At the airport – a topic more thoroughly beaten to death than any Pony Express mare but nevertheless offering crumbs of novelty anytime I go there – things might have looked normal, but I had no eyes. I had booked with British Airways and made my way to Terminal 5 without thinking. The shiny new terminal, the early embarrassment and now justified pride of the British flag carrier, is the point of departure for all their long-distance flights, but I was whipping towards the elevators, away from the action.
The night before, I had got as far as choosing a seat but wasn't able to finish check-in. "Check the errors below", admonished a warning in red, but the only thing I could find further down was the content-free remark that "This trip cannot be completed as booked" and a Check in now button that sent me back to the warning at the top.
I wasn't particularly disturbed. I had to check luggage anyway and didn't expect to be in much of a rush. Plus, I remained hopeful that at least my choice of seat would have registered with the system and I would be able to fly in the comfort and safety of the fourth-to-last row even if I showed up at the airport without documents to prove my case.
Just a few days ago, I had read about a 727 stuffed full of dummies that was deliberately crashed into the harsh sands of the Sonoran desert for the sake of science (of the popular kind, instigated by documentary makers). The results of this unusual experiment are rather amusing in a macabre way. All of the first-class passengers would have perished. There was no doubt. Further back in the plane, survival rates rose dramatically, averaging three quarters on the cheap seats and all but guaranteeing worry-free travel in the last ten rows where I had thus picked my seat.
Thus I went to Terminal 5, but the check-in troubles continued. As far as I could tell – more than half of the information screens showed nothing but an apology for being broken – my flight wasn't on the departures list. The check-in kiosk rejected my passport and advised me to contact a human for help. I got in line and five minutes later the mystery was resolved: While I had booked with British Airway, the flight was operated by American Airlines who despite the hallowed "special relationship" didn't deserve the privilege of top-notch surroundings. I would have to make my way to Terminal 3.
Heathrow is a patchwork of solutions to a permanence of problems. Designed in quieter times, the airport had to grow with rising passenger numbers over the decades and be rather inventive in their ways of dealing with challenges, finding resources from within as local residents are fiercely opposed to any expansion. There are five terminals, but only the first three of them are properly interconnected. Terminal 5 is a bit of a world to itself. I was getting worried and started to run.
Down at the trains into central London that stopped at Terminals 1-3 on the way, the express had just left and the wait for the next one was 15 minutes. Next door at the tube, the picture wasn't encouraging either. Next train in 9 minutes, the platform indicators showed. There is no dedicated shuttle. My departure was less than ninety minutes away but instead of fretting and rushing and trying my hardest to avoid the worst, I had to sit and wait and try to breath calmly.
Zen is not my forte. Having to let things happen frazzles me. When the doors of the tube opened after a journey of physically painful inactivity, I exploded into action and let it rip down the tunnels under the original terminals. I ran my heart out, battering shoulders though shocked travelers and plowing my duffel through legs too slow to get out of the way. It was a most un-British thing to do.
When the American Airlines counters beckoned, the first thing I noticed was a warning that "Check-in closes 60 minutes before the scheduled departure". The second thing I saw was a clock. I was three minutes early.