Keep Calm and Carry On

“Keep Calm and Carry On”.  That was basically my motto for over 24 hours on Monday (Tuesday).  Raise your hand if you’ve eaten Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and then Breakfast again in the same Airport (I’m assuming no one’s raising their hand).  Well I had that privilege.  We are at the halfway point of my study abroad semester and my parents wanted an excuse to go to Europe, and so we decided to meet in London before they flew back to New York.  The trip was a lot of fun; we got a unique tour of Parliament and visited Stamford Bridge (home of Chelsea F.C.).  We were all set to fly out on Monday.  My parents’ flight was late-morning and mine was mid-afternoon, so we checked out of the hotel and made our way to Heathrow.  It was cheaper if we all went in the same cab, plus there was not really enough time for me to do anything worthwhile in the city so I figured I’d hang out at the airport, eat breakfast with my folks before they flew out and the just explore the terminal and Duty-Free for a few hours before I took off.  Boy was I wrong…

Everything started off normal.  The morning was dark and kind of cloudy, but planes were having no problems landing or taking-off.  My parents got out just before 10am and I decided to get comfy for a little, maybe take a nap, and check my email.  Of course, no free WiFi, and with the airport starting to get crowded with the day’s commuters, I went for a walk.  If you have never flown out of Heathrow, British Airways has its own terminal devoted to BA flights (Terminal 5).  Terminal 5 is actually 3 terminals (A, B, and C).  Terminal A, the biggest and made of all glass, overlooks the gateways and the other two terminals (B and C are basically miniature versions of A).  You are supposed to stay in A and only go to B or C when your flight is called.  The top level of A is where you get dropped off, check-in, and go through security.  There are various shops and restaurants on this floor, but the main waiting area and gates are a floor lower.  The arrivals are on the bottom floor complete with customs and baggage claim.  I familiarized myself with the terminal, checking the Departure Boards for any information on my flight (at this point I was still too early for the flight to be assigned a gate).  So I bounced around from spot to spot, grabbing lunch and trying to no avail to gain free internet access.  The time went by and pretty soon it was getting close to 3:00.  My flight was scheduled to start boarding at 3:30 and leave at 4:10, so I still had some time.

At 3:30, there was still nothing on the board about my flight.  The flight was listed but it gave no Gate to report.  Finally, I found a few desktops that you could insert coins and gain access to the internet, but you could also check flight statuses and make reservations for free.  I went to the BA website and checked flight information.  There, among the entire list of BA flights that day, was my flight and next to it: CANCELLED.  I was at a loss.  The board was now displaying, “Enquire Airline” next to my flight.  I quickly found the Customer Service desk and got in line (the line was quite long and growing).  The board was now displaying more and more flights as “Enquire Airline”.  When I made it to the front of the line, the BA woman explained to me that my flight has been cancelled due to severe fog.  Yes.  Fog.  At first I didn’t understand what she meant by fog, but as I looked out the window, where the B terminal used to stand was now just a wall of grey.  You could hardly see the planes parked at the gate just outside the building, so yeah..Fog.  She told me that I had to go back to the check-in and rebook my flight.  However, this wasn’t as simple as just walking back out of security.  I had to proceed all the way down to the arrivals level and go through UK border control and customs, the process is called “Landing” (yes very original I know).  When I made it to Immigration, the Immigration Officer was so confused that I had actually not flown in from anywhere.  I tried to explain to her that I had come from upstairs and was just trying to leave the terminal.  She made me fill out a landing card, anyway.  This only further complicated the process because she got testy when I put “Upstairs” as port of departure and “Hopefully only a few hours” as length of duration in UK.  It wasn’t until she studied my UK passport stamp from only a few days ago, that she understood what was going on…sort of.  She finally let me go through and I went past baggage claim.  For whatever reason, BA thought it would make sense to put every checked bag from the cancelled flights on one conveyor belt.  Ungodly amounts of disaster were occurring in the baggage claim area (I was so happy I only had my backpack and didn’t have to deal with any of that).  As I got up to the Check-in area, I quickly realized this situation wasn’t good.  A line was queued up across the entire room (and it’s a large room), then it snaked its way in down the side a good portion too.  It had to be over a mile long and the worst part was the amount of people sitting on their luggage looking like they hadn’t moved in a while.  I got to the end of the line where I met a woman directing people to the line.  I showed her my ticket and to my surprise she sent me to another line.  This line was hard to see as it was basically engulfed by the bigger one.  My line was a thousand times shorter.  We had two rows of about 100ft each.  That was I, I had no idea and I still have no idea what the difference between the two lines were and why I was allowed to go to this one, but I wasn’t about to argue.  I was excited that this wouldn’t take as long as I had feared.

However, something wasn’t feeling right.  The ticket counters in front of the line were closed, save one man and he would disappear for long periods of time, while passengers stood curiously in front of his desk.   What I thought was going to be a breeze was turning out to be a nightmare.  Every few minutes we’d all pick up our stuff to move down the line, only to set it all back down a foot from where we started.  30 minutes had gone by and I had travelled roughly 15 feet.

By now, I was across from a German girl and her father (by across I mean they had reached the same point in the queue in front of me, but on the other side of the stanchion as it wrapped around).  She informed me that they had cancelled over 20 flights from BA alone and that she was standing exactly where I was at 2:00, it was now 4…  Her father then went on to say, in German, “The English cannot fly in fog?  That is ridiculous.  How did they win the War?”  I smiled and responded, “Well, I think we helped…”  That seemed to please him as he laughed when he looked down at the U.S. passport in my hand.   My conversation with them, however, was cut off by movement in the line.

For whatever reason, only a few people had come in the line after me.  I was towards the back with maybe five passengers behind me.  Various people would come in the line, wait a little bit, get fed up, and leave.  I was standing behind an English woman and a Brazilian woman; behind me were a French/Jordanian woman, an American woman, and an elderly Scottish man.  Three hours had gone by and we were still not that close to the front.  Every once in a while more ticket counters would open up, but only for shifts to change and others close down, we never had more than three open at one time.  We all started talking and getting to know each other.  The two women behind me were heading to Lyon, France, the English woman and Brazilian woman in front of me were heading to Berlin and Singapore, respectively.  The Scottish man had the shortest flight, as he was only heading to Edinburgh, Scotland.

Meanwhile, things were getting much worse in the massive line behind us.  A British Airways woman was now informing around 200+ passengers that they would not be seen by anyone because we were approaching closing time.  She was telling them they had to find a hotel and try again tomorrow.  BA actually was being very accommodating, they would try to arrange hotels and transport for as many people as they could, however if they couldn’t they were reimbursing people up to £200 for a room, £25 for food, and £50 for transportation.  However, to the people that had been waiting several hours in the other line, this was little compensation.  No one was leaving their spot in line or making reservations, even though the woman was adamant they would not be seen by anyone at the other ticket counter.  Also, not helping the situation were the massive advertisement boards hung from the ceiling that flashed messages of how helpful Heathrow Airport and BA staff were, almost as if it was taunting the stranded passengers.

Five hours later, I made it to the front of the line (My parents’ 7 hour flight had long since landed in New York).  It wasn’t a moment too soon either, as the passengers in the other line had begun to notice our short little line and were angrily revolting against the woman and stanchions by flowing into our line.  Again, I really couldn’t tell you the difference between the two lines and didn’t know why they hadn’t tried this earlier.  However, I got up to the desk and started to a very nice woman, named Kelly, who had just started her shift.  She thanked me for being patient (which was approximately the 20th time I had heard that, whether it was from a person or a public address announcement that had been running all day).  She was very nice and was typing away trying to book me on the next flight to Frankfurt.  She was moving along quite quickly until…

“Uh oh”, she said taking her hands from the keyboard.  Her computer screen was now flashing a red warning sign, “I’m not really trained on how to work this,” she continued, “ I was given basic instructions but they seem to not be a help at the moment.”

“Oh, that’s ok.  You’re doing great!” I tried to be encouraging as it dawned on me the reason why the line had taken so long all day.

“Yes, but we are understaffed and I normally work Check-in, which is completely different from Reservations.”  She abandoned the flashing computer monitor and looked at me. “So did you have a nice time in London?  What did you do?”

“Oh I had a great time.”  I answered, not entirely sure how this small talk was going to get me on a flight, but it seemed clear she had given up on trying to fix the computer.

I explained that I went to parliament and went out to the Chelsea stadium.  She was very nice and our five minute conversation moved from various topics such as sports and why I needed to go to Germany, to finally the weather.

“You are real lucky you came while we were having such nice weather this weekend, very uncommon for London to be this sunny.”  She said (In fairness, it was a very nice weekend, not too cold and the sun was out most of the time).

I looked out the window at the dark fog that had kept me from flying and smiled, “Yeah, very lucky.”

Upon realizing the irony in her statement, she gestured outside, “Yes…er…well this is much more London-like.”

She looked back at the screen and saw that it was still not doing much of anything, so she cautiously slid back from the computer like it was a bomb and to the unused station next to her, muttering how the servers were probably really overworked form all the changes but how she definitely screwed something up.  She tried again on the next computer and it seemed to work much better.  She eventually found me a flight the following morning at 8:20.  We said our goodbyes and I wished her luck with the remaining unruly passengers, to which she gave me a brief but terrified smile.

My goal was to now go through security and get back into the main waiting area, where I remembered spotting some very comfortable lounge chairs that I could claim for the night.  However, that plan ended abruptly as security said they do not let passengers into the terminal overnight and that I’d have to wait in the Check-in lobby.  I looked around and saw only a few standard airport chairs.  They would be difficult to sleep on as arm rests prevented someone from lying across multiple ones.   It was getting close to 10pm and I was hungry so I found a bar in the lobby and had something to eat and drink (all on the tab of BA).  Afterwards, I went down to the far end to claim a few chairs, and was beginning to wish I had taken up the hotel deal.  Luckily, airport staff came around to everyone with mats so they could sleep on the floor.  However, these mats were basically worthless and did little to improve the hard, cold tile.  Frankly though, I was so tired that at this point it didn’t really matter on what I was sleeping.

I slept very well on the floor.  Or at least I did until the airport cleaning staff started washing the floors…  I was woken up by one of those huge floor-mop-squeegee-mobiles.  It was so loud and reverberated around the entire terminal.  The driver did not care that people were sprawled all over the floor, sleeping.  He would just drive around them, like someone would vacuum around a quarter instead of just picking it up.  I was pretty awake by then and couldn’t fall asleep with that machine zooming around.  So I played Angry Birds for a few hours until the security line opened at 5am.

Even though my flight wasn’t until later that morning, I was one of the few people who were there at 5am.  However, in front of me was the Scottish guy from the line the previous day.  He had gone to a hotel and was now going to catch a relatively early flight back to Scotland.  As he put his carry-on on the conveyor belt the security officer asked him if he had any liquids.  A look of panic came on the man’s face as he pulled out an unopened bottle of whiskey.  Apparently he had bought the bottle in the Duty-Free shops in the terminal yesterday, but hadn’t thought anything about it when he was hurrying back to the check-in line.  Now, he was in a heated argument with the security officer that he should be allowed to take his £45 whiskey through.  However, the officer (who was quite unfriendly) was having none of it.  So the Scottish man did the only thing he could do.  He ran to the closest coffee shop, grabbed paper cups and came back.  He poured out whiskey for me and several of the passengers behind us in security and we all drank Scotch together … at 5am … in Heathrow Airport Security.

After we got through, the Scottish man ran to catch his flight and I found a nice comfortable lounge chair in front of a TV that was showing BBC News.  BBC News at 5:30am is quite interesting.  It is a talk show format, with the hosts (a man and a woman) sitting on a couch going over the day’s headlines, for which there were three, over and over again.  Occasionally they would switch to a weather man, who, to no surprise, was calling for more fog…, or a woman covering sports.  The three main headlines were as follows:  The U.S. presidential debate (to which they were only able to report that it had indeed occurred), a former BBC producer and show-host named Jimmy Savile had sexually assaulted over 200 women (which I’m confused how no one saw this coming from this guy….), and finally a Beluga Whale that scientists deemed was trying to mimic the sounds of humans (by far the most fascinating story, and at one point the hosts both tried to imitate the whale, which was so unbelievably strange).

So yeah, I heard about those stories over and over again.  Occasionally the hosts would have special experts on to discuss the stories, only to dispute everything the expert said by using blogs and tweets.  I was quite tired and the whole thing was rather funny.

Luckily, there were no major issues on Tuesday and after having a muffin and coffee from Starbucks, I went to my gate and finally left for Frankfurt.  So that’s how I ended up eating breakfast, lunch, dinner, and breakfast again all in the same airport.  All in all, I’d say I had a pleasant time.  Would I want to do it again, no.

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