City-centre airport terminals – why are they not more popular?

City-centre airport terminals – why are they not more popular?

“Check in as you check out” – that is the idea of city-centre air terminals. Central London guests at the Paddington Hilton or Grosvenor Hotel in Victoria could step almost from their room to actual airline check-in desks, drop their bags, pick up their boarding passes and relax.

From Paddington, they would be bound for Heathrow airport, just 15 minutes away, on the Heathrow Express. From the Grosvenor (which is part of the fabric of Victoria station and is now The Clermont), the half-hour Gatwick Express was waiting: the world’s first dedicated airport express train, which this week celebrates its 40th birthday.

Passengers’ luggage was taken securely and separately to the airport, where it was loaded on board the appropriate plane. Hopefully.

The notion of getting airport formalities carried out while you are still in the city has plenty of appeal. But not enough to make it financially viable, apparently. After 9/11, when the aviation industry was commercially reeling from the tragedy, and security measures tightened, the desks at Paddington and Victoria stations were swiftly closed.

Both areas at these central London termini have now become part of the retail space; no clue remains that once they were remote check-in areas, staffed by airline personnel and with all the usual accoutrements including weighing scales and conveyor belts.

Since the city-centre check-ins closed, passenger numbers at both Gatwick and Heathrow have increased by about one-third. With an extra 10 million passengers at the former, and 20 million more at the latter, you might imagine that demand for city-centre check-in would increase. So why are British Airways and other airlines not making a case for dropping your case at a central point?

  • Firstly, most passengers do not begin their journeys in a city centre, and even those who might have done (for example commuters leaving work in the City on a Friday afternoon) are now quite likely to be working from home before their trip.
  • Next, passengers can (or, in some cases, must) complete formalities online – such as providing passport data and obtaining a boarding pass – ahead of traveling to the airport. In the olden days, when you needed a staff member physically to hand you a boarding pass, acquiring that precious document before boarding a train to the airport was a benefit.
  • Thirdly, high-end passengers – the sorts of travellers for whom city-centre check-in made sense – are now likely to get a limousine to the airport wrapped in with the fare. I carbon date this to Virgin Atlantic, which brought in the service for Upper Class passengers from Gatwick just 40 days after the Gatwick Express was born.
  • Finally, if baggage is the problem, services like Airportr offer a solution: picking up your cases from your home and transporting them to your destination. I have just made a trial booking from central London to Malaga, with a quote of £56 for a bag weighing up to 32kg. On easyJet, even a 15kg bag costs £44 – so clearly a couple who combine their baggage into a 30kg bumper joint case will save money as well as hassle.

Hong Kong is one exception where city-centre check-in works a treat, and is much in demand. At Hong Kong station on the Airport Express line, Cathay Pacific passengers can drop their bags as early as a day ahead. Travellers booked on CX255, departing for Heathrow at 11.15pm, can check in as they leave the hotel in the morning, and then enjoy what the city has to offer before heading for the airport.

My recommendation is to spend the day exploring Lantau Island, where raw nature thrives and life is an order of magnitude slower than in the heart of Hong Kong. Hike to the heavens (or at least the Big Buddha) and you will be ready to sleep all the way home by the time you reach your plane.

Vienna airport offers a similar opportunity for Austrian Airlines and some other carriers at Wien Mitte-Landstrasse station, with the twist of late-night check in the day before your flight enabling you to travel to the airport unencumbered.

If I may, though, the best way to travel unencumbered is to leave almost everything at home.