By Joe Brancatelli
July 3, 2007 -- It pains me to bash London because, like many other New Yorkers, I have a goofy crush on the place. I love the theater and the Indian restaurants and the museums and the pubs and the newspapers. I once flew to London with a copy of The Forsyte Saga and visited every street and house mentioned in the trilogy. I think all Brits sound like Cary Grant. I watch Prime Minister’s Questions on C-SPAN. I have a special DVD player so I can watch BBC sitcoms that never make it over here.
But business travel has made me a skeptic, and London these days is impossible. The exchange rate is murder—at $2 to the pound, everything in London costs twice as much as it does in New York, and no currency expert I talk to thinks the dollar will gain substantially on the pound any time soon. London’s rebirth as a banking and investment center means that prices are skyrocketing. Traffic is brutal now that Londoners have adjusted to the congestion charge and resumed driving in the central city. And like many other business travelers, I’ve given up on Heathrow as a connecting airport.
Worst of all, I think, is that there isn’t much help on the horizon. London may be lost to a lot of us for years to come.
The city is by far the leading international destination for U.S. business travelers. About two-thirds do business in London proper, and they are being, er, pounded by the astonishingly high price of hotels, dining, entertaining, and even the Underground, which costs $8 for just a short ride.
The other American business travelers headed to London are trying to catch connecting flights at Heathrow to destinations throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. But Heathrow, the world’s busiest airport, is a nightmare: crowded, congested, and dilapidated. And travelers are hamstrung by a recent British security edict that limits passengers making connections to just one carry-on bag, even if they’ve arrived from America with the standard complement of two pieces of hand luggage.
“The one-bag issue is really a competitive problem for us,” admits Robin Hayes, a native Londoner and executive vice president of the Americas for British Airways, by far the largest carrier at Heathrow. “We’ve definitely noticed that business travelers who would normally connect in London for an onward flight are now flying through Frankfurt, Munich, Amsterdam, and even Paris.”
But with Heathrow, at least, there’s hope for improvement. Led by airlines that have a vested interest in keeping it Europe’s primary connecting hub, groups are lobbying the British government to allow travelers to carry on two bags again. (Last week’s terrorist incidents in London and at Glasgow Airport may have slowed down that momentum, however. )
And the airport’s aging infrastructure—chief executive Tony Douglas recently admitted that Heathrow is “held together with sticking plaster”—will get a major upgrade when the years-delayed Terminal Five finally opens next spring.
British Airways will have exclusive use of the gigantic new facility, and for the first time in decades, B.A. will be able to fit most of its far-flung worldwide network under one roof. That will relieve some of the pressure on Heathrow’s other terminals, which are dark, dated, dingy, and desperately in need of renovation.
“Travelers love our new business-class cabin,” says B.A.’s Hayes, “and we’ll debut a first-class product next year. If we can get Heathrow running well again, London will be a lot happier place for business flyers.”
I’m looking forward to getting at least some of London back. I want to make believe I’m a Forsyte again. I’d be Swithin, the fat one with great taste in champagne.
The Fine Print
For all its problems, London continues to draw attention from startup airlines. Three new all-business-class carriers—MaxJet, Eos, and Silverjet—fly to either Stansted or Luton, two of the London area’s four international airports. To go with its routes from Kennedy in New York and Dulles in Washington, MaxJet will add flights from Las Vegas to Stansted in August.
And British Airways will shuffle its U.S. service next year. Its flights from Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston currently land at Gatwick, Britain’s second-busiest airport. But B.A. announced last week that those flights will switch to Heathrow on March 30, three days after Terminal Five is set to open.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.