Travelling en famille: Heathrow vs Schiphol
Anyone who has been seated near a child on a long flight can attest to the fact that air-travel with children is difficult, but the experience for families extends well beyond the flight itself. Our family holidays to the USA (from London) bring their share of anxieties and the journeys require strength, endurance and the patience of a saint. This year’s holiday was marked by a return leg that was made particularly difficult by Heathrow’s poor family facilities, so I’ve been surprised to read that BAA have recently redesigned their services for children at Heathrow. It’s prompted me to do an Experience Scan to review their efforts and to compare it with another airport that I use frequently, Schiphol in Amsterdam.
The biggest problems at Heathrow were experienced upon our return, after an overnight flight from Chicago arriving in London at 2 am Chicago time, ie our two children were sound asleep when we landed. We all had hefty carry on bags (full of the inevitable changes of clothes, favourite books, and snacks required for the journey) and the legendary trek to customs and the baggage area was daunting. We were advised just before landing that our stroller would not be coming to the gate as it had done previously; due to a change in airport policy, strollers are now being delivered to the baggage area only. When I expressed my dismay and genuine concern that I couldn’t carry my sleeping 3 year old and all the hand-luggage through the airport, I was told that there would be no assistance for a family with 2 adults in the party, we could like it or lump it. And so we lumped it, literally an hour of intense physical exertion and high stress. To top off our experience, once we managed to get to customs the much lauded ‘Family Lane’ was closed: more extensive waiting and carrying the large sleeping child while the other child cried miserably. Nightmare.
Of course I can’t review arrivals without reflecting upon departures, and the departure from Heathrow wasn’t perfect either, despite their efforts to improve facilities for children. I am happy to report that there are now play areas in Heathrow, but with one major failing: no departure boards anywhere near, at least in Terminal 3. In our instance we couldn’t stay to play as we had no visibility of either the gate assignment or the actual boarding time.
By way of comparison, I’m hard pressed to think of an airport that does family travel better than Schiphol. Certainly the strollers are delivered to the gate, and they even have mini baggage carts for moving hand luggage throughout the airport. However it’s their entire rethinking of ‘waiting time’ that makes Schiphol’s experience spectacular: an indoor play area to rival the best outdoor park; a sleeping area; a library full of books and magazines; an outpost of the Rijksmuseum; even a piano. Did they ruin it by forgetting the information needs of family travellers (departure boards)? Nope. Perfect execution. Heathrow watch and learn.
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