Love (actually) at Heathrow Airport

LONDON I think Heathrow Airport is the most beautiful airport in the world. I haven’t seen so many airports so far but I do believe this. It may be for the introduction of the movie “Love Actually”. It may be for the book “A week at the airport”. It may be for that flash mob at the Arrivals. It may be for my memories of two strong and opposite emotions, a pain and a love, a farewell and an encounter. In 2010, I’ve lived a few months in Ealing Broadway, a small residential village at the western end of London, precisely at the last western tube station, red line. So, for convenience, I used to leave and return from/to Heathrow Airport, further to west but in the south, destination of the blue line, the tube heading directly to each Terminal: 1,2,3,4,5.


Heathrow is the main airport of London and Wikipedia says: “It’s the busiest one in the EU by passenger numbers (and third in the world after those of Atlanta and Beijing) and the third, always in EU, by number of flight movements, preceded by Paris – Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt; and it’s also the airport with the highest number of movements of passengers on international flights. The airport has five Terminals and the last one, Terminal 5 (that was opened on 15th March 2008), is used exclusively by British Airways, the national airline of the United Kingdom and it can handle potentially 30 million passengers a year. The new Terminal is distinguished by the high standards of quality and boasts large spaces and new services.” And indeed, according to the official website, in the airport’s “World Duty Free” it’s convenient to do some shopping and have a chic meal: “From fine dining to high fashion shops, as long travel kits and fast snacks, at Heathrow you’ll find everything you need!”

Here, despite of all my hate and psychophysical rejection against every mall, and then also against all the shopping centers placed in stations or airports, I can only love Heathrow. And finally I want to give vent to this feeling, proposing three texts – a movie, a book, a flash-mob – who share an affection for this place that is maybe become a “place” even according to Marc Augé, the French anthropologist who has invented the concept of non-place: a place without identity-history-relations like, for example, airports generally are.

The Movie

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport. General opinion starting to makes out that we live in a world of hatred and greed but I don’t see that. Seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy but it’s always there: fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers as far as I know none of the phone calls from people on board were messages of hate or revenge. They were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.” 

Love Actually” – intro (2003)

The Book

“(…) a pair of lovers were parting. She must have been twenty-three, he a few years older. There was a copy of Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” in her bag. They both wore oversize sunglasses and had come of age in the period between SARS and swine flu. It was the intensity of their kiss that first attracted my attention, but what had seemed like passion from afar was revealed at closer range to be an unusual degree of devastation. She was shaking with sorrowful disbelief as he cradled her in his arms and stroked her wavy black hair, in which a clip shaped like a tulip had been fastened. Again and again, they looked into each other’s eyes and every time, as though made newly aware of the catastrophe about to befall them, they would begin weeping once more.


(…) There seemed no end to the ritual. The pair would come close to the security zone, then break down again and retreat for another walk around the terminal. At one point, they went down to the arrivals hall and for a moment it looked as if they might go outside and join the queue at the taxi rank, but they were only buying a packet of dried mango slices from Marks and Spencer, which they fed to each other with pastoral innocence. Then quite suddenly, in the middle of an embrace by the Travelex desk, the beauty glanced down at her watch and, with all the self-control of Odysseus denying the Sirens, ran away from her tormentor down a corridor and into the security zone.”

A week at the airport – A Heathrow diary” (2009) – Alain De Botton / photos: Richard Baker

In the summer of 2009, Alain De Botton was invited by the management team of Heathrow to spend a week at its newest and innovative passenger hub: Terminal 5, situated between the two runways of London’s largest airport. And so he has become the first ever airport writer-in-residence. He had to conduct an impressionistic survey observing life in one of the world’s busiest airports, places or “non-places” considered as the imaginative centres of contemporary culture and civilisation. He had a specially positioned desk in the departures hall between zones D and E, but he obviously explored all compartments, airside and arrivals zone included. He met travellers from all over the globe and spoke with everyone from baggage handlers to pilots, and senior executives to the airport chaplain. Based on these conversations and his ocular study, Alain de Botton has written a short book (112 pages rich in coloured pictures by the documentary photographer Richard Baker – here you can browse the album: that is a meditation on the nature of travel but also on our daily life.

Perhaps, after reading A week at the airport – A Heathrow diary, it won’t be longer so easy to attribute to Heathrow the definition of “non-place” – coined by Marc Augé and normally attributed also to the airports. Perhaps, Heathrow is different.

The Flash Mob

Heathrow Airport was also the stage of a wonderful advertising flash mob, part of the T-Mobile UK campaign titled “Life’s for Sharing” (by Saatchi and Saatchi). On 27th October 2010, 300 singers came out with a capella performance (so without instruments but their voice!) at Terminal 5 Arrivals to welcome back the passengers in a spectacular way. Here the video of this great example of Experiential and Viral Marketing. I wish I was once again landed at Heathrow, that day.

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