My experience with Heathrow Airport began in 1991. My Dad had moved down to London at the request of British Airways, to set up a company to handle the needs of their special assistance passengers in Terminal 1. British Airways were looking to outsource this part of their operation and my Dad’s proven track record as one of the founders of Northeast Aviation Services at Newcastle Airport made him the ideal candidate to lead this.
Setting up the company was not an easy task. He had valuable support from BA people like Richard Gray, but his office was the boot of his car for a long time before he was able to find accommodation in the Queen’s Building. He interviewed people on the balcony at Terminal 1 and barely had any time to eat or get home to the house he was renting in Laleham. Mum came down to help out and, once I was finished with my GCSEs, I came along too. After working at Sainsbury’s for a while, Dad encouraged me to come in and help out in my spare time while I was doing my A Levels. I think an extra hand was always welcome and I loved the job so much more than working on a checkout.
Capital Aviation Handling Ltd took care of all British Airways’ passengers who required wheelchair assistance. We also had contracts with Lufthansa and other airlines in Terminal 2. Dad had assembled a really great team of people with a range of previous careers and set up a great operation that was well-respected.
Wheelchairs is a great area to work in if you’re at the airport. You get to go just about everywhere: landside, airside, down on the apron. You really get a feel for the way the whole place works. Heathrow is like a big city all of its own; in fact kind of like a big organism. When there’s trouble in one part, it spreads to another like backache. There’s nothing like the operational buzz that goes on around the place. I worked there on and off through University and then through until the end of 2000. I saw immense change in Terminal 1 during that time.
When I started, you could walk in off the street and collect your relatives’ baggage before they even got to the carousels, arriving and departing passengers mixed freely on the piers and a temporary ID pass, granting you access to all manner of restricted areas, could be gained with only a quick check of credentials.
The terminal was refurbished and the South end converted into a larger check-in area, the departure lounge was transformed from a dark and dingy, low-ceilinged hovel into a glass-roofed palace with a Caviar House and a champagne bar. The Flight Connections Centre was built and the Europier added to the existing structure, making it a 20 minute walk from one end to another. This was more frequent than you might think. You’d often pick up someone off the Zurich flight or somewhere who happened to be going on to Cork with Aer Lingus. You’d be with them all the way from D56 to N90. It really was a fantastic environment in which to work and there was always something going on. I was even lucky enough to bump into Kyle Maclachlan one time outside the shuttle lounge at Gate 5. Got his autograph on my pad and everything.
Night shifts, which I did a few times, were amazing as the place takes on a really eerie feeling when everyone lese has gone. There’d just be me and a few security people. At night, I had to go around the terminal collecting up all the wheelchairs that had got lost during the day. I’d find myself down at the end of empty jetties with aircraft on the end in darkness. When the automatic lighting would come on, I would see heads rise from the seats as sleeping cleaning staff were roused from their slumber. I even spent Christmas night there once. I sat and watched The Fly and Key Largo in the office and pulled a cracker with myself.
Dad was always investing in new equipment to try to make the process easier for people. Every piece of equipment he could get in to help the staff out, he did. That included doing what few people had thought of before and putting handbrakes on the chairs, essential to save people’s backs and make things safer when going down the many steep ramps around the airport. It also included this wonderful piece of kit: the Mobilift.
It was designed to help immobile passengers get up aircraft steps on smaller aircraft like those used by Manx Airlines. The mere sight of it managed to heal most passengers of their conditions and they were able to get up without it.
I spent most of 2000 based in the Queens Building, another part of the airport that has now been consigned to history. Its a small world as I’m now, seventeen years later, working alongside someone else who used to tread the corridors of the Queens’ building. We probably passed each other in the corridor numerous times. Funny how the tributaries of life bring people into contact at different times.
At the end of 2000, I left. By that time, Dad had retired and the company was now called Groundstar Ltd. I felt like it was time for something new so I went to work for Budget Rent a Car. I still found myself in the terminals a lot of the time. A 4.15am start in Terminal 4 is not pleasant.
Budget was in dire straits at the time as they had expanded far too much in the UK and didn’t have enough cars. In terms of sales, I think I only made my bonus one month out of the twelve that I was there because there was nothing to sell. My time at the airport came to an end in December 2001, when I went off to start my teaching career properly.
I’ll always remember my time at Heathrow fondly. I love flying out of there as, no matter how much changes, there are always a few things left that remind me of past times.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, then please fell free to check out my other posts in the Blogging from A to Z challenge.
All the best,