'Tis the season for peace, love, and swearing at bloody stupid airline people

When the time came to schedule this European odyssey that we're currently on, I discovered two things. First, that it was going to be a hell of a lot cheaper to fly on the 18th of December than on the 22nd, and second that it really is cheaper to book a regular round trip ticket than a multi-city ticket. That was all good, though, since it let me schedule a couple of days in London at the start of the trip.

Or so I thought.

When I'm on the road, I've got this habit of ignoring the news. There are just so many better things to do while traveling than waste time learning about the various messes our species has managed to get into lately. So I was a little surprised, but not too alarmed, when we went to dinner on the 20th and found a bunch of passengers waiting on line in front of us in the hotel restaurant with British Airways food vouchers in their hands. The weather in London had been a little on the grey side, but it didn't look all that bad, and the number of people was small enough that I just assumed that there had been mechanical difficulties or something. It wasn't until the next morning, when I saw the somewhat hostile crowd surrounding the British Airways employees, that it started to dawn on me that there might be a bigger problem.

After spending a good chunk of the day in transit and another good chunk recovering, I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about the whole thing. I'm torn between total disgust at the way that British Airways dealt with the situation and total amazement that they managed to deal with it at all. We were lucky, in that the chaos we were subjected to was (if only in retrospect) more humorous than anything else - in other words, we managed to get on a plane that departed from the right place, went to the right place, and did so with both us and our bags on board.

For those of you who haven't seen it on the news, it's been a bit foggy at Heathrow for a couple of days now, and British Airways wound up cancelling all of its domestic flights from Heathrow as well as a fair number of the flights to Europe. That's what we learned when we got back to the hotel the second day, a little more than 12 hours before we were scheduled to fly from Heathrow to Frankfurt. That was enough to get me to look at the news, where I learned that BA had already decided to cancel the domestic flights for the next day (the 22nd), had cancelled most Frankfurt flights for the 21st, and was already listing the flight we were supposed to take as delayed by 3 hours.

So I went downstairs to talk to the British Airways people, who were nice and polite, and kind enough to tell me that although we were definitely confirmed on the flight, and the flight was definitely not going to take off before 10, and that 10 was more a guess than anything else and it might well be a lot later than 10, we should still get to the airport two hours before the originally scheduled departure time to check in. Thus began our journey through total chaos.

We get to the airport at about 5. This wasn't all that hard to do, since our internal clocks are so fouled up that we've got no idea when it is without looking at a clock anyway. (It's 10 hours earlier than we're used to.) It doesn't take very long to discover that the terminal is packed, and that there don't seem to be many people who know what's going on. It takes a lot longer to locate a British Airways employee who can tell us where to do. She takes our flight number, looks it up, and tells us that it's delayed until ten. I tell her that I know this, and she asks why we're here so early - "Why didn't you come at 8, then?" I tell her that we were told to show up at 5, and she said, "Oh, dear, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that they weren't right about that. Can you get back there and wait?" After I informed her that we had checked out, she directed us to a deceptively short line at one of the check in areas. The employee there, after we spent ten minutes working our way to the front of the queue, told us that we had been directed to the wrong queue, and told us to go to another one. We'd been there for five minutes when another employee told us that they weren't checking people in for our flight at all yet, and we should go stand by the far wall. Fifteen minutes later, another employee tells us that we shouldn't stand there, we should go outside where we would be told to wait in a tent for our flight to be called for check in. We go outside, and almost get to the tent when the PA system announces that our flight is available for check in at "Areas E, F, G, or H." We get into the area E line, spend 10 minutes there, and a supervisor-type walks down the balcony with a megaphone and announced that our flight would be checking in at "Area R."

It was hard to restrain my inner New Yorker at that point. And I really didn't try too hard, I'm ashamed to admit. The supervisor type did at least have the good grace to look a bit embarassed when I mentioned that I wasn't so annoyed, under the circumstances, about being given faulty information, but could they at least try to get their act together enough to make sure that everyone was giving out the same wrong answers.

In all seriousness, things could have been a lot worse. Our flight did depart, and it wasn't delayed too much beyond three hours. BA had managed to find a spare 747 for the flight, so that they could take as many of the passengers from the previous day's delayed flights. The cabin crew on the 747 was outstanding, particularly given the circumstances. It was a short flight, but they ran around providing as much service as possible. The normal flight to Frankfurt, in the small jet, apparently normally parks on the tarmac and passengers deplane down steps to busses, and they were unable to arrange for a jetway slot for the 747. They did, however, make sure that there were enough busses that the flight really didn't empty too much slower than it would have on a jetway. (And my son, in particular, was thrilled to be able to look out the bus window and see the plane just a few yards away.) They also had people at baggage claim, helping the displaced passengers sort out their travel to their final destinations. All-in-all, it wasn't a brilliant performance on BA's part, but it wasn't the worst, either.

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Oooh... you brought up some bad memories with this one. In 2003 I took a business trip to the UK, flying on BA to/from Heathrow. The morning of my return I was killing some time in Winchester, looking at some historical site or another and conversing with other tourists. Someone asked me if my flight was still going, as there was a strike on -- the first I'd heard of it.

I went back to my hotel and checked the internet, and, sure enough, the BA ground staff were on strike. BA was advising travellers to come to the airport in any case, since they expected to have it resolved soon.

So, I checked out of my hotel, drove to Heathrow and turned in my rental car. Reporting to "Area H" I found... chaos. The ground staff were coming back... no they weren't... management was going to cover... nope, not that. People crying. Tremendous lines at all of the payphones. When it became clear that nothing was flying that day, I got on the tube back to London -- they had gated off the train (Heathrow Express) because of the crush of people trying to get on. Rode a packed (and hot) tube train all the way to King's Cross. Found a payphone (no international cell phone on that trip -- not a mistake I'm going to repeat) and managed to get onto a BA flight from Gatwick the next day (a minor miracle, I'm told -- probably because I was actually nice to the agent on the phone.)

I ended up staying with a friend in London and flying back the next day, but the image of that sea of angry people in the terminal hasn't left me.

I forget exactly why the BA ground staff were striking that day -- something to do with having to actually clock in and out of work, I think. They certainly didn't do anything to win sympathy for their cause, though. The day they struck: The first day of the summer holidays. Thousands of vacations scheduled to start that day.

I have other BA/Heathrow horror stories, but I need a drink before I think about them.

Glad things worked out for you, though. Have a great trip!