W hich is the worst airport in the world? If you answered Dhaka (which is pretty grim) or New Delhi (during the rush hour, around midnight), then you were not wrong; just boringly predictable. Yes, Asian airports can be horrible places and metaphors for the countries they are located in. If you travel from Kolkata’s Netaji airport to Singapore’s brilliant Changi, you see at once how Singapore got it right and West Bengal got it wrong. If you go to Bangkok’s new Swarnabhumi, which is designed to look like a space station at the heart of a dark star, you sense the strengths and weaknesses of the Thai character: flushed by economic success, determined to be on a par with the leading Asian tigers but still short on logical reasoning and plagued by a corrupt government system.

Heart rates accelerate within minutes of getting to the Heathrow airport

Yup, you read right. Sad to admit, but Heathrow—which for many Indians has been our traditional point of entry to the West and was always my most favourite airport—is now a complete hell-hole. Even Mumbai is better.

Don’t take my word for it. This is official. At the end of July, four passengers flying out of Heathrow had probes attached to their bodies so that their vital functions could be monitored. Scientists found that passenger heart rates accelerated from 55 beats per minute to 70 within a few minutes of getting to the airport. They continued to rise, peaking at 200 beats per minute as stress levels rose. Blood pressure went up from an average of 123/81 to 170/99. Skin conductance, a measure of stress that is used in lie detector tests, reached levels that were 100 times higher than a typical relaxed state.

According to The Times (London), where I found these figures, being at Heathrow “induces the same levels of stress and hypertension as being mugged at knifepoint or having a heart attack."

If you’ve travelled through Heathrow this year, then you’ll know the feeling. Some of the problems are caused by the ageing infrastructure. The airport was designed (and redesigned as terminals kept being renovated and new ones added) for 45 million passengers a year. But this year, more than 68 million passengers will use the airport. Are you surprised, therefore, that the check-in area is so crowded that there is barely room to move? If you are travelling economy class and do not get there more than two hours before departure, you are certain to miss your flight. If you are travelling First or Business, expect to wait a very long time too.

Another problem is one of distance. Whoever designed Heathrow had obviously designed an athletic stadium before. At no major airport in the world do you have to walk quite so much. Even after you leave the duty-free area, it can take 20 minutes to walk to your gate.

These problems have been compounded by increased security. A few years ago, the British police announced that they had uncovered a plot to blow up planes by mixing explosives with liquids while on board. Consequently, airlines all over the world banned passengers from carrying liquids on to planes. It has been suggested that the police were over-cautious: The plot was hardly at an advanced stage and no danger was immediately imminent. Other airports have since relaxed the no-liquids rule but Heathrow still imposes a variant of the original policy.

This is fine. Or it would be fine if the airport had invested in much more equipment and better trained security staff. Instead, the queues are enormous and staff are so surly and rude that they actually have to put up signs advising passengers that it is a crime to hit a member of the security staff. Having travelled through Heathrow recently, I can understand the impulse.

One advantage of heightened security is that airlines pay more attention to passenger baggage. In India, for instance, it is relatively unusual for baggage to be loaded on to the wrong flight or to be lost. Oddly enough, the security alert has had the opposite effect at Heathrow. One estimate I read suggested that nearly 30,000 bags go missing at Heathrow every day!

And British Airways, which operates out of Heathrow, has one of the worst baggage records of any major airline. According to the Association of European Airlines (AEA), member airlines lose or misplace (though most are eventually recovered) 16 bags for every thousand passengers. Smaller airlines easily beat that average. Air Malta has an average of 3.2 lost bags per thousand passengers; and Air One’s average is 10.1. The Swiss and the Austrians do not do badly considering their size (10.3 and 11.5 respectively).

And the airlines we associate with sloppiness do as badly as one would expect. Air France loses 16.3 bags, Alitalia loses 17.7 and KLM loses 17.8.

Compared to all of them, guess what the figure for British Airways is?

It’s 28 bags per thousand passengers!

All the other figures for BA are as shocking. The on-time performance is terrible—almost one-third of all flights were delayed (now you know why BA’s slogan is “the world is waiting"). And the airline was stuck with so much “lost" baggage at Heathrow this summer that BA had to hire a fleet of lorries to take them by road to such European destinations as Milan. Some passengers did not get their bags for four weeks!

It’s not all BA’s fault. Any airline headquartered at Heathrow would face at least some of these problems. Willie Walsh, BA’s chief executive, has gone on record to say that Heathrow is damaging his airline’s business.

So, how did the wonderful Heathrow of my youth become the world’s worst airport?

Easy. You don’t have to be Prakash Karat to work it out. Ever since the airport was privatized, the new owners have focused on increasing profits, knowing that customers have no real alternative.

The only thing worse than a lazy public sector monopolist is a greedy private sector monopolist.


Write to Vir at pursuits@livemint.com. Read his previous columns on www.livemint.com/vir-sanghvi