London's ambition to overtake New York as the world's pre-eminent city faces a big obstacle: its gateway, Heathrow Airport, is enough to make visitors feel like flying home before they even see Big Ben, Buckingham Palace or the financial superhub known as the City.
Notorious security checks, a labyrinthine layout and shoddy service combine to form the "Heathrow Hassle."
With fears mounting of chaos when the city hosts the Olympics in 2012, government officials and business figures are calling for urgent improvements at the world's third-busiest airport.
In the past week, Heathrow has come under a barrage of criticism.
London Mayor Ken Livingstone called it a "shame" on London. A junior government minister said the airport is so infuriating it could hurt London's business prospects. And a business executive remarked that some people will do anything to avoid flying through Heathrow.
The airport once was a name that evoked the jet-set allure of international travel. In recent years, however, it's become associated more with complaints about crowded terminals, long shuffles through security and passport lines, lost luggage and a depressing decor.
The hammering began with news that Heathrow would seek a broad injunction against protests planned at the airport for mid-August by groups opposed to plans to build a third runway, which opponents say would severely increase noise and air pollution.
Green groups said the injunction was so broad it would allow police to detain potential protesters not just at the airport but on the London Underground, the railway network and highways near Heathrow.
"This is the mother of all injunctions. We've long known the airport operators to be arrogant, but trying to ban 5 million people from coming near them is conceited even by their standards," said John Stewart, the chairman of the Hacan group that opposes the new runway.
Livingstone was livid.
"Someone there must be out of their skull," the outspoken mayor said Tuesday, referring to officials at the British Airports Authority, which runs Heathrow and London's other two airports, Gatwick and Stansted. "What BAA has done is guarantee massive coverage of what was going to be a minor encampment."
Livingstone didn't limit his criticism.
"Certainly Heathrow does shame London. It is typical of the English short-termism, lack of planning, lack of investment," he said.
"Its quite clear the current management, and management before them, thought they could keep people almost as prisoner in this ghastly shopping mall so they can extract vast sums of money from them while they wait in appalling conditions."
A spokeswoman for BAA said the airport has been plagued by the lengthy legal and planning process required for improvements. For example, the airport's nearly completed fifth terminal was held up for 20 years by red tape.
Terminal 5 is to open in March and will allow the airport to raise its annual passenger capacity by 30 million, said the spokeswoman, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity.
Heathrow was designed to serve about 45 million passengers a year but now sees around 68 million.
Of the world's five busiest airports, it ranked last for on-time performance in 2006, with only 67 percent of flights arriving as scheduled compared to Tokyo's Haneda Airport, which had an on-time performance of 95 percent, according to Portland, Ore.-based FlightStats.
Both Chicago's O'Hare International and Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airports, the world's two busiest, had on-time performances of about 73 percent, FlightStats said.
BAA plans refurbishments, new inter-terminal transports and other projects it says will make Heathrow a new airport by the 2012 Summer Games.
But Economics Secretary Kitty Ussher warned this week that the airport's hassles could discourage business.
"I don't want New York or Dubai executives saying 'Oh God, I don't want to go through Heathrow,'" she was quoted as saying in The Financial Times.
Sir Thomas Harris, vice chairman of Standard Chartered capital Markets, told the newspaper that Heathrow faces stiff competition from rival transport hubs.
"There are lots of people who will fly through Amsterdam, Paris or Frankfurt or do almost anything to avoid a Heathrow connection if they can," he said.