Airport Gate as Holding Tank

A byproduct of a recent round-trip between London and Paris was the experience of using British Airways' new Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow airport.

To most Americans, the mechanics of flight departure at Terminal 5 would be basically normal, given the usual expected minor variations between airports. But this actually is just one of two major passenger processing alternatives found around the world. Consider Heathrow's Terminal 3, where non-British Airways flights to North America originate.

At Terminal 3 onc encounters the usual drill. First is passenger check-in coupled with a few security-related questions and details. Then one moves on through the usual security inspection process. Once "sanitized," the next destination is a mini-mall full of duty-free and other shops where you can trade your excess pounds for anything from a Cadbury candy bar to a Gucci purse. So far, pretty standard stuff.

The big difference comes when one leaves the shopping zone for the departure gate. In America, a departure gate usually amounts to a section along one side of a long, glassed-in hall where can be found a door to the aircraft ramp, a check-in desk and lots of seats for waiting passengers. But in Heathrow 3, that long hallway is flanked by what amount to holding tanks -- rooms containing the usual ramp door, desk and seating.

At least you are free to leave the tank, something you can't do elsewhere. In some cases, passengers go through a final passport inspection before entering the tank: after, they're stuck. Seems to me this was how it worked in Copenhagen.

Perhaps some people find all this lots of jolly fun. I think it's the usual processed-meat airport experience raised to the next higher power. Moreover, I don't find it necessary; the normal U.S. style procedures work just fine and eliminate some of the totalitarian overtones.

For what it's worth, here are some airports where I had that warm, fuzzy holding tank experience: Vancouver and Toronto (in the 1980s -- things might have changed since), Copenhagen and Heathrow 3. Mercifully, I can't recall how things worked at places such as DeGaulle 1, Orly-Sud, Helsinki and Frankfurt.