A purely curiosity-based question -- sorry if that's not on topic:

I flew into London Heathrow, terminal 3. After leaving the aircraft I followed the signs through what felt like kilometers of deserted corridors until I arrived in a large hall full of people queuing for immigration. Thence to a baggage reclaim hall, and then through further corridors and stairways that ended at a tube platform, all without seeing the sky a single time.

Now I'm somewhat curious where I've actually been.

I know how to find taxiway charts online, so up until the plane arrived at the gate I'm good. And on http://maps.heathrow.com it shows at least in broad strokes how I got from customs to the tube station. But the part between the gate and the baggage carousels is still confusing and mysterious to me.

Is there a map or diagram of the arrivals labyrinth to find somewhere online? Not necessarily an official one (the airport's website doesn't seem to have it), but perhaps other curious souls who land at LHR more often than I do have pieced together how they work and documented it on the net?

  • Consider down-scoping this to exclude detention centres, prisoner holding and transport, medical and emergency services staging areas, baggage movement, celebrity immigration lanes, and infrastructure passageways. But that pretty much leaves you with what you see in the link you already provided. – Gayot Fow Aug 30 '14 at 22:28
  • @GayotFow: All those things are already excluded from the question. I'm talking about the corridors I, as an ordinary non-celebrity arriving passenger, walked through to get from the gate tho the baggage reclaim. They are not in the link I provided (or if they are, I can't figure out how to get them to show). – Henning Makholm Aug 30 '14 at 22:37
  • Hmm, one can get it the official site to show a bit more by showing the departure lounge map and then use the Firefox element inspector to delete the <svg> element inside <div class="leaflet-overlay-pane">. That reveals something that is probably the immigration hall, right above customs, and something I think must be the flight connections security check and escalators to/from airside transfer buses to the SW of that. But the corridors leading to that area must be on level 2, which isn't on the map. – Henning Makholm Aug 30 '14 at 23:23
  • Welcome to the most hateful Thing in the universe - "heathrow" "airport". – Fattie Aug 31 '14 at 10:35
  • If you follow the signs for the underground, you'll stay inside the whole time. If you follow the signs for taxis or local buses, you'll exit the terminal at the front. Staying inside between plane and baggage claim is often a good thing :) – Gagravarr Aug 31 '14 at 14:43

When you arrive at an international airport on an international flight, you have to clear immigration pretty much first thing. There is usually only one immigration area per terminal. So the question is, how does the airport get passengers from the gate where the plane arrives to the immigration area? For security reasons they need to have fairly secure corridors from the plane to the immigration area. These corridors need basic amenities (bathrooms, maybe water faucets) but won't have shops, lounges, or anything else... they need you to clear immigration right away.

Airports can handle this in one of several ways:

1) For airports without a lot of jetways, where the plane just arrives on a ramp somewhere and a bus takes you to the terminal, the bus can take you right to the immigration hall.

2) Most modern airports with jetways have a staircase at the jetway leading up (example: TLV, EWR Terminal C) or down (example: JFK 4). When an international flight arrives all passengers are directed up or down that staircase. This leads to a parallel set of hallways which mirrors the terminal and leads to the immigration hall. In some places (EWR, TLV) it is glass enclosed and if you look down you see passengers milling about waiting for departing flights. In others (JFK 4) it is below the waiting areas, probably at or near ground level, and may just appear to be a bunch of sealed corridors.

3) There are a few interesting configurations where the "sterile" area is on the same level as the passenger waiting lounge area, for example, EWR Terminal B where you have a circular, glass-enclosed hallway surrounding the waiting lounge which occasionally fills up with passengers getting dumped off an international flight.

4) At many older terminals, they only have one hallway for both departing and arriving passengers. Sometimes they'll divide this hallway down the middle and open or close doors to keep departing and arriving passengers separated. If the hallway is too narrow to do this, they won't let passengers stay in the hallway... they'll use the hallway alternately for arriving or departing passengers, and clear it out between them. This is why some airports don't let you go to the gate until the flight is actually boarding: because the hallway may be in use for arriving passengers.

To answer your question... where were you? You were following the same path as someone would have taken for a departing flight, only in a hermetically sealed-off corridor so that the plane could be emptied into the immigration hall without any contact between departing and arriving passengers.

  • Your (4) is not consistent with my experience. When returning from my trip, I departed from the same terminal, and the corridors between the departure concourse and the gates were plainly seen to be open all the time and not seal-off-able. I went to the departure gate as soon as the number came up on the monitor, and waited there for half an hour before boarding. They have a system that separates arriving passengers into special corridors right at the jet bridge. (The ramp leading up to the arrivals corridor system was visible from the gate seating area). – Henning Makholm Sep 8 '14 at 19:56
  • thanks for the additional info... I couldn't quite remember all the permutations of terminal 3, so I wasn't 100% certain if it was an example of (4). I have edited my answer to make it hopefully more factually correct – Joel Spolsky Sep 8 '14 at 21:09
  • And then there are airports like Changi Airport in Singapore where, upon arrival, you will end up in the same area as departing passengers. With all the shops and restaurants and such. I'm not sure if I was being tracked actively between the time of arrival and the time I show up at immigration counters, but I did once went shopping before clearing immigration. (I'm a citizen, though.) – Heng-Cheong Leong Sep 9 '14 at 1:19
  • It still can't be right, because when I departed, my path started at the departure lounge. If the arrivals corridors were simply the same paths in reverse, they would have sent me to the departure lounge rather than to the immigration hall, which is in a completely different place in the terminal. – Henning Makholm Sep 9 '14 at 12:20
  • At Heathrow, at least in the concourse I used (gates 13-21 I think), there is a glass separator between arriving and departing passengers. The arriving hallway is the reverse of the departing hallway; however, right before the departure lounge there is an escalator that leads to a series of sterile corridors leading to immigration and also flight connections. – Ryan Rosario Jan 12 '15 at 18:42

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