Heathrow Terminal 5 – How Delaying Children Delays Us All

A policy we experienced at Border Control resulted in our family holding up every passenger on our flight. This policy could possibly delay any flight departing from Terminal 5 in Heathrow, this could naturally have a knock on effect on any British Airways flight anywhere in the world as, like a ripple in a pond, the delay effect spreads wider and wider.

Usually travel bloggers sound excited, positive and encouraging about travel (it’s our job!) but I just had a experience full of hassle. I’ll try to write about it as objectively as possible so you can plan your trip with the info you need.

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This September we flew with British Airways from Aberdeen Airport via London Heathrow Terminal 5 to Nice. We have hub flown as a family before i.e. Aberdeen-Amsterdam-Nantes and had no issues. This year a pleasant holiday in Nice was had by all. Then we flew home (are you hooked so far?). We knew that on the return leg, once home in the UK, we’d get our passports checked and go through security. Our plane landed early and, due to past experience of flying via Heathrow as adults, we felt we had ample time to make our connection, planning to purchase drinks and food for the boys once through security.

At passport control the British citizens were flashing their passports at the automated gates. The queue was 30-45 seconds long. I believe EU citizens went through the same gates if they had biometric passports. We went to join this queue and were directed to a different one as our children didn’t have biometric passports. Our new queue was huge – it would take about 45 mins to an hour to reach the front. We were queuing with non EU passengers. These passengers were naturally having their paperwork checked, possibly visas etc., some were being asked questions – this understandably isn’t quick ‘flash of the passport’ territory. flight-sunset-red-clouds

I went back to the officials but it turns out that children have to queue in order to be seen by a human being at border control who can manually check their passports, there was no fast track, no options. At many airports we’ve received preferential treatment at passport control and security when they see the buggy. Whilst this benefits us, it also benefits our children, it benefits other passengers and members of staff who don’t desire to tolerate the cries and antics of kids. But it’s not just an act of compassion, it improves the flow of an airport: families move slowly, so getting them ahead of the game helps every single passenger as it helps aircraft depart on time. I never expect preferential treatment but I know it’s there for a reason, but I have never been actively delayed because of my children. This was a first.

We queued. Another woman, flying with her grandson to Belfast, was agitated. She’d never make her flight she told us. If she’d flown without him she would have been through the automated gates in seconds. Basically when a British citizen books flights home to the UK they don’t plan to queue in the non EU passport queue, nobody allocates an additional hour or more for that. In fact, no child should queue for over 45 minutes, wherever they come from, no adult ideally either.

We continued to queue. I spoke to four members of staff (both officials and BA) requesting help. Rather than 45 seconds our children spent 45 minutes-one hour queueing for a passport check precisely because they are children. Apart from my own feelings I can’t objectively see the common sense, compassion or logic in treating kids like this. Despite being a travel writer I feel strangely vulnerable travelling with my children (doesn’t everyone?) and this experience did not help, and slowly this policy started delaying everyone else on our flight.

Once through passport control we got our faces scanned. This takes longer with children, especially aged 3 & 2, as they don’t immediately stand correctly – our toddler had cried himself to sleep in the passport queue (a highlight of the trip) but the staff member kindly took a photo of our sleeping boy.

Next, security. By this stage we were running late. My next point is that families never get through security quickly, so a delayed family will never make up time here, or elsewhere. We placed all our hand luggage on the belt, removed the sleeping toddler from the buggy, got the buggy through security, carried the 2 year old through the human scanner and coaxed the 3 year old across the line. As our bags were stuck on the conveyor belt I saw our flight was closing. I am an organised traveller, I get places early, this has never happened to me before. My husband advised me to take the kids and try to catch and/or hold the flight.

Sods law, our gate was A19 in Terminal 5, one of the furthest gates away. I carried a dopy 2 year old and coaxed my preschooler the length of the airport. Thankfully nobody needed the toilet en route. At the gate, when asked for my boarding passes, I said, ‘I have nothing except my children’. I’d been fine, I was actually just stating the facts, but those words sounded so overly dramatic and the reality of the situation we’d been put in dawned on me. I realised that, because I was travelling with children, we’d been left with no boarding passes, no money, no house keys, no phone, no passport, no coats and no water for the kids. Don’t worry, I fully appreciate that I’m lucky to have a home to head towards, and food in the fridge.

The BA member of staff read me and my situation straight away, and assured me everything would be OK. I told him we weren’t dawdling but, due to having children, had to queue for up to an hour at passport control and we couldn’t make up time. The BA rep scanned our faces, invited me to take a seat and made me feel like we had all the time in the world, which we clearly didn’t. I was then deciding whether to take the flight to Scotland alone with the kids, and figure out a strategy to the house without a phone or money, but I have to recognise the kindness of the BA staff member who welcomed me to gate A19 for the 1415 flight from Heathrow to Aberdeen on Wednesday 20 September.

A further practical point is that even if the crew did decide to bump us off the flight it would take time. Delaying a family is just one endless series of delays for other passengers. We weren’t a ‘cabin baggage only’ light single traveller, our baggage was epic. Not only would the crew have to find and remove three bags from the hold, they’d also have to track down two car seats that had gone via Oversize Baggage. Every second and minute just ticks away, delaying everyone waiting onboard who have paid good money to depart on schedule.

My husband arrived, red-faced from running with the bags and the buggy, and we proceeded to the aeroplane. At the Buggy Drop area, which is often manned, nobody was to be seen (I presume because our flight was closed/closing). We left the buggy at the drop area and informed the air hostess onboard that we hoped to see our buggy in Aberdeen. Another delay, somebody had to be sent to deal with the buggy.

We got home in the end. What’s strange is that, and I know anyone reading this can relate to what I’m saying, is that we’re not just/only parents. My husband travels for business regularly, he’s the suited and booted chap wanting to depart on time to reach his meeting or to get home. No business traveller wants their flight delayed by something so avoidable as delayed children. As a travel writer naturally I fly for press trips and conferences, but I’m also a leisure traveller in my own right. When anyone gets a weekend away with the girls or the lads you want your trip to start as soon as possible, you want airport delays circumvented, not exacerbated. Airports have to flow. But yes, I’m a mother and our experience just isn’t how I expect kids to be welcomed home, they should at least be equal to other British passengers. Airports should aim to be more friendly and family friendly overall to everyone who lands at them.

So what would I recommend? I can only say what happened to us. We certainly weren’t made to feel that this was a temporary policy so check the latest before you book tickets or fly. There are a few of obvious options though. Firstly if my experience doesn’t appeal to you it’s an option to research family friendly airports – I will willingly recommend any good ones once I’ve experienced them. Another option is to choose to only fly direct, so that when you return home to the UK it’s less time dependent.

A more colourful option is to fly, fly, fly: if enough families are upset, if enough flights are delayed, if enough of your co-passengers have their flights delayed by children then surely it has to change? Also speak out, if you have an experience like this then say something. Another point, this experience at Heathrow naturally effects children connecting to the outer reaches of the UK – you’re hardly going to hub fly via Heathrow if you live in Kent – so this is particularly relevant for kids residing in or visiting Northern England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, connecting from somewhere abroad to the likes of Edinburgh or Belfast etc. so perhaps there’s a political angle to this situation.

What would I like to see? Shorter queues for all at passport control, but certainly no more additional delays for children of any nationality. But for a tongue-in-cheek plus side, if you want to experience what Brexit feels like before it happens, hub fly with your kids via Terminal 5.

I am recounting my own experience: children may have to queue with non-EU passengers at other terminals within Heathrow and other airports so check before you fly/book. If you benefited from what you read then don’t miss a post. If you wish to follow Tots2Travel for experiences of family travel then enter your email address in the ‘Follow’ box then click ‘Follow’, or join the conversation on Facebooktwitterpinterest and instagram at Tots2Travel. For any queries or opportunities please email tots2travel@hotmail.com. 

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2 Comments

  1. Reply

    Naomi

    October 11, 2017

    Heathrow in general seems to be exceptionally un-family / child friendly. We had to pass through there last month last minute after cancelled flights elsewhere and I would actively avoid it in future.
    I agree with the photos being too much. We then also had an issue at security where the nappy bag got chosen for further investigation, and they insisted on seeing my child (who dad had taken away to feed) to confirm that I did indeed have an infant with me. I was very offended by this as you can imagine, and when you are trying to catch a connecting flight this doesn’t help things!

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      October 12, 2017

      Definitely think there’s scope for basic improvements.

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