Saturday, July 05, 2008

BHX - A guide

I am foresaking my love affair with Birmingham International Airport (BHX), for no other reason than it is summer and the roads tend to be jammed with holiday traffic, complete with caravans. So my next flight is booked through BRS, Bristol International Airport, also served by Air France (but only three flights a day instead of six). In bidding temporary farewell to BHX I thought it would be a good idea to write a guide based on my experiences. These experiences are somewhat limited so your own may be different. What prompted me to put something down was the fact that I could find very little commentary on Bristol other than the usual official and semi-official sites.

Birmingham International Airport is medium-sized. It is close enough to London to be considered an option for many who slog their way through Heathrow. Also, serving a region of several million people, it has a reasonably good medium-haul frequency of flights to the non-London European hubs, such as Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. It also has a daily service to New York by Continental, a flight I have taken several times but not recently.

The big advantage that Birmingham has is in saving you time. This is done in three ways.

  • First the density of traffic means that, even in bad weather, the airport is less likely to suffer back ups. When Heathrow shuts down all its domestic flights, Birmingham will continue flying in and out of the fog. The reason is that Birmingham has the latest equipment, just like its bigger siblings. Many regional airports do not.
  • Second is the number of passengers passing through the terminals. Enough to make Birmingham a useful airport with, for example, 6 flights a day to and from Paris by Air France. But not so many that long queues form at security check points. This is an obvious advantage in itself but I have noted that Birmingham's security personnel are a lot more customer oriented than those at larger airports.  They may be under less stress.
  • Third is the size of the airport. It is possible to drive out of one of the car parks only 15 minutes after the airplane doors are opened. This time will include a passport check and baggage claim before passing through customs. No airport parking bus is required and you don't have long underground corridors to traverse like at Heathrow.

Parking, if you can afford the better on-site option, is a doddle. NCP manage the three terminal car parks and offer very good discounts (up to 50%, generally 40%) if you book on-line before you go. The car parks are well lit and clean. Allow more time to park if you are arriving at the airport mid-week. The reason for this is that Birmingham has a very high percentage of business travelers passing through, most of whom go home at weekends! The car parks can be nearly empty during winter weekends.

There is also off-site parking as well as a valet service. The latter I have not tried but I imagine it is not much better than on-site parking.  The only advantage might be that you would get less wet when it is raining.  But, because of the new security arrangements post-Glasgow, you would still get wet.

Incidentally, the short term drop off arrangements are currently being modified and everything is a big mess between terminals and the car parks.

Driving in and out of the airport is about as simple as it can get.  If you arrive on the M42 going north, you simple keep to the left until you see the airport terminals, then follow directions.  Arriving from other directions will not be very different.  The beauty of Birmingham International is that it has been integrated into the transport system and the road system can generally handle the traffic well.

This integration of transportation really comes into its own with the rail network.  Birmingham International Station is a short transit ride from the airport and also serves the adjacent NEC.  The station is located on the original London-Birmingham main line and fast trains operated by Virgin stop at the station before making an 8 minute ride on into New Street, the city's rail hub with trains going in all directions.  Other rail companies operate between the two stations but taking one of the Virgin trains is worth the up to 20 minute wait, in my opinion.  Whichever way you travel, New Street Station is not as bad a station as many like to believe.  It is a busy station, though so take advantage of the many railway company personnel to ask which platform your connection will be leaving from.

I understand there are also regular rail-link bus services to places like Solihull.

Now for some tips that only apply to the Air France services to Paris and Lyon:

1.  At check in show your carry on bags (you are allowed two) and tell the agent that one of them needs to be in the cabin (it has a computer in it for example).  The other bag will accompany you to the jetway where it will be green tagged and taken from you.  You will see it again at Paris, right there at the foot of the steps leading down from the airplane.  What a wonderful idea!  The reason is that the planes do not have enough storage but, particularly if you are going long-haul from Paris, Air France recognizes the need to carry on more luggage.  Bravo!

2.  Business Class and Gold/Platinum Card members can use the airport lounge.  This can be very full at times, particularly when all those business travelers are traveling!  The staff are always very helpful.

3.  Air France uses its Irish subsidiary, City Jet, for the Birmingham-Paris run and its French subsidiary, Brit Air, for the Birmingham-Lyon run.  Both conform to the major carrier's standards.  You are, essentially, flying by Air France.