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Gary Younge
Terminal decline

At the sacristy of the chaplaincy near Heathrow's Terminal 2 a lay preacher takes a statue of Mary with a babe in arms and heads for the dais. In dim light and hollow hush three others kneel for the Catholic service and then await the passage from the Wisdom of Solomon. To the roar of jets overhead the reading begins: "God made man imperishable... "

By the time you arrive in Heathrow you are all too aware that humankind is very perishable indeed. On the express train from Paddington the newsreader on the small screen - a service especially provided by the BBC for rail link - picks over details of the wreckage in Queens the day after American Airlines flight 587. "There are no editorial changes made particularly for the Paddington service," says a BBC spokesman. So they stare, tickets and passports in hand, at a computer-assisted graphic of an airplane disintegrating in mid-air as experts discuss whether it was terror or error - avoiding each other's gaze and trying, without success, to drag their eyes from the screen. On their laps sit that day's front pages: "Oh my god, not again: Horror in the skies of New York as 260 die in jet crash." ; "I saw them screaming; New York air crash; Agony of New York".

"It's definitely not what you want to hear on your way to the airport," says Brian Montgomery, preparing for a day-long flight to Australia. "But then it's not like you didn't know before you left. You just have to keep telling yourself that it's not going to happen to you and hope to God you're right."

On the Piccadilly line from Hounslow Central Heathrow's workers share precisely the same sentiments. For a public anxious about flying is being served, in myriad ways, by an industry anxious about its future and workers anxious about their jobs. Fewer passengers mean fewer flights which means more trouble for an airport. More than 10% of Heathrow's workers - from cleaners to check-in staff , from those who make the food to those who fly the planes - have been laid off since September 11. The general feeling at the airport is that things will get much worse before they start to look even a little better.

"People are very worried because they don't know what will happen next," says DS Grewal, a Transport and General Workers Union representative who works for Gate Gourmet, which makes much of the airline food and has already laid off several hundred workers.

So Montgomery, Grewal, and thousands like them every day and in their own way, are left with faith. Faith that the airline you leave on will still be flying when you get back (in the past two months three airlines have stopped operating altogether and two others have been forced to suspend operations while many others are faltering). Faith that their aeroplane will reach its destination safely (there have now been three major plane crashes since September 11). Faith that the next pay packet you receive will not be your last one.

"There's a depression over the place that's primarily with the staff," says the Rev David Holmwood, the airport chaplain. "People are anxious about the future. With the passengers too there's a lot more anxiety around and a greater wish to talk about spiritual things."

Heathrow is more than just an airport; it is a peculiar and particular community - a dynamic mix of the permanent and the transient, the global and the local. It has not only its own chaplain but its own press corps, police station, fire service, counselling service, medical centre, business centre, TV news agency, nature reserve, beauty parlour, trade union office and Salvation Army major.

Like a village blighted by foot and mouth, there is scarcely a part of the airport which has gone unaffected. At the Body Shop they say they have noticed a increase in their lavender and aromatherapy ranges - both of which are supposed to relieve stress and anxiety. In the toilets of the departure area of Terminal 3 graffiti reads: "Every man must kill a muslim." Most of the cleaning and food staff are of Asian extraction, with families in the subcontinent who rely on the money. "Now the families in Pakistan and Bangladesh are getting worried," says Grewal. And with longer check-in times and more tension in the air, staff say passengers have become somewhat more demanding. "All these weird little superstitions come into play," says one British Airways employee who did not wish to be named. "People just must have a window seat or whatever, and can work themselves into a stew if they don't get it."

Heathrow is an ugly place - a confusing, warren-like mess connecting three terminals while a fourth sits aloof, a four-minute train ride away. As a rule of thumb, the larger the number of the terminal the further you are likely to travel - Terminal 1 is for domestic and European flights, terminal 2 just for European, terminal 3 for transatlantic and other long-haul flights, terminal 4 for British Airways intercontinental flights. But attempts to establish logical order on the terminals' functions do little more than expose the chaos. Heathrow is a casualty of success over style. Conceived following a 45-minute cabinet discussion about what should replace Croydon aerodrome, its original design was a Star of David, with a terminal and control tower in the middle of the runways. But the demand for quick, cheap travel forced the airport to fill in gaps it never even knew it had. Air transport has grown at such a pace that the planners and architects could never keep up.

In 1946, its first year of operation, Heathrow handled 63,000 passengers travelling on 2,000 flights to 18 destinations. Last year it handled 62m passengers, travelling on more than 1,000 flights a day to 220 destinations. And there's the rub. For while it is a mess to look at in practice, it is incredibly impressive on paper. If you really want to appreciate the Heathrow experience it is statistics, not aesthetics, that will strike you.

Just calling it the busiest international airport in the world (one third of passengers there are connecting to other flights) doesn't do it justice. It accounts for 10% of all perfume sold in Britain, employs roughly 60,000 people on site and contributes £5bn in wages to the national economy each year. On its busiest day this year - July 29 - 213,000 passengers passed through it.

But recently these vital statistics have been sagging in a most unflattering way. The first half of the year had been bad enough, with passengers 1m down in the first five months thanks to foot and mouth and America's economic woes.

During the first 10 days of September Heathrow experienced a slight drop of 0.7% in passengers on the same period last year. Then came September 11 with the resultant closed airspace, fear of flying and cancellations. The rest of the month saw a 20% drop - around double that of Gatwick. The most precipitate decline was in business travellers and transatlantic routes - the very destinations and the very travellers which British Airways (Heathrow's main carrier) relies on for much of its profits and which it looked to for further expansion. North Atlantic traffic slumped by more almost 40% in late September.

You can see the decline, particularly in terminal 3 where the North American carriers are based. Heathrow suddenly looks too big; like a sweater that has been bought for a child to grow into it smacks of both desperation and hope and droops at the shoulders.

All this is a rapid change of mood for an industry and an airport that just over a year ago was trying to cope with apparent inevitability of unconstrained, unwieldy growth. Last year the passenger numbers had already reached levels not expected until 2013.

In August, government forecasts suggested that travel from UK airports could more than double over the next 20 years and treble in 30 years. Air cargo was growing at an even faster pace. Now all these predictions are up for grabs, the relentless growth of air traffic looks anything but inevitable and Heathrow looks anything but invincible.

All this would seem like an incredibly unfortunate moment for the government to announce the building of yet another terminal at Heathrow - particularly when numbers at Stansted, Glasgow and Edinburgh have all increased sharply, suggesting a decentralisation would be preferable. But, if anything, the case for Terminal 5 seems to be strengthened by the wider weakness. Supporters claim it proves the fragility of the airline industry and the need to ensure that Heathrow is not supplanted by Frankfurt or Charles de Gaulle airports as Europe's principal hub, in the anticipation of many smaller, national carriers going bust.

The fact that backers of Terminal 5 - given the go-ahead on Tuesday - seem to have it their way whether the numbers are rising or falling suggests that they were probably always going to get their way. Environmental protesters and residents group in the area plan to appeal. Given their recent victory at the European court of human rights, which ruled that government had "failed to strike a fair balance" between the economic benefits of landing at night and the right of individuals to a good night's sleep, their opposition is more than just a local difficulty.

Heathrow is a tense and emotionally charged place at the best of times. It is a confluence of stress, expectation, disappointment and irritation being played out in almost all the cultural mannerisms known to humankind. People armed with trolleys and sharp elbows running, standing by and waiting for flights for, missing, and being bumped off flights. Tears flow in every direction. On one end of terminal 2's concourse spouses, lovers, children and friends greet arrivals; at the other they say goodbye, throwing last desperate waves to distant shapes as they pass through head for the metal detectors.

But these are not the best of times. The long queues are testament not to bustle but to blockage - stringent security procedures force the system to slow down the processing of passengers. While just about everybody understands the need for this, there are few who enjoy it. "It's a hassle," says Ellie on her way to Glasgow from terminal 1. "By the time you've got here, hung about, checked in, and gone through all the hoops you wonder whether you should have taken the train. The trouble is I only started flying when the trains packed up and now this has happened there doesn't seem like a lot of choice."

For the nervous, longer check-in times and more rigorous security procedures simply make matters worse. "The best way to make people who are anxious about flying more anxious is to keep them hanging around," says professor Keith Millar, of the department of psychological medicine at the University of Glasgow. "Even for a domestic flight it can be at least an hour and a half between the time you arrive at the airport and the time you take off. That gives people lots of time to think about the problems on the journey they are about to take and what might happen."

Lily Lawson, director of Heathrow Travelcare, which provides psychological support and counselling to passengers, says, "Any incident, wherever it happens, affects the whole airport because people always know people who are working elsewhere. With passengers, there has been an increase in reactions to what we would call small-scale incidents - like the gas masks coming down accidentally We've been getting a lot of people contacting us before they're flying with small worries."

Most resort to statistics to deal with the strain. "You've got to be philosophical about it," says Neil who's off to Amsterdam with friends. "I mean. how many planes actually crash and how many don't? If it happens to you you're just really unlucky and you could be unlucky anywhere."

There is something to this. The last commercial airline disaster in Britain was 12 years ago, when a British Midland plane landed on the M1 and 47 people died. You have a 1 in 40m chance of being killed when you fly, compared to 1 in 7.5m in a train and 1 in 17,000 in a car. "The most dangerous part of flying is the car journey to the airport," says Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson. Sadly, none of that is of much comfort to those afraid of flying. Thanks to the high-profile crashes and terror attacks the perception of risk is far greater than it was; anyone who had concerns has now had them compounded.

It doesn't help if the people responsible for putting the passengers at their ease are themselves tense. But with the recent redundancies announced by all the major airlines most of Heathrow's workforce, with just a few exceptions, are now living month to month.

Swissport, which handles the baggage handling for several different airlines, is about to take on more staff thanks to new contracts. But, as former employees of the troubled Swissair, they are confident that there will be work but not necessarily that they will get paid. They have their wages paid into a British bank account. The company has just been bought out. "It's been very weird for us," says Paul Hogan, the chairman of the company's industrial panel. "People have just stopped thinking about things long-term anymore."

This has also caused tension between the staff and the unions. "Everything gets blamed on September 11th and you know that not everything can be put down to that. Things weren't right before," says Hogan.

The afternoon AA 587 came down Alan Green, an official with the Transport and General Workers Union, was in a meeting with American Airlines management discussing the jobs crisis. "One of them was called out of the meeting and came back, all ashen-faced. 'You'll never guess what's happened,' he said. We just couldn't believe it."

"No one's making plans," says one flight attendant for British Midland. "You can't because you have no idea what's going to happen. You feel like just one more thing - a bomb, a crash, a hijack, a loony, anything - would just tip us over the edge now. But you shouldn't tempt fate."

So people are left with faith and, as they board the Heathrow Express into London, you see relief that they survived their journey - as they look the newsreader straight in the eye. And then then they head off, for the perilous taxi journey home.

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
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