Heathrow, the Halfway House

27Mar08

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One week before its ill-fated opening, BAA’s Press Officer hobbled around after me in Heathrow’s new Terminal 5, wincing.

“Please don’t photograph the baggage”, she pleaded desperately. “It could be taken out of context!

Probably twice her age, I had only 60 minutes in situ. I raced around the Departures concourse of practice suitcases, trolleys, digital information boards and self-check in stations leaving her to trail behind, frantically calling and texting contacts. Her bosses had put her up in a local hotel, allowing her to work from 5am till late the week prior to the grand unveiling. She was exhausted, sore and months behind in her work. “We could do with twice as many in our office”, she bleated.

From a gantry overlooking the land-side area, some of the 60,000 hard-hats and invisible fluorescent-jacketed workers who have gained employment here, often East European fitters, lounged on spanking new passenger couches during a lunch break. If Londoners have been scouring the Yellow Pages under Plumbers or Carpenters, this was their pay-roll hideout. High above in the 40 metre single-span roof, the Nokia info-board boasted “Hand built by Heroes!”

Airports are halfway houses, midpoints between a Here and a There; ‘Almost-places’ as the artist Martha Rosler calls them in her book ‘Observations of a Frequent Flyer’ or Tom Hanks in no-mans’-land. If the Warsaw-based Centre for International Relations can be believed, 51% of Polish émigrés currently in the UK plan to move back to the Motherland after making meagre fortunes. Enough perhaps to plough their cash back into cheap property or business start-ups. The Zloty is on the slide against the Pound so they’d better be quick if their savings are to build anything but a log cabin.

After their last shift, they may well return to T5 laden with angielski gifts for grandma for the early flight to Poznan or Krakow as fare-paying punters rather than Amish volunteers who have just erected a new community barn before sun-down.

BAA reckon their new state-of-the-art baggage system can handle 12,000 bags per hour but if I were an evacuee watching the spoils of my migration rattle down the conveyor belt, I wouldn’t lose my receipt.

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