Thursday, December 23, 2010

Heathrow disaster

I arrive at terminal 1 with time to spare. The recent past has made me cautious. Last night I checked in despite an earlier scare when I was asked to call a service number because my request couldn't be processed. I had probably just tried too early. Later on I got an email telling me everything was ready now. In the morning, I printed my boarding pass and checked the Lufthansa and Heathrow airport websites again to see if there were any warnings or deteriorations of the situation. There weren't. My flight was going out, as scheduled, no worries.

Emerging from one of the tunnels that connects the tube station with the terminals I catch one brief glance of a surprisingly quiet interior, then of a barrier and a authoritative person in a yellow vest. "Where are you traveling today?" he asks. "Frankfurt", I reply, "Lufthansa". "Please step outside and walk along the terminal building to section K", he tells me, barring my way. I get out and walk in the indicated direction, picking my way past nervous throngs that cluster around the various entrances, a back and forth of travelers surrounded by piles of bags, all the way to the end of the huge squat building.

There I walk up to another barrier with the confidence of a seasoned traveler. I am checked in and have no business waiting around. I want to find a comfy chair and read the Economist, but my progress is blocked by another fluorescent yellow vest with outstretched arms and words of insult. "Please join the queue until your flight is called." It is less than two hours until the scheduled departure, but the terminal building, the warmth, the baggage-drop, the security check, the colors and lights of the airport shopping mall, are all off-limits. Knowing no better argument, I laugh and let my eyes wander.

Hundreds are standing in the cold, waiting, smoking, talking on their telephones, not moving anywhere. A light snow is falling, nothing to cover the ground and even less to evoke the festive spirit in anyone out here, but plenty enough to spread pain. Dozens of crowd control minions conspire to keep people in the cold – instead of helping with the luggage inside. Megaphones are wielded like status symbols but useful information is scarce. There are no signs of any sort. My fingers are starting to freeze.

I'm struck that there was no notice on the airport's website this morning, no warning saying, for example, We are still completely overwhelmed by snow that melted three days ago. We don't know how to handle the situation. Please dress warmly. We will make you wait outside. You will suffer if you decide to come more than one hour prior to departure, but you wouldn't do that, would you, you fool?

One of the main lines of fools emanates from between two marquees. I make my way over there to check things out, boldly ignoring the One Way. Exit Only sign. In England, not even the most hardened security guard can ignore an innocent "Excuse me", and I gain entrance without problems. In the tent are flimsy blue folding chairs, only insignificantly fewer than there are miserable creatures, huddled and shivering. It is cold inside, in spite of the hot air that's being blown in through wide pipes. But a single-walled tent does not deliver much in terms of thermal protection in the middle of winter.

From an area that looks as if it has seen heavy battle, hot drinks and soup are dispensed. As long as the portaloos function (remember that the terminal building is off-limits), one can at least keep warm from inside. Also on offer are a few sandwiches – possibly nutritious but more miserable looking than most of the stranded travelers –, telephones for making international calls, and internet-linked computers, all provided freely without asking. On the far side of the tent is a TV broadcasting news that no one is interested in. I still don't know when my flight will be called.

The entire operation is abysmally organized; the airport's strategy for overcoming the disaster that snow had caused four days ago is horrible. How can passengers that are checked in and ready to depart be made to wait for hours outside, in defiance of the freezing December air? It's almost as if a plan to deal with the situation had been drawn up a few days earlier and the persons responsible for updating the procedures in line with the developments on the ground had gone on vacation, possibly by air. But the execution is professional and most of the staff doing the poorly conceived work are friendly. There is no chaos and few complaints are voiced openly. Lines form in an orderly fashion. Passengers know that they mustn't grumble. Revolutions take place elsewhere.

On my way back from the tent I realize nevertheless how thin some nerves have been stretched, how close the situation is to exploding. An expecting father who has had to endure too much that morning and maybe in the days before accosts a yellow-vested official about the wait and the misery. "I'm told the tent is warm", says the official, probably not the wisest reply to the man's grievance. The man's face turns red, his veins trying to escape his neck, "I was in there; it is not. My wife five months pregnant and cold. Open the damn terminal." "Please wait until your flight is called. And don't raise your voice, sir." A tussle erupts but is quickly broken up by two of the official's more cool-headed colleagues. The man slouches back to the tent, epitomizing despair.

I was initially tempted to travel with hand luggage only, to avoid the chaos that had been reported over the preceding days. In the end, I decided against it; it couldn't possibly be that bad. Pulling my big blue duffel behind me, I had to accept that it was even worse. Worse than anything I've ever seen, worse than much I can imagine. The bright side is that everyone has to endure the misery, even those without luggage to check.

Just as I get back to section K, the place where I had first arrived an hour earlier, much warmer but with less of a story to tell, my flight is called. With a quick lateral movement I find myself near the start of a line that gets moving with a sudden competitive spirit. It doesn't get very far, but at least we're inside now and it's warm. Than the relief: "Anyone with boarding cards?" I raise my hand, jump what little queue there is in front of me, drop my bag off and am at the gate a little later. Here, peace reigns. The crowds and chaos are left behind outside.

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