On my previous trips to England I’ve flown into Bristol International Airport. It’s smaller (by a lot) than either Heathrow or Gatwick which makes getting through customs going both ways somewhat faster. Plus, despite the Bristol Airport’s small size at 10 a.m. you can still get a final warm beer at its restaurant before leaving the country. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Gatwick on a Saturday morning was not nearly the woolly bear I had been told to expect. From all accounts I had feared that I would still be standing in the customs line to get into England six days later when it was time to leave but a scant 90 minutes after getting off the plane I was meeting my host and his car.
Coming back through Gatwick the following Friday was a little less carefree but a lot of that had to do with the choices I made. No matter what country I’m in I don’t sleep much the night before I have to head to the airport, always afraid I’ll wake up and discover it’s the day after my scheduled departure. This was particularly true the night before I headed to Gatwick. I was staying in Oxford and taking the train back to Gatwick. Having never made the journey toward London by train, I elected not to spend an additional night at Central Backpackers Hostel but rather take the early train back to the airport. I did much the same thing the following night when I decided not to take a hotel room for 12 hours in Cleveland (which also would have meant going through security a second time) but to find a comfy chair for a snoozle in the airport.
Gatwick, I was surprised to discover, closes its security pass through from late evening until five in the a.m. Downstairs from customs, security and the airline check in stations a Costa Coffee house and an all night Marks & Spencer Simply Food market stay open. There is also internet access available although if you choose to use their terminals rather than unpacking your laptop the fee is a steep 1 GBP per ten minutes. I chose to skip that option. With close to 100 people staying up with me and only upright seats to sleep on (although they didn’t have arm dividers so you could stretch out) there wasn’t much rest to be had. In the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport the following night I slept like a baby log in an overstuffed chair next to Starbucks and just down the way from the open all night Great American Bagel.
Having spent the night repacking my bags and waiting for the Continental service desk to open at 5:30 a.m., I was slightly on edge when it stretched beyond six before even the self service kiosk was available. I’m a big fan of Continental Airlines. In all the time I have flown with them I have had only one bad experience and it was with customer service, not the flight or the flight crew. I really didn’t have a bad experience this time either, just an annoying one. About ten customer service folks showed up at five and then half of them spent the next hour blithely arranging and rearranging the crowd control barriers marking the check in aisles. It was like they were planning the Allied invasion of Normandy. They would move the poles and all step back and appraise the arrangement, move them again, appraise, move them yet again and appraise. Meanwhile, a herd and a half of people taking easyJet to Europe were piling into the innumerable already open customer service desks for that airline. When I pointed out to the Continental desk agent in charge of mounting the assault on the service desk that their sign said the self service kiosk would open at 5:30 a.m. his reply left me with little way to respond. He said, “Yes, but we never open until after six.” So, the sign is just there to annoy us?
Once I actually had my boarding pass in hand the trip through customs was again a breeze, despite the fact that I was behind a wedding party of ten all of whom were carrying wedding frocks through security by hand. Once on the boarding side of customs, Gatwick rivals – no surpasses – Newark as the wonderland of airline terminals. There are multiple restaurants from quick serve to high end. You can buy duty free alcohol and tobacco from an enormous selection. There is a Harrod’s, a Hugo Boss store, upscale cosmetic stores, a sushi bar (and that same damn 1GBP for ten minutes internet service). The one drawback is there are also an awful lot of people. By 6:30 the sit down breakfast restaurants had lines twenty people or more long as did the Starbucks. Thinking for some odd reason that my flight was leaving from Gate 111, I headed off to find something to eat in that direction. Be forewarned, many of the gates at Gatwick are as much as fifteen minutes away from the central boarding area.
After a long walk and a ride up an escalator so tall it made me dizzy I arrived at the Gate 111 area and found both an open news stand and a JD Wetherspoon pub that were virtually empty. The pub also served tea, milk, light breakfast items and delicious fresh squeezed orange juice. I was able to enjoy my breakfast in solitude while watching the morning news. (The broadcast featured a delightful man who was signing the spoken conversation. He was so artful and humorous in his hand signs that I soon found myself watching him rather than the regular news crew.) After about an hour it occurred to me that I was nowhere near a Continental gate so I made my way back to the central boarding area. Once I arrived, I discovered that my flight – although only 90 minutes from boarding – still had not been assigned a gate (this might have something to do with the fact that Gatwick is “the busiest single runway airport in the world”). That’s when I noticed that travellers were watching the departures board much like the people who wait for trains at Penn Station in New York City. Up until an hour before my flight there was no gate assignment, then suddenly it appeared and a small school of passengers made a dash for Gate 57. I was headed back to Newark and my comfy chair in Cleveland.