottie Gross
·5-min read
The world is opening up again to travellers – even those without a ‘reasonable excuse’ for leaving the country
The world is opening up again to travellers – even those without a ‘reasonable excuse’ for leaving the country

Ahead of me, a pair of black-and-white spaniels sniffed their way around luggage trolleys and legs in the queue for Air France’s bag drop. Behind me, a cluster of families were unpacking and repacking their suitcases – victims of the baggage allowance rules for their respective airlines. It felt almost like a normal morning in Heathrow’s Queen’s Terminal, aside from all the masks and Covid-era signage. 

It wasn’t normal, of course, as today marked the return of international leisure travel for people in England, who have been under the Government’s non-essential travel ban since November 5. With flights leaving for Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong and plenty more destinations, the world opened up again to travellers – even those without a ‘reasonable excuse’ for leaving the country. But, despite this good news for eager holidaymakers and suffering travel businesses, there was little jubilation at Terminal 2 this morning, and certainly no sign of the mass exodus I saw on the last day before lockdown on November 4. 

A little over a month ago I came here to find people fizzing with excitement at escaping England’s impending lockdown. They were off to the Maldives, Spain and other exciting, sunnier climes, looking forward to freedoms abroad. Today, it was all a bit more subdued. The majority of passengers I spoke to were, rather than jetting off to exciting new places, simply going home. One couple were grateful to be returning to the Czech Republic in time for Christmas. Students were travelling back to China for their holidays. 

I met just one couple who were actual tourists, travelling for a little break away from the bleakness of Britain today (their words, not mine, though I think we can all relate). The pair, who asked not to be named, were trying to get to Cancun in Mexico for a two-week holiday. I found them huddled over their phones in Terminal 2’s Costa coffee shop, which reopened today for dine-in customers under the new Tier 2 rules. 

Their trip hadn’t got off to a good start: having booked a flight to Mexico that transits through Newark in New York State, they had been denied boarding passes at check-in. Only residents and green card holders can travel into or via certain areas of the US right now. 

“It’s ridiculous that we are sold these flights that we can’t board,” they told me, on hold to their travel agent, desperately seeking another route across the Atlantic. “It’s now a question of whether or not it’s worth an extra £1,400. We’re going for two weeks so it’s a decent amount of time, but it’s also a lot of money.” 

With lockdown lifted and tourists allowed to travel once again, the terminal building certainly seemed busier. There were more police officers on view (I didn’t see a single one on my pre-lockdown visits) and even a new one-way system in and out of Terminal 2, with signs demanding: “Passengers only beyond this point”. The airport was clearly anticipating a rise in activity, and on their lunch break, the crew for ITV’s Britain’s Busiest Airport told me it felt marginally more crowded compared with the last few weeks. 

But the numbers don’t necessarily reflect that. Sharing operations statistics from the British Airways schedule, a member of the airline’s cabin crew explained the airline hasn’t bolstered its departures by much – just 11 extra flights were scheduled for today and only 2,000 more passengers were anticipated to depart on BA planes compared with yesterday. “It’s partly down to the strikes,” he explained. “Some aircraft have been in storage [during this lockdown], so with ground staff striking at Heathrow yesterday, it’s going to be impossible to get those planes back in time.” 

He also said things are unlikely to look hugely different today because the lockdown travel ban hasn’t been properly enforced and more people seem to have flouted the rules. “It has been fairly busy compared with [the last lockdown], and I’m sure not all those people were travelling for essential purposes. I think some of them were tourists. I didn’t ask anybody, but some people just told me [they were going on holiday],” he said.

Throughout this morning, queues for bag drop and check-in waxed and waned as passengers arrived and disappeared through to security, and, finally, the couple hoping for some sunshine in Cancun rebooked and boarded their flight to Mexico, this time via Madrid. Here’s to hoping the Test to Release scheme is up and running by the time they return, otherwise they’ll be spending Christmas in confinement.