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Any time you have a number of similar things, it is reasonable to expect one to be the best, and of course, one other to be the worst.

But is it true and fair to identify one airport in London as the best for all passengers?  Similarly, is one airport clearly the worst?

 
 
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The Best and Worst London Airports

Understanding the differences between London's airports and the implications for your travels
 

Is airport congestion the fault of the airport - or the airline, or maybe even no-one's fault (eg weather)?

So how fair and easy is it to label one airport as bad and another as good if the main reasons for one's perceptions are due to factors the airport itself can't necessarily control?

In assessing the best and worst airports, what factors should one consider?

Part 2 of a seven part series on London's airports - please also visit

1.  All About London's Airports in General
2.  London's Best and Worst Airports and Why
3.  London Heathrow Airport LHR

4.  London Gatwick Airport LGW
5.  London Stansted Airport STN
6.  London Luton Airport LTN
7.  London City Airport LCY

 

 

Ask anyone for a list of the world's worst airports, and Heathrow is likely to be on their list.  For sure, the airport is operating beyond its design capacity, but not all Heathrow's problems are fairly the fault of the airport, and some of the airport's problems are shared by the other London airports too.

The question of the best and worst airport becomes more theoretical rather than practical when you also accept that your choice of airport is many times limited by your choice of airline.  When confronted with a potentially massive cost or (in)convenience consequence of choosing one airport over another, most of us end up accepting the airport associated with the 'best' airline/itinerary/airfare choice.

But, for your edification, this page details some of the issues associated with each of the London airports, so you can know what to expect and the possible consequences of the airport you'll be using.

Details airport by airport analysis will follow in subsequent parts of this series.

How to Determine the Best and Worst London Airports

What makes an airport better or worse than its four 'competing' London airports?

Some of the issues are obscured 'behind the scenes' - the policies and associated costs for the airlines that use the airport.  But some are very obviously impactful for passenger experiences, and in particular, the most noticeable impact is flight reliability and associated delays.

Another issue is the chances of having your bags lost or delayed.  Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any airport by airport listing of bag related problems - perhaps because it is often hard to know which airport on a journey is the 'guilty' airport when a bag is lost or delayed.

Other factors relate to the travel time, cost, and convenience of getting between the airport and your actual origin/destination in London (or elsewhere in Britain).

And then there are subjective things like 'does the airport feel nice' and 'does it have lots of shopping and food outlets' which could perhaps be considered as tie breakers if necessary.

Note that with the upcoming divestiture/sale of Gatwick and Stansted by BAA, the former near monopoly on London airport service enjoyed by BAA (which had previously owned Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted) is coming to an end, and with new owners, it is possible that competitive pressures may appreciably enhance our experiences as passengers at all five of London's airports.  We'll keep a watching brief on developments and update this article series as necessary.

Third Party Assessments of Best and Worst Airports

Lots of different publications and organizations conduct surveys of the traveling public or in some other way assess and determine which airports are 'good' and which airports are 'bad'.

The results are however far from scientific, and are also somewhat biased both in terms of sampling and perceptions - people are more likely to be motivated to respond to report a bad airport experience than a good airport experience, and people also find bad airport experiences more memorable than good ones - after all, a 'good' airport experience is one where everything happens normally with nothing distinctive going wrong, hardly something to remember and regale your friends with stories about for many years to come!  Whereas a bad airport experience can be very bad indeed, and much more memorable.

There's another factor at play as well.  It is hard to know who/what to blame when you have a bad travel experience.  Is it the fault of the airport, or the airline, or of Air Traffic Control, or a security related problem, or a weather impact, or what?

So all such surveys and determinations need to be taken with a grain of salt - indeed, one classic example of the limitations of such surveys are several surveys which have simultaneously featured Heathrow as both one of the worst and one of the best airports!  Common sense would suggest this to be impossible, but such surveys uncritically report on their findings, sometimes without allowing common sense to intrude.

Some airports also aggressively seek out awards - sometimes awards are given based as much on the quality of an entrant's application as they are on the underlying issues.  Other airports ignore such awards, and so the earning of awards doesn't necessarily translate into clear differences that you as a regular passenger might notice.

Even Heathrow has won awards, notably the Business Traveller Award for 'Best Airport in Europe' in 2004, and some less relevant awards such as the 2004 'Secured Car Park Award' issued jointly by the British Parking Association and the London Metropolitan Police.

Gatwick has done well in the award stakes too, winning the 2008 'Best UK Airport' award issued by Travel Bulletin (it has won that award now for five years in a row) and the 2007 Best Airport award by Telegraph Travel Awards.  On the other hand, it also came second worst (after Heathrow) in a 2009 reader survey by UK consumer organization Which.  So there are awards to confirm any point of view.

Doubtless the other three airports can proudly claim to having won a plethora of awards, too.

Putting Your Airport Choice in Context

The good news is that there are five main airports serving London.  The not so good news is that, most of the time, you actually have no practical choice at all in terms of the airport you'll fly in/out of.

For example, if you want to fly from the US to London on British Airways, you'll almost always end up flying to Heathrow.  On the other hand, if you're going to take a discounted flight on Ryanair between London and somewhere in Europe, you'll probably be flying out of Stansted, and if you're on Easyjet, you might be flying from Luton.  Small regional airlines might only operate to/from London City, and many other international airlines only use Gatwick.

Not only do you often not have a choice of airport, but when you do, your choice of airport is perhaps not as important as other factors such as timetable convenience, airfare cost, and the number of stops/length of journey.

For example, if you find yourself confronted between a choice to fly, eg, nonstop on Virgin Atlantic Airlines between the US and Heathrow, or to fly on another carrier's flight that makes a stop en route to Gatwick, you'd probably prefer the nonstop flight, even if you don't like Heathrow.  On the other hand, if you have a choice between flights to Luton or London City, while you might generally prefer to fly into London City, if the Luton flight is $100 less expensive, that may matter more to you than the airport choice.

As such, we suggest that you consider the information presented here more as an airport guide than as a way of making an airport choice that many times you don't actually have.

Your Airport Experience is Time and Day Dependent

You may find that your experience with any airport varies depending on the time of day and day of week.

Days with fewer flights (eg Saturdays, with Mondays and Fridays being busiest), and times of day with fewer flights (ie late at night, and during the middle of the day) are less likely to incur delays because the system overall is less stressed, and if there are problems, there is more slack in the system to allow things to correct themselves more readily.

Security and Immigration Delays

One of the things that can differentiate airports are the delays it takes to be processed, both when flying out and when flying in to the airport.

This website rates the London airports based on user feedback for delays waiting to go through security when departing the airport and immigration when coming in to the airport.

Rank

Airport

Security Delay

Immigration Delay

1

Luton
LTN

0

0

2

London City
LCY

0

0

3

Stansted
STN

0

1

4

Gatwick
LGW

1

5

5

Heathrow
LHR

59

56


The data above should be taken with a grain of salt (I've never had a 59 or 56 minute delay myself at Heathrow, and have waited a lot more than one minute for my turn to go through security at Gatwick) but clearly there's a massive difference between the first four airports and Heathrow at the bottom (data as of 3/25/09).

Flight Arrival Delays

Another point of possible differentiation is the delays on getting in to each airport.

Departure delays are important too but these are not generally tracked by any impartial third party, the same way arrival delays are - the assumption being that the most important measure for most of us is not how early/late our flight leaves, but how early/late it arrives at our ultimate destination.

It could also be argued that departure delays are weakly mirrored by arrival delays.  An airport with lots of late arriving flights is not likely to have its departures leaving on time, unless the airlines have built unusual amounts of slack time into their schedules.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority publishes quarterly data showing flight arrival delay statistics.  The most recent data, for Q4 of 2008, shows a perhaps surprising similarity between the airports, although clearly Heathrow is the worst, with the somewhat surprising appearance of London City as the second worst offender.

Overall, however, the simple fact is that the entire airspace above and around London is congested, and delays are more commonly a function of the region-wide air traffic control and weather issues, rather than limited to an airport specific issue.

Airport

% flights delayed
more than 15 mins

Avg flight delay
(mins)

Heathrow

27

19

Gatwick

23

17

Stansted

20

12

Luton

22

16

London City

26

17


Future Airport Service Quality Monitoring

In March 2009 it was announced that the government funded rail watchdog organisation Passenger Focus would expand its mandate and start monitoring and reporting on UK airport service.

No results have yet been published, and we'll update our analysis as and when this data is released.

Getting to and from the Airport

Your total journey experience is a lot more than 'just' flying from airport to airport.  There is also the first/last part of the journey, getting to/from the airport.

This can appreciably impact on your total travel time and total travel cost.

Road distance from Piccadilly Circus

Firstly, here is a table showing the road miles between each airport and Piccadilly Circus (chosen as a notional central point in London), along with a theoretical (ie non-congested) travel time by taxi (this data is from Google Maps)

Airport

Miles

Best car/taxi travel time

Heathrow

17

32 mins

Gatwick

29

63 mins

Stansted

39

65 mins

Luton

34

51 mins

London City

9

29 mins


This information can give you a somewhat imperfect sense of the likely cost of a taxi ride, and also offers a somewhat 'best case' idea of how long it might take to make the journey.  Of course, you should also adjust these numbers to reflect the reality of where in London you actually want to go (as opposed to the Piccadilly Circus common point used above).

Public Transport options, times and costs

The next table looks instead at the main/best public transport options for travel between each airport and somewhere in London.

The 'somewhere in London' concept makes this a rather imperfect calculation - the imperfection being that all five airports have different main pickup/dropoff points in central London, making it hard to accurately compare apples with apples for total journey time between hotel and airport.  Look at the maps at the top of the first part of this series (All About London's Airports) to judge how close each pickup/dropoff point is to your hotel, and then factor in a guess for the extra time and cost of a taxi or other means of completing your journey.

Airport

Transfer Type

Travel Time

Service Frequency

Cost

Heathrow

Heathrow Express train to/from Paddington station

15 mins from T1/2/3, about 20 mins from T4 or T5

Every 15 minutes

16.50 ow
32 return

Heathrow

Piccadilly Tube Line

50 mins to Piccadilly Circus

About every 5 mins

4 ow

Gatwick

Gatwick Express train to/from Victoria station

30 minutes

Every 15 minutes

16.90 ow
28.80 return

Stansted

Stansted Express train to/from Liverpool St station

46 minutes

Every 15 minutes

19 ow
28.80 return

Luton

Train from Kings Cross or St Pancras station to Luton Parkway, then airport bus to the airport

Bus ride is maybe 5 mins.  Train maybe 30 mins.  Plus connecting time between train and bus.

Buses every 10 - 15 minutes; trains every 10 - 15 minutes too

12.50 ow
22.50 return (approx)

London City

Docklands Light Railway (DLR) to Bank station

25 minutes

Every 10 minutes

4 ow


Not shown in the above table are various airport bus services.  These are available from all five airports in some form or another, but will generally be by far the slowest and least reliable (in terms of travel time) option.  Traffic jams may impact on the travel time, and while the bus might be the cheapest option, yet again this proves the truth of the adage 'you get what you pay for'.

Depending on the number of stops the buses will make to pick up and drop off passengers, you can take the travel times in the first table and then adjust them up to get a sense for how long a bus ride may take.

Connecting Between Airports

If you have to change airports in order to change flights, be sure to allow a very generous amount of time.  Some airports have direct connections to other airports, in other cases you'll need to possibly travel first in to the center of London then out again to the other airport, or just take a taxi directly between the two airports.

Exact details will be on each airport's specific page.  Suffice it to say there's no clear winner or loser in the context of 'best airport to connect to/from another airport', and that in all cases, you should be figuring on at least four hours for a connection, and probably more than five.

Traveling to other parts of Britain (ie not London)

The preceding analysis has assumed that you are traveling to or from London.  But that is not necessarily always the case, and if your travels take you on to other parts of England and Britain, you'll find that the relative convenience of airports may change depending on where you're ultimately going to.

As a quick rule of thumb, an airport on the same side of London as where you want to go to/from is clearly better than an airport on the opposite side of London.

If you're wanting to make your way by train or bus between the airport and somewhere else in Britain, the airports with train stations as part of their facilities (particularly Gatwick and Stansted, somewhat less so for Luton) may be more convenient if it can save you the need to add extra travel time from the airport in to London before going out again by train.

Subjective Evaluation of the Different Airports

Heathrow (LHR)

The older terminals 1, 2 & 3 are unappealing.  The newer T4 and the newest T5 are nice and very nice respectively, with plenty of shopping and eating options to help fill in the time.

Heathrow is a very big airport and it can take a long time to get from one gate to the next gate, with even more time if the gates are in different terminals.  On the other hand, with more flights than any other airport, if you're needing to connect through a London airport, the chances are greatest that you'll have an available and convenient connection at LHR than at any of the other airports.  But be sure to allow adequate time, especially if you'll have to change terminals.

Heathrow is renowned for its delays when it comes to just about every part of the airport experience, and also has a reputation for losing luggage.  The new Terminal 5 has reduced some of the pressure on the airport, however, so perhaps Heathrow these days is better than the Heathrow of 2007 and before.

Traveling in to the city is very quick and easy.

Gatwick (LGW)

Gatwick is a medium sized airport, and scores middling for most other measures too.  There's nothing profoundly good about Gatwick, but neither is there anything profoundly bad; it is just another somewhat generic airport.

Gatwick is a moderately easy airport to connect between flights, with two terminals (designated 'North' and 'South').

Trains in to London are slow, but Victoria station is a good central location for many visitors.  There is also train service to St Pancras, which is a convenient alternative for people wishing to get to the northern side of London's downtown core.

Stansted (STN)

Stansted is a reasonably nice and medium sized airport, but with fairly spartan facilities.

It has a single terminal building making for easy connections.

It is a fairly slow train ride in to London from the airport, which is perhaps its biggest drawback, and Liverpool St station is far from where most tourists will wish to be in London, requiring either a costly (and slow) taxi ride on to one's final destination, or the unpleasant hassle of traveling through the Underground complete with your luggage.

Luton (LTN)

Luton is a dark and depressing smaller sized airport and my least favorite of all five airports.

Its small size does make for easy connections between flights.

Luton also has the most inconvenient public transport service in to London, although the Kings Cross/St Pancras station complex is one of the most central of places to arrive at.

If taking the train to Luton, be sure to buy a ticket to Luton Parkway not to Luton, and to take a train that goes to Luton Parkway too.  Luton itself is some distance away from the Luton Parkway stop where you connect with the airport shuttle bus.

London City (LCY)

London City Airport is a lovely and moderately new airport, and very small in size, with a single terminal.  This makes it delightfully quick and easy to get through the airport, no matter what gate you're at, with none of the massive long walks between gates and central concourses that are such a feature of Heathrow.  There are very few shops and eating choices.

The Dockland Light Rail service is frequent, relatively fast and very inexpensive for connecting in to London, adding to the airport's appeal, especially if you're going to be staying in the east of the city.  But if you're wishing to be more central, you may have some challenges completing your journey on from the DLR Bank station, either by Underground (a hassle) or by taxi (expensive).

And so, the Winner and Loser?

Well, as we hinted earlier on this page, the 'best' or 'worst' airport for you will depend on which factors are important to you, and will be limited by the choices realistically open to you in any case.  In particular, the convenience of choosing an airport on the same side of London as where you'll be staying is a relevant factor to consider.

We like London City Airport the best, but for travelers from North America, with the single exception of a new BA all-business-class service due to start later in 2009, there is no way to fly out of this airport (it's runway is too short for widebody planes).  So that makes our favorite airport an impractical choice most of the time.

In the past, we've had plenty of bad experiences at Heathrow, but now that the new Terminal 5 is working well, our last few flights in/out of Heathrow have been convenient and trouble-free.  We expect that Heathrow's former bad reputation will become increasingly replaced by a more positive experience in the future.

We also wonder just how much of Heathrow's bad reputation may actually be due to the airlines that use Heathrow rather than the airport itself.  So, with convenient access to London, and improved airport services, we will now give Heathrow a guarded thumbs up.

Gatwick is okay, and we'd not pay extra money to choose a flight that avoids Gatwick.  For that matter, we'd happily fly to/from Stansted or even Luton if other factors made it prudent.

Part 2 of a seven part series on London's airports - please also visit

1.  All About London's Airports in General
2.  London's Best and Worst Airports and Why
3.  London Heathrow Airport LHR

4.  London Gatwick Airport LGW
5.  London Stansted Airport STN
6.  London Luton Airport LTN
7.  London City Airport LCY

 

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Originally published 27 Mar 2009, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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