Heathrow hassles fail to materialise

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 July, 2012, 12:00am


You travel halfway around the world and guess who is the first guy you bump into? None other than someone from Hong Kong, which once again proves the old maxim that the world is indeed a small place.

Leung Kai-chung, whose family is from Fanling, is the first London Olympics volunteer I meet as I get off my flight from Colombo. He is one of the thousand-odd Games helpers posted at Britain's busiest airport, the entry point for the multitudes coming in over the next few days.

He is as surprised as I am when we discover a common identity. London-born, the bespectacled Leung says he had no hesitation in applying to become a volunteer at these Games, the third time this city is hosting the world's greatest sporting extravaganza.

Leung, a student at West London University where he is doing a degree in travel and tourism, paves the way for me, a member of the somewhat pretentiously called 'Olympic Family'. These are the athletes, officials and media who will number more than 25,000.

Being part of this fraternity results in being fast-tracked through immigration. But there are no queues to be seen elsewhere either. Are all these horror stories about Heathrow and its lengthy delays for passport checks a myth?

I ask Sanjay, one of five immigration staff, who gather around the computer terminal attending to my entry into Britain. He says with a smile that it is all a ploy to put visitors on edge ahead of their arrival and then deliver a pleasant surprise when they touch down.

I get fingerprinted - both hands - and eye-scanned in a jiffy. These details are expected to slow down the process even though the idea of the iris scanners is to speed up the processing of passports. It seems to be a new system, for Sanjay is explaining to group of co-workers how it all works.

He is the king of this patch and he seems to be enjoying it as they hang on his every word. I'm processed quite efficiently and I'm on my way wondering what all the fuss about Heathrow is.

But this is probably just the calm before the storm. There was a hint of what travellers can expect when the pilot of the SriLankan Airlines flight informed us after landing that despite arriving on schedule, the plane would have to stay on the tarmac for some time as the arrival bay was still occupied by another flight.

There are ominous signs of looming disruptions. Already there are reports of union bosses confirming a potentially devastating strike by immigration staff on Thursday. The planned walkout threatens to paralyse Britain's airports on the eve of the opening ceremony.

Unions all over the world act in the same fashion. When they know they have the upper hand, they call for their demands.

The British government in turn has accused a small militant minority of trying to take unfair advantage of the Olympic Games to air their demands. But just imagine the chaos if immigration staff go on strike. If you are planning to jet into Britain on Thursday, maybe you might want to rethink.

But for me, it was all plain sailing. No queues, no worries. Only plenty of smiles and a heartfelt handshake from Leung as he leaves me at the empty immigration counter earmarked for the Olympic family.

There are very little signs on arrival that London is the Olympic city. True, the ubiquitous volunteers are dotted all over the show, but it seems HSBC has more signage at the airport than the Games, with the bank's distinctive logo plastered over all the arrival bays at the world's second-most busiest airport.

But there is one cleverly marked advertisement for the Games which people flying into Heathrow cannot miss. If you are seated on the left side of the airplane and as your flight banks over the River Thames, you will spot the Olympic rings in a lush green meadow. This is as eye-catching as the Westbury White Horse, a hill figure carved on Salisbury Plain.

The sight of the rings gives me goosebumps. It is the first strong indication the time is nigh. I have spent months anticipating covering the Olympics - my fourth - and now at last it is just around the corner.

But not everyone seems enthusiastic. My taxi driver, Mike, says the general mood of the British public is somewhat lukewarm, with many taking exception to the benefits given to the Olympic family, such as fast-track lanes at the airport to special car lanes on the motorways.

'The Olympic lanes on the M3 and other roads have been nicknamed Zil lanes by the public. They are very unhappy about this,' says Mike as he drives me to a friend's house in Southampton where I'm being put up for the first night before moving into central London for the duration.

In the old Soviet Union days, only top government officials and the bureaucracy drove Zil limousines, which were accorded privileged right of way. Connotations of the past live on in London.

The M3 motorway is crowded even though it is a Sunday. Mike explains it is down to the weather, which is a balmy 20 degrees Celsius with the sun out. 'When the sun is out on a holiday, people here jump into their cars and head for the beach,' he says.

After days of rain and poor weather, the sun is out in force. Mike says I have brought it with me from Colombo. I pray it sticks around. My bags are packed with heavy winter wear - anything below 16 degrees Celsius is winter weather for me - as all the forecasts have been for cold and rain.

Like the Heathrow experience, the London weather has caught me by surprise.

A sunny London Games would be fabulous.