Heathrow Airport gets ready for the 2012 London Olympics

With the London 2012 Summer Games less than three months away, Heathrow, the event’s host airport, is already under fire for the Olympic-sized lines that have been greeting arriving passengers in the immigration halls.

Customs checks for illegally smuggled drugs and arms have been reduced at UK airports in an effort to combat long lines and wait times, according to a weekend report in The Guardian, citing “senior immigration officers and border force unions.”

Last week, UK Immigration Minister Damian Green told the BBC that while “there is a problem,” improvements were being made. “For the Olympic period, we are guaranteeing that there will be, at peak times, full manning” of border control desks.

BAA owns Heathrow and five other airports that serve the UK, but is not responsible for immigration wait times.

Heathrow claims it is the world’s busiest airport in terms of international traffic. It
served nearly 70 million passengers in 2011 and is currently operating at capacity. It will be the entry point for at least 80 percent of Olympics-bound passengers, and an estimated 59,000 athletes, family members and spectators.

For my story on msnbc.com, I spoke with Colin Matthews and John Holland-Kaye, BAA’s chief executive and commercial director, respectively.

Q: When did Heathrow begin planning for Olympic Games traffic and how did you go about it?
A: Colin Matthews: Heathrow’s planning for the London 2012 Games began during the bid process for London about five years ago. Since then the Heathrow team has been in Beijing in 2008 and Vancouver in 2010 to observe the operational challenges created by both Summer and Winter Games. Heathrow also met with the airport operators who successfully delivered Games transport in Athens and Sydney.

Q: The news has been full of stories lately about arriving passengers having to wait for more than two hours in the immigration halls. Is that what visitors will encounter when they arrive for the Olympics?

A: CM: Immigration is controlled by the Home Office [the UK government agency that oversees immigration and passports]. Immigration waiting times during peak periods at Heathrow recently have been unacceptable, but the good news is that the government recently announced it is going to devote more resources in that area.

Q: The airport is really the front door to the city. It’s the first — and last — place visitors will see. What are you doing to insure Heathrow will make a good impression?

A: John Holland-Kaye: Our strategy involves best practices and recommendations from prior host airports, construction of the temporary terminal for Olympic athletes departing from the Games and investment in additional facilities for Paralympians in the existing terminals. We’ve also been working in collaboration with other airport stakeholders and rehearsing and testing our facilities at their capacity.

Q: How much is Heathrow spending to make the airport games ready? Where do the funds come from?
A: JHK: Heathrow has invested over £20 million [about $32.4 million] in providing a great experience for athletes and regular passengers during the Games period. These funds are entirely Heathrow’s contribution.

Q: What special amenities, exhibits or temporary services will be in place?
A: JHK: We’ll be dressing up the airport. There will be Olympic-themed art exhibits and each passenger terminal will feature theatre and celebrations to surprise and delight passengers. For example, one walkway is going to look like a swimming pool and you’ll feel as if you’re walking on water. There will places where passengers can take photos standing on podiums, next to images of athletes. And we’ll do things like set up a 100 meter track so kids can race against each other.

Q: Everyone loves Olympics-related souvenirs. Will passengers be able to shop for those at the airport?
A: JHK: Yes, there are special souvenir shops set up for Olympics souvenirs. It’s also the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee [marking 60 years of the Queen’s reign], so we’re selling a lot of souvenirs for that. And, royal wedding souvenirs are still very popular.

Q: What are some insider tips about Heathrow you can offer to travelers, Olympics-bound or not?
A: JHK: A few quick ones: There’s an Olympic-themed art exhibit land-side in Terminal 5; there are two family security lanes in each terminal [look for the rainbows] and kids get a sticker when they go through; and at the duty free cosmetic shops in each terminal, you can get a facial or a hand massage for free.