Flying High with No Reservations!
Today, I can safely say without any semblance of doubt that we earned our wings! Actually, that’s probably stretching the truth just a tad. My visit to Heathrow was linked to a fabulous invitation: An Exclusive Look Behind The Curtain of ‘Britain’s Busiest Airport’ Series Two. Hosting this one-of-a-kind tour in order to promote series two of the show was a fabulous chance for me to get up close and personal with the facilities and mechanisms that make this frantically busy and most local airport to me run smoothly without hitches. Even better, my request to bring along my sprightly 85-year-old father, an ex fighter pilot, was very graciously accommodated. My father already had his bespoke wings and after the most insightful and action packed day that I’ve encountered recently, I duly felt that I had undertaken my cadet apprenticeship!
The agenda was packed from start to finish with a panoply of diverse interactions that will even in retrospect induce a huge respect for all the workings and expertise that go on seamlessly behind the scenes. All of the staff we encountered were genuinely welcoming and shared their knowledge talking with pride about their roles. Their professionalism was tangible and I admired their dedication and passion for their chosen careers. From arrival to departure and through numerous gates…..the agenda flowed from one activity to another with consummate ease and handovers.
After arriving slightly early due to the meticulous parking directions, we met up with our tour organiser Holly and her colleague who guided us throughout our tour – it would be remiss not to mention Simon, our transport guru whose Mastermind knowledge was endless and knew no bounds. First stop was the bit I had built up such anticipation for which was duly rewarded a thousandfold – a trip to the Animal Reception Centre to see a few of the wonderful creatures, 14,00 cats and dogs alone that travel through Heathrow every year. What a treat for an animal lover like me! Think Dogs and Cats but don’t stop there. Snakes, snapping turtles, Bearded Dragons – you name it, this wonderful menagerie has seen it all. Equipped with gowns and appropriately disinfected to prevent any risk of infection, we were able to get up close and personal. All of the animals looked exceptionally well cared for and there was a calm ambience across the centre. It came as no surprise to learn that Animal Handling Courses were run on site utilised by the Police and other professional services. I fulfilled one of my own life’s ambitions – I held a snake, not a toy one, not a computer generated image, a real life snake with smooth warm skin that allayed any fears and preconceptions that had lurked in my imagination for many years. The efficiency of reuniting beloved pets with their owners was clarified by the fact that processing of paperwork can take as little as 1 hour for arrivals from within Europe and up to 4 hours for the rest of the world. Suffice to say – passengers in transit are in safe and knowledgeable hands throughout their stay at Heathrow.
Having donned wellies and macs for the animal encounter, the next stop of the tour couldn’t have been further apart. It was time to get a taste of the luxurious Heathrow’s VIP service. Opulent and intimate with privacy and safety guaranteed we arrived at the Windsor Suite – Heathrow’s ‘VIP terminal’ for visiting presidents, royalty, and the rich and famous. As you step through the door, you discover how the other half lives! Door to Door Service (using BMW 7 series) is followed by an exclusive experience that is bespoke, personalised and utterly luxuriant. We were taken into the beautiful Kensington Lounge for some refreshments and a short break. I was served a delicious ‘Booster’ concoction comprising mango, avocado and pineapple that scintillated the senses and provided thirst quenching deliciousness in every sip! Beautiful canapes followed including a Sweetcorn Muffin with Dill and my own personal favourite, a Beetroot and Blackberry tart where the sweet berry was perfectly offset against the earthiness of the beetroot. I honestly could very easily have sat there all day given the comfort and glorious decor! Deep sofas that really take the weight off your feet, contemporary art by Tanya Baxter (King’s Road) and refreshments that satisfy the most discerning palate, it really is very very special. The calm contained ambience continues as you pass through your own designated security station followed by personal transfer to your flight. Most requests can be accommodated and personal shoppers are close to hand! It is meant to feel special and its intention is fully realised though like any other top quality, prestigious experience, it comes at a matched price, in this case, 2750 + VAT (the service is only available to those holding Business or First Class tickets).
It was time to tear ourselves away from the ground side luxury and put on our Aviator Sunglasses. Next stop was every passenger and plane spotters’ dream, in this particular instance part of the British Airways’ fleet – the 787-9 Dreamliner. Heading straight into where else but first class, the ergonomic design stood out as passenger perfection! Attractive surroundings in your own encapsulated space with top class entertainment facilities – work, rest or play, it epitomises the functionality and fun of modern day upmarket travel. We were treated to a talk from one of the training captains who made flying it sound so easy – I think modern gadgetry and piloting may be somewhat easier than the manual dexterity required for pilots in my father’s day (think 1950’s and 1960’s, bygone eras where aviation is concerned). The photograph taken of my father at the controls in the cockpit was a firm favourite with an extremely poignant touch. We were later to experience this dreambird up close and personal as she taxied her passengers to the take off area. A wave from the crew in the cockpit was a really surreal experience and photo opportunities were at a premium!
Such was the fun aspect of our tour that tummy rumbling had only just set in and this like everything else was an event extraordinaire. We partook of no other than a two course lunch at The Gorgeous Kitchen in Terminal 2 – voted the best airport restaurant in the world. The celeriac soup and macaroni cheese dish I ordered were well presented with sufficient seasoning to maximise the taste. I was fortunate enough to sit next to the inspiring Rachel Betts, Heathrow’s Filming Manager who had a plethora of information and bucketfuls of enthusiasm for her role and the entire series.
I felt like we were going on safari as we clamboured back onto our minibus and went out into the open spaces of the runway and airside space. Safe in the expert hands of Simon, we were deftly driven to fantastic strategic points where as aforementioned, we saw the Dreamliner trundling down the tarmac and just as impressive, though in a stationary guise, we got to see the majestic and regal beauty of Concorde lovingly tended on site and certainly never to be forgotten for the few privileged to have flown on her. Onwards bound, we were then driven to the very heart of operations, the hub of control where minute precision, attention and 100% focus ensure the safe passage of the air traffic in our skies. This was very much a quiet area as befits an operation where every single move on flight paths is monitored and controlled with highly astute reactions ensuring secure take off, transit and landing at the airport.
With weary legs we gathered for a debrief . Without doubt this was such an eclectic experience, a real ‘money can’t buy’ adventure that was bursting at the seams with interesting facts, some incredible sights and staff who were proud to show us the outstanding facilities and technology that run behind the scenes. It evoked many memories for my 85 year old father who could contrast modern aviation against an era where most operational aspects were manually driven whilst for me, it induced a passionate respect and interest into the inner workings of one of my favourite modes of travel.
Many thanks to all staff across the various areas of our tour for a splendid day out coupled with outstanding customer service. ‘Winging’ our way home we enthused about a day out that will evoke pleasant memories for a very long time to come. Roger, Over and Out – Have a safe journey wherever your travels may take you! Do tune in for the Second Series of Britain’s Busiest Airport – I can’t wait to put the names to faces and see some of the other activities in this diverse coverage.