London’s Heathrow airport is grappling with its biggest-ever surge in outbound passengers as 15,000 Olympic athletes, officials, sponsors and dignitaries join the summer crowds following last night’s closing ceremony.
Europe’s busiest hub will today handle about 116,000 departures, or 21,000 more than the usual peak-season average, according to owner BAA Ltd. London’s subway and the Heathrow Express rail service are also experiencing increased traffic.
Competitors are being encouraged to check in bags before leaving the Olympic Village, and on arrival at Heathrow will use a special Games Terminal with 31 desks and seven security lanes. About 6,000 people will pass through the site today and 8,000 in total before it closes on Aug. 15, BAA reckons.
“We’ve had really favorable feedback from athletes and officials on the arrivals process, but departures is a completely different challenge,” BAA spokesman Simon Baugh said. “We’re using new systems, so it’s more complex.”
Athletes are being transported to the dedicated terminal in buses using special Games Lanes closed to regular motorists.
Built on a car park near Terminal 4 as part of a 20 million-pound ($31 million) investment, the temporary structure has been fitted out with a London park scene to provide a calming and memorable backdrop, according to BAA, which has maximized staffing levels and drafted in volunteers to help deal with the rush, as it did in the run-up to the Olympics.
“We’re working to make sure that no one queues for longer than they need to,” Emma Gilthorpe, a BAA director, said in an interview at Heathrow. “It’s a case of so far, so good.”
Romanian canoeist Toni Ioneticu, who competed in the four-man 1,000-meter kayak race at Eton Dorney, west of London, said he’s found it easier to get around in Britain than Bucharest, though his own performance and the greater transport demands of flying to Brazil may put him off the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games.
“For me the experience was very disappointing, because I came eighth,” Ioneticu said at the airport. “I want to go to Rio but it’s a long way to travel, so we’ll see.”
Bags and equipment were collected by handlers from dozens of airlines in the basements of buildings in the Olympic Village yesterday and then taken to Heathrow overnight in secure trucks provided by United Parcel Service Inc., according to Baugh.
Competitors will go by bus from the Games Terminal direct to the departure lounge before boarding their plane. Bags will be checked against manifests to maintain security, with the belongings of anyone failing to show up removed before takeoff.
On the subway, where 60 million journeys were made during the games, a 30 percent increase, the Piccadilly line will be busier than usual carrying people to the airport, according to Transport for London, which advised people to check the Get Ahead of the Games website to avoid travel disruption.
“Some visitors may stay on for the Paralympics, but generally it will be exceptionally busy, so we recommend that people plan well ahead, work out their route and give themselves time,” TfL spokeswoman Shagufta Hailes said.
U.S. broadcast journalist Anna Canzano, using the Heathrow Express train service to catch a flight to Portland, Oregon, with her sports-reporter husband, a veteran of five Olympic Games, said London’s transport system had generally coped well.
“We were quite impressed,” she said. “Any concern we might have had about hitting transport during rush hour, it didn’t happen. Beijing was a hassle to move around. Even when you got inside, the Olympic park was huge.”
BAA had initially forecast that 130,000 people would depart today. With a further 108,000 expected to fly in, that would have totaled 238,000 passengers for the 24 hours, 5,000 more than the current record set on July 31 last year.
Heathrow’s Windsor Suite will be busy with VIP departures, Baugh said. Passengers are taken by car to the lounge, located at the British Airways-dominated Terminal 5, with most departing on scheduled flights since the airport generally lacks the spare capacity to accommodate business-jet and charter operations.
The Heathrow Express, which provides a high-speed link from Paddington station every 15 minutes, usually operates at 65 percent of capacity, leaving sufficient spare seating to cope with extra demand, spokeswoman Julia Gillam said, adding that Games Lanes will in any case carry most of the “Olympic family.”
The special lanes, which operate between 6 a.m. and midnight, will remain in place until the middle of the week, speeding journeys for those with accreditation but limiting the choice of road for ordinarily drivers. Restricted routes include the M4 motorway near Heathrow.
The subway or Tube carried more people during the games than at any comparable time in its history, while journeys on the Docklands Light Railway, which served four Olympic venues, more than doubled to 6 million, according to TfL.
U.S. judo team medic Beth MacDonald said she avoided celebrating after last night’s closing ceremony, which finished at midnight, in order to make an early start for the airport.
“We hardly had a problem,” she said at Heathrow’s Terminal 4, en route to Colorado Springs. “It was really easy.”