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Call this a Third World airport?

Cardinal Walter Kasper has, unwittingly, done a huge favour to three disparate parties: BAA, which runs Heathrow and five other airports; British Airways; and those of us who celebrate the UK's diversity.

When the President of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity chose to pontificate on the arrivals experience at Heathrow airport, the outrage he caused provided a rare wave of public sympathy for BA and BAA, while reminding the travelling public of the excellent work done by the splendidly multi-cultural group of workers who keep the show on the road.

Let's start at the airport, because that was where Cardinal Kasper – like tens of millions of other new arrivals – formed his opinions. Touching down at Europe's busiest airport is never likely to be a joyful experience, because most of the location and facilities are firmly rooted in the 20th century. Sure, we could be more cordial to visitors: last time I checked, instead of a big sign with a picture of the Queen saying "Welcome to Britain", the only notices warned of the consequences of not applying immediately for asylum, and of the penalties for assaulting customs officials.

The long walk from the aircraft gate is usually followed by a long wait at passport control, and – with the exception of Terminal 5 – everything feels a bit tatty and tired (like the typical long-haul passenger). But when I last passed through Heathrow arrivals, a week ago, the staff were polite and friendly, the baggage arrived promptly and, when I emerged "landside", I was not engulfed by a crowd of hundreds, all of whom claimed to be taxi drivers. That, in my experience, is the trademark of a "real" Third World airport.

From Entebbe to Tegucigalpa, the new arrival is seen as fair game. Foreign Office travel advice warns explicitly about the airports in Mumbai and the Venezuelan capital, among many others. While the airports in Amsterdam and Munich may be more sophisticated, Heathrow is way ahead of many other European gateways, notably Sheremetyevo in Moscow and, dare I say it, the Vatican's nearest airport – Rome Ciampino.

Could Cardinal Kasper have been referring to the racial mix at Heathrow? Possibly, but in my experience most Third World countries are far more mono-cultural than the UK. As the airport handles more international passengers than any other on the planet, it is a huge benefit that the hard-working staff are drawn from so many different ethnic backgrounds. That, of course, implies a range of religions: and within 10 minutes of arriving he or I will no doubt encounter Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and Catholics, though I do not recall ever meeting an "aggressive Atheist" of the kind he frets about. "Passive Agnostic" probably sums most of us up.

British Airways is always the biggest target in UK aviation, which is why the airline earned so much publicity from the "crucifix ban" case – when BA was simply applying the rules on uniform that are common to many other airlines.

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"It would appear the Cardinal has been seriously misinformed," was BA's response. Let me go a bit further: if His Eminence believes for a moment that an airline run by an Irishman (who may or may not be Catholic) that employs tens of thousands of staff who practice dozens of different religions, would tolerate any kind of discrimination on grounds of faith, he should pause for reflection, perhaps at one of the multi-faith chapels provided at Heathrow.

I wish Cardinal Kasper a swift recovery from the bout of gout that has prevented him from sampling the welcome at Edinburgh airport (and departure form Birmingham). When he is better, I would like to invite him on a journey of comparison around some of Europe's airports – though not on the Papal airline of choice, because our government crisply warns "There is a risk of cancellation of Alitalia flights and/or unannounced strikes by Alitalia staff".


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