I can imagine what it’s like for travellers with cancelled flights at Heathrow. Actually, I can more than imagine – I was in a dress rehearsal there last week.
I’d just checked in for the last flight home and was waiting in the lounge when they abruptly cancelled my flight, along with several others. Apparently air traffic control had problems with its computer. Regulars on the Newcastle route told me that this has happened several times in the last month. We have an nice IT bloke called Martin I’d happily lend them – he can sometimes fix one of our laptops in less than a fortnight.
Within seconds of the announcement a crowd formed round BA’s Customer Services desk. Each person was politely told the same thing: collect your baggage, then go to the BA desk at departures.
It sounded simple enough.
However, Terminal 5 makes you check in your face along with your baggage. A little camera takes a picture and they won’t let you out again unless somebody matches your real face to your photograph. So hundreds of us lined up at Gate 1 for a man at a single desk to meticulously match us before we could go downstairs and pretend to be an arrival.
We were then told to collect our baggage from Belt 7. Baggage Reclaim only lists Belts 1 to 4. Dozens of people were milling around looking confused, so I decided to take matters in hand.
“Belt 7 is in International Arrivals”, the man at the luggage desk told me, “through there”. He pointed at a locked door.
“But it’s locked,” I said to him.
“That’s because it’s International,” he said. “I can’t let you in.”
“So how do we get our baggage?” I asked, as politely as my rising anger could manage.
“Go out through Arrivals,” he said, “Right across the terminal to the other side, and then in through the staff entrance opposite the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop”. He wasn’t joking.
I reported back to the growing crowd: “We have to turn left at Krispy Kreme doughnuts and in through the staff entrance”.
They thought I was mad.
A small group trusted me and we made our way outside and along the crowded concourse. There we met other groups searching for signs of Krispy Kreme. Eventually we found the doughnuts and, opposite, a little door marked “No Entry – Airport Personnel Only”.
We nervously looked at each other, then, surreptitiously, followed a man with a badge into the bowels of the airport.
They clearly weren’t expecting us. There was just one security scanner and a growing queue of angry passengers. Beyond, a flustered man from British Airways was escorting people, six at a time, towards the baggage hall.
Backstage at Heathrow is about as glamorous as backstage in a theatre: grey walls covered with health and safety notices and holiday postcards.
Eventually I found my bag and trudged wearily through Customs. As I passed the Nothing To Declare sign I felt like saying: “Actually, I do have quite a lot to declare: this place should get its act together.” But instead I meekly went outside and took the lift to Departures.
There I found a miserable scene: hundreds of people were snaked through one of those rope mazes towards the Customer Services area. At the front of the queue (OK – I confess, I do quite a lot of travelling and know how to blag my way to the front), they politely rebooked me for the following morning, and gave me passes for hotel, meal and bus.
Except that the buses only go every half hour, take forever, and there was another queue at the hotel, so by the time I was checked in, the restaurant was closed.
Outside, I could see the airport glistening under the floodlights. On another night, in another hotel, it could have looked vaguely romantic. But it had taken me four hours to get here and I had to be up at 5am.
That was last week. Right now, I’m about go outside, get in my car and head to the airport for yet another flight. I may be some time.