Podcast: Airport Security

Today I flew to Los Angeles on Virgin Atlantic out of London Heathrow Terminal 3. I was somewhat dreading it after seeing the pictures and hearing about all of the chaotic scenes that have been greeting travellers trying to get flights out of the airport following the alleged plot to blow up American Carriers out of the UK on their way to the United States.

Based on my experience today my tips if you are flying out of London Heathrow (or any UK airport that matter):

  1. Make sure you stick to the hand baggage rules, both in terms of the size of the bag (briefcase/ small laptop bag). Or you will be sent back to check-in even before you get to join the shuffling line through the security line. This may mean joining the long lines to check-in which is taking time as check-in staff has more checks to make, and people have to repack.
  2. If you are transiting through Heathrow from another country, while you may have been allowed more hand luggage out of the airport you came from, you will not be allowed to take it onto a flight leaving out of the UK so make sure that you stick to the new UK rules or your bags will be taken away and put in the hold anyway.
  3. In your hand luggage, take and pack only essential valuables (as so many bags are still being delayed!) and leave the rest at home. Make sure you have no liquids, gels or basically any toiletries of any kind. Also remember you are going to have to carry that bag through the long halls and walks to get to the gates so dont make it too heavy!
  4. Get to the airport as early as you can, and if you are not flying with a ticket that gives you lounge access consider buying access as you may find your flight is delayed and the cost may be less than buying the coffees, food and other things you can get free in the lounge once you have paid. If you are really cheeky maybe hang around outside the lounge or business class check-in area of the airline you are flying and ask people with access if they will take you as a guest into the lounge! Most airlines allow people with lounge access through their ticket or frequent flyer card to take in one guest
  5. In the security queue make sure by the time you get to the front you are ready with your jackets, bulky sweatshirts off, shoes off (or untied ready to slip off) and electronic equipment like laptops, mobile phones, cameras ready to pop into the trays. Laptops must go through one per tray.
  6. If flying to the USA get to the gate early and get through the second search first as it is better sitting on the plane reading, or calling people on your mobile than shuffling in a long line. The airlines are being good about giving people a drink while waiting as the rules on no liquids are so strict.
  7. Give Duty Free a miss at the airport. If you are flying to the USA you will not be allowed any liquids and so they will take booze, perfume etc away. If you really want something buy it on the plane as most airlines have a fairly good lien up and most UK airlines let you order on-line in advance these days and collect on the flight to make sure that it is in stock for you.
  8. Try and be patient. It is very likely flights will not go on time until things settle down and the airport authorities have increased the number of trained staff that they are now out recruiting. If the secondary checks stay for USA flights then I am sure these will all be late. Remember your flight to the UK will therefore also be late as the planes will not be coming in on time.
  9. Ask yourself of you really need to travel until things calm down again and the new rules bed in and things get back to normal. Of course, get back to normal is a misnomer as things will never go back to the old system just to a more efficient new normal. We hope.

These tips are based on what I experienced which was as follows:

I had looked online yesterday, been a bit obsessed as I am, to see if the equivalent flight that I was on for that day had been cancelled or delayed. Virgin has 2 flights to LA and both had taken off about 2.5 hours late. I assumed that was how long the new security arrangements must be taken.

Virgin had issued advice that they are recommending passengers get to the airport at least 3 hours in advance and that they are now closing the flight a full hour before the departure as that is at least how long it will take you to get to onto the plane!

My pick up (which as I was travelling Upper Class their equivalent of business) was due at 8am, but we actually left my place at 07:45. I am only about 20 minutes from Heathrow. In addition to the pick-up, at Heathrow Virgin also have a drive through check-in for Upper Class passengers where they come and meet you and take your bags and give you your tickets! They have just move the drive-thru check in and now you get out there and walk to an elevator that takes you to near-by the fast track security check that business class passengers can use.

The airport terminal as I walked through it was packed. The traffic getting into Terminal Three was bumper-to-bumper and much heavier than usual when I fly out on a Sunday from there. There are a lot of flights out from there in the morning and I guess everyone was heeding the advice about getting there early.

The queues to get through the regular security and the fast Track did not seem longer than normal, although there is a table set up displaying all the banned items like liquids, lipsticks, matches, lighters etc. They also have these binds to check your hand baggage size, which cannot be larger than a briefcase/ small laptop bag. I noticed that most people seemed to have very little hand luggage or some none other than travel documents. I have to say I took dramatically less hand luggage packing most of it except my laptops (one for work as I will be working 2 of the 4 weeks I am away and my own to be able to update my iPod, download my photos etc), my iPod, camera and Blackberry. Effectively all the valuable items!

The line was no longer than usual, again that may have been as it was still so early as it was only just heading towards 08:30. But also passengers seemed much more organized and had laptops out, jackets off and laces undone ready to step put of their shoes. It was also because although they make you take more items out into trays for going through the x-ray they were not doing 100% body searches but it looked to be about 1 in 2 or 3.

My own laptop was pulled aside to be swabbed and put in the machine thing they use, but this was not unusual as has happened a few times. It is quite a large laptop and that may be why.

I went to the Virgin lounge (the Clubhouse), and have posted a separate blog with pictures about that as it is quite something: click here to see that.

I went to the gate early, as soon as they put the go to gate signs as I knew that for all flights to the USA you have to go through a second search and they take away any liquids (even duty free ones bought after security) and do a 100% search. I just knew that would take time. I was so glad I did as I was about 5th in line and they did full body search, again with no jackets or shoes, and searched the hand bag and made you remove batteries on laptops to be checked.

This all took time and so they only closed the doors of the plane about one hour and thirty minutes after we were due to take off due to all the searches. The Upper Class cabin was surprisingly empty for a Sunday flight as it is usually packed. During the week when I had been checking/ selecting my seat online at viginatlantic.com, the flight looked full. There has been a lot of talk of a lot of people cancelling flying as a result of both being nervous but also all the hassle. I wonder if that was the case.

I have to say I am not looking forward to all of this as I have about 7 or 8 trips (mostly to the USA) before the end of the year and it is going to make the travelling day very long and very boring. But necessary.

So the security thing was not quite as bad as I had expected it to be. It has made me go back to packing a more sensible sized carry on bag, and as it stops people lugging those huge wheelie suitcases and suit carriers on-board also meant lots of space in the overhead lockers.

Gary Bembridge

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I have been based in London since 1987. My travel life spans more than three decades and that includes more than 95 cruises. In 2005, I launched Tips for Travellers to make it easy and fun for people to discover, plan and enjoy incredible cruise vacations. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have the largest cruise vlogger channel currently on YouTube, with more than 3 million video views per month.

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