TIME ZONES: Two Hours at Heathrow Airport
Amid the Travel And Fatigue, A Blessed Berth
Monday, December 24, 2007
LONDON It's 9:30 on a Thursday morning, almost Christmas, Heathrow Airport.
Men in wrinkled suits drink warm pints in a cold bar. A bald man with two small children and seven large suitcases stares numbly into the gray air. A teenager methodically kills time and the enemy on the House of the Dead 4 in the video arcade.
Steps up from the furiously crowded arrivals hall, on a mezzanine level that smells of coffee and cleaner from the toilets, Richard Grundy walks with the sunken eyes, unshaven chin and scuffing gait of the long-haul holiday traveler.
Then he sees the soft purple glow coming from a doorway, soothing and gentle, oddly out of place in this chaotic crossroads of the world, Europe's busiest airport, with more than 200,000 passengers a day during the holiday rush.
"Yotel," the sign says.
Grundy has never heard of Yotel, which opened this month at Heathrow's Terminal 4, but it is promising a space to sleep for 25 pounds, or about $50, for four hours. So he shuffles into the cabernet-sauvignon light, which feels inviting as a kiss.
"I just need a place to shut my eyes," said Grundy, 37, who inspects welding on oil rigs for a living. He started the previous night in Equatorial Guinea, in West Africa, flew seven hours overnight and landed at London's Gatwick Airport at 4 a.m. Then he hopped on the hour-long shuttle bus to Heathrow, arrived at 9 a.m. and contemplated how he might spend the next 11 hours. His flight home, to family and Christmas in South Africa, doesn't leave until 8 p.m.
Heathrow is filled with limbo-locked travelers coming from one end of the world to the other with a connection in London. At least 90 airlines with flights to 180 nations operate at Heathrow, which will soon open a fifth terminal to accommodate the crush of more than 67 million passengers annually.
Especially at Christmastime, Heathrow is the world's waiting room, filled with people waiting for connections on international journeys that often take 24 hours or more. A woman speaking Farsi might be browsing the comically overpriced perfumes next to a family from Sri Lanka, alongside a woman from Ghana buying a Paddington Bear and a backpacker from New Zealand texting his girlfriend.
On the mezzanine level, the world's cultures, languages and stories converge on the little purple-lighted doorway between Caffe Italia and a couple of $12-an-hour Internet terminals. Grundy, in the middle of his two-day travel odyssey, reaches for his Visa card.
"I probably would have gone to the bar and spent the same amount of money," he says, paying 37 pounds, or about $75, to sleep for six hours in a tiny, high-tech "cabin."
The 32 rooms are a cross between a space-saving Japanese capsule hotel and the ultra-sleek, first-class cabin on a British Airways jumbo jet. Each has a bed with a fluffy duvet, a fold-out desk, a large-screen TV with free Internet and a shower -- all buffed out with high-gloss plastic walls, like luxury accommodations on some miniature spaceship.
As Grundy closes his room's heavy door behind him, Usman Waheed walks up to one of the touch-screen check-in computers. A 28-year-old Harvard Business School student, he has a 10-hour layover on his trip from Boston to Islamabad, Pakistan. He is tired from the flight but clearly excited that he is getting married in Pakistan this weekend.
If he hadn't found a bed, Waheed says, he would have taken the train into London and walked around all day, jet-lagged and heavy-legged. "That gets expensive pretty quick," he says.
A steady stream of travelers walks through the hotel's door, some curious, some desperate. The only other hotel directly connected to Terminal 4 is offering rooms for "day use" at $250.
"I just need to crash for a little bit," says Greg Horchak, 27, a college student from Texas who has 15 hours to kill between the arrival of his flight from Dallas and his connecting flight to Tel Aviv to see his father for the holidays.
"I'll be asleep in five minutes," says Horchak, his eyes dark with jet lag.
Enoch Poon doesn't even want to see the room first. "I'll take it," he says, eagerly pulling out a credit card while his wife, Beth, and their two children, 13 and 10, stand behind him with seven suitcases, looking anxious for a place to lie down.
Poon, 43, who runs an import-export business in Florida, is taking his family to India for the holidays. They arrived on an overnight flight from Orlando and don't leave for New Delhi for 11 hours.
As the Poons unload their suitcases into their tiny room, it becomes clear that four people and luggage don't exactly fit. "Maybe we'll take shifts," Beth Poon says. "We'll make it work."
While the Poons plot sleep arrangements, Nelly Mohieldin, 33, wanders up, pushing a loaded-down luggage cart. Mohieldin and her new husband are on their way home to Cairo after a honeymoon trip to Florida and the Virgin Islands.
Mohieldin says she doesn't "have the energy" to browse the duty-free shops for the next 10 hours, it's too early to check in her luggage and she is desperate for sleep. But the Poons have taken the last room, so Mohieldin wanders back into the global waiting room.
It's 11:29 a.m., and there won't be another bed available until Grundy, the South African oil rig inspector, checks out at 3.