Escape from Heathrow Hell

This tale is getting published about a month later than I had anticipated, but I figure everyone likes listening to a good yarn of travel woe, so here it is.

Like most disasters, this one started out with a quiet whimper buried amidst the lull of complacency. True, I had checked the BBC the day before, and the headline story was about “severe weather disruptions” and cancelled flights at London’s airports due to snowfall. However, the amount of snow that had fallen (4-5″) was piddling by North American standards, and the article seemed to indicate that everything would be functioning normally by the next day. And so, I happily hopped on a flight out of Turin to London, where I would transfer to a connecting flight to New York. I was returning “home,” whatever that word meant after seven months of expat life in Italy. In Turin, British Airways staff boarded the flight with nary a hint of distress. Naturally, while we were in the air, my connecting flight out of London was cancelled.

When I arrived, the scene at Gatwick airport was a madhouse of stranded travelers—part refugee camp, part crisis counseling center. Behind me, an Italian girl wailed into her cell phone, crying, “Non ci sono voli, niente! Niente!” (There are no flights, nothing!) I resolutely joined the customer service queue to rebook a flight to New York. In line, I soon made friends with Maddie, who had also just flown to London from Turin. Her dad was frantically trying to find a new flight for her online, with no luck. After 90 minutes of waiting, the clerk gently informed me that the earliest flight I would be able to take would be the evening of Dec 23rd, four days later.

It was now about 5 pm. I was homeless, flightless and my cell phone was very low on credit and battery. On the plus side, I had all the time in the world. Dazed, Maddie and I trekked to the internet lounge on level 1, where she tried to buy a Boingo pass for wifi access, but the servers were so swamped that nothing was loading. There were three workstations off in a corner, and on a lark, I sat down at one and opened a browser. Much to my surprise, it did not ask me to pay for internet access. Concerned that this lifesaver could be yanked away at any moment, my fingers moved at hyperspeed, posting pleas on Facebook, Twitter and Gmail to please let me know if anyone could house me in London. In short order, my plight had been publicized everywhere from Argentina to the Couchsurfing SOS list. Meanwhile, it was slowly sinking in that I was going to be here for a while. “You know,” said Maddie, “they’d planned a welcome party for me tonight.” I winced and tried not to think about my dashed plans for a triumphant return.

Meanwhile, my friend Wendy counseled persistence in a series of i.m. exhortations. “Do you have a plan?” she asked. I shook my head. “You can catch a stand-by flight,” she said. “Go talk to them, be polite but firm, and it doesn’t hurt to say that someone is dying.”

Chastened, I stood up and trekked back to the British Airways counter. In an attempt to prevent passengers from continuing to swarm the check-in hall, Gatwick had turned off and barred the escalators. I hopped over the barricade anyway. Upstairs, I put on a tight smile and politely asked for for a flight to Manchester, one of the few remaining flights still operating, where there was a codeshared outbound flight to Newark. The elderly gentleman patiently heard me out, but informed me that I would not be able to get a codeshare booking here. Perhaps I would have better luck at Heathrow, he advised, which served far more flights to the US. As it turns out, Gatwick only goes to fun, tropical sorts of places, like Miami and southern Europe.

At a loss for better options, I hopped on the National Express and headed to Heathrow. For the moment at least, I was comfortably seated and chewing on a warm sandwich. I had a feeling things were about to take a turn for the worse.

Outside Heathrow, snow lay in thick piles on the ground and the sidewalks were uncleared. The departures board listed row after row of cancellations, ghostly remnants of bygone plans. Spotting a lone clerk still at her desk, I got in line behind an Indian woman. “Send me anywhere,” she demanded. “I will take any flight you can give me, I just want to get out of London. Dubai, Hong Kong, anything. I will pay whatever it takes, I can buy a whole new ticket. Do you understand? I can’t keep staying here, I’ve got to get out.” My eyes widened at her desperate determination. The clerk made a few sympathetic clucks, but told her that unfortunately she could not book a new ticket from this desk, and would need to do so in the queue in Zone E. “But I waited in that line for 8 hours today!” replied the woman furiously. “It’s a death trap!” She stormed away, and the clerk sighed and turned to me. “What can I do for you?” she said.

I asked for information on the stand-by process, and she suggested that I wait in Zone A the next morning at 6 am, when it would be possible to wait list for the various flights of the day. As I departed, heads popped up from around the corner. “Hey,” said a chipper voice. Two girls about my age were sprawled out on the floor on overturned plastic bins. The pony-tailed brunette continued. “Hey, it sounded like you were getting interesting information. What did she tell you about the stand-by process?” I relayed my information and the other two girls gave each other skeptical looks. “I don’t know about that,” the brunette continued. “We’ve been stuck here for a few days now, and we think we’ve figured out the system. If I were you, I’d be queuing far earlier than 6 am. In fact, we’ll be getting in line at about 3 am. Where are you heading?” “New York,” I replied. “Good,” she said. “I am hoping to get to LA, ultimately to get to Vancouver, and my friend here is trying to get to Amsterdam, and then finally to Prague. If you like, you can join us for the night. By the way, my name’s Alanna and this is Lucy.”

Alanna beckoned behind her. “The floor is really cold, so if you use of those plastic oversized luggage bins, it’ll at least give you a few inches of clearance off the ground.” I dutifully retrieved a yellow bin, and collected a thin foam pad and an airplane blanket. Great, I had bedding for the night. “So, how long have you guys been in here?” I asked. “Well, this is my third day,” said Alanna. “And my fourth,” said Lucy. Both looked rather haggard under the fluorescent airport lighting, but Alanna remained optimistic. “The stand-by process will get us out,” she reassured me. “Don’t worry, there will definitely be a few flights to New York tomorrow.”

My phone rang. It was a friend of a friend of a friend, offering couch space in South London. I told him that I was going to stay put at Heathrow for now, but took down his phone number in case my unplanned vacation stretched into another night. “He said he lived in Brixton?” Lucy sniffed. “I definitely would not recommend going there, it’s quite dodgy from what I hear.” I shrugged and arranged my green foam pad on the plastic crate.

The conversation petered off as we glanced at our watches. 10 pm. “I suppose it’s about time for bed? Good night, everyone!” Alanna said airily. I huddled under my Barbie-sized blanket and tried to block out the lights with one hand. My other hand was curled around the handles of my luggage. I shifted uncomfortably from side to side, struggling to fit my legs on the plastic bin. With every approaching footstep, I tensed up, waiting for an unknown stranger to snatch my bags away from me. Foreign tongues and the drone of snoring echoed in the distance.

An airport terminal is an ecosystem with rules unto itself. There was a social hierarchy, where status was accrued in accordance with the length of your stay inside. There were two primary sources of food, a Caffe Nero at one end and a pub at the other. There was only one water fountain available, near the bathrooms in Zone C, but the water tasted like bathroom pipes. In far greater supply was conflicting information, given out by clueless British Airways employees who simply wanted to shake off angry passengers. The smell of unwashed bodies and despair filled the air.

Shivering with cold and unable to sleep, I sat up on my marigold bin. Around me, other passengers had set up barricades of folding chairs to protect their luggage. It was 2:30 am. Alanna got up and scanned the empty floor. Deftly, she moved her bin in front of counter A14, and motioned for the rest of us to follow. We had only moved a few meters from our original spots, but we were now squatting on far more valuable real estate. Other travelers quickly moved to fill in behind us. Anyone who strayed from their position in line was given dirty looks and clicks of the tongue until they returned to their proper place.

Where are you from, where are you going, and how long have you been here? I swapped my vital stats with the people immediately adjacent to me. The Indian engineer was still in relatively good humor. “You know what, if I ever have a chance to invite British Airways employees to my country,” he railed, “I will give them a fine welcome—I will make them sleep outside the airport in 40 C weather!”

Others were somewhat less jovial. “Did you hear,” said the murmurs, “there was a flight to JFK last night at 7:55 pm with 71 empty seats on it? 71 EMPTY SEATS! Why wouldn’t they tell us about them?” The din of anger rose higher. There was a Manchester student trying to get home to Athens, who was told that if she could make it to London, she would be able to fly out. After taking a series seven trains, she arrived in London only to be stuck again. There was a couple from San Francisco who missed their opportunity to get out by just one spot in line. There was a groom from Sweden who was supposed to get married the next day.

“I’m hoping to hop on the flight to L.A. too,” Alanna said casually. “From what I’ve heard, there are 170 people already on the waitlist.” The Korean girl’s jaw dropped. “Are you serious? How do you still have hope?” Alanna paused for a moment. “We are getting out today,” she said with confidence. The other girl wrung her hands together. “I’ve got to get home, I can’t spend another night here,” she said.

A British Airway employee strode past carrying a clipboard. It was the list of flights scheduled to leave Heathrow for the day. We tackled him with the fervor of a thousand exiles. On a normal day, British Airways flies about 350 flights out of Heathrow. Yesterday, only 17 of those flights actually lifted off. Today, another 20 planes were slated to fly. Three of them were scheduled for JFK.

Just before 5 am, staff began filtering into Zone A. Somewhere, I believe a wise man once said that the worst human behavior can be found at all-you-can-eat buffets and airports. The crowd was restless, and the jockeying for position in line intensified. Pseudo-bouncers emerged, as passengers aggressively chastised anyone who encroached upon their square foot of tile.

A businessman wearing a Bluetooth headset turned toward us with a beaming grin. “I bought a ticket for the next flight to New York, and I’ve also been added to the waitlist for every other flight to JFK today!” he exclaimed. Wait, what? How? “My travel agent did it for me. It was $5,000 well spent for that ticket. Ok, I’m off to go get coffee now.” We watched him recede into the crowd. Maybe travel agents aren’t so anachronistic after all.

A British Airways supervisor came to the front of the room with a megaphone. Flight by flight, he began asking for passengers to come forward if they wanted to fly stand-by to that city. Amsterdam was called, and Lucy dashed to the front of the room. We waved her off as she headed toward security. “Don’t come back, you hear?” I shouted.

At 6:30 am, the megaphone-wielding supervisor asked how many people were interested in the 8:20 am flight to JFK. My hand shot up, along with dozens of others. He asked us to gather on the other side of the room, and we stampeded in that direction. To the travelers in Heathrow that day: I apologize for any collateral damage I may have inflicted to small children or pets with my suitcase. By the time we lined up again, I was about 25 people back, out of a group of 40 or so. “How many empty seats are on this flight?” I asked a passing employee. “Oh, there are 60 or 70, you’ll be fine,” she said airily. The feeling that I was a patient in a psychiatric ward gnawed at me.

Across the aisle, a rakish man with a full beard was muttering to himself. “Hey,” he shouted at the attendant, “I know why it’s taking so long for them to clear the runways. I know that British Airways is about to be bought out by another company, and that’s why they didn’t stock up on de-icer and equipment this year!” The conspiracy theories were flying already. “Sir,” the attendant replied, “I am very sorry for your inconvenience, and I volunteered to help shovel snow myself, but they said that wouldn’t be possible. This is the most snow we’ve had in 30 years, and the coldest December we’ve had in 100 years.”

My thoughts wandered to the vagaries of global warming, or as Thomas Friedman writes in Hot, Flat and Crowded, “global weirding.” When natural disasters strike, news media and insurance companies call them “acts of God.” But how much have man-made activities impacted our planet’s weather patterns? When will it be not an act of God, but an act of man, or at least, partially an act of man?

Back in line, people were moving forward at a pace precisely opposite of how a leopard would move. After an hour-long wait, I stepped forward expectantly to the counter. Just as the clerk was about to print a boarding pass for me, an announcement was made. The 8:20 am flight to JFK had been cancelled.

My terminal buddies were still milling about on the other side of Zone A. “Why don’t you go grab breakfast?” suggested Alanna. “Or maybe wash up? I took a spritz shower yesterday in the bathroom, it’s not quite the same as a real shower but it’ll do for now.” Trudging off to the women’s restroom, I methodically brushed my  hair and teeth and put on  more deodorant. There, I looked slightly less disheveled than a Parisian gypsy urchin. Then I went to inspect the billboard of departures again. For the rest of the morning, my options to the eastern half of the US were as follows:

  • 10:20 am, Newark
  • 11 am, Boston
  • 11 am, New York (JFK)
  • 11:20 am, Philadelphia
  • 11:40 am, Chicago

Now, the crowd was lining up for the 10:25 am flight to Newark. I followed suit, uneasily counting the swelling group around me. After another half hour of waiting, we received the now-familiar news—the flight had been cancelled. “Maybe I ought to start drinking,” I said with exasperation. “I have all this Italian wine and chocolate in my suitcase that I was going to bring home for presents, but it might be better used here.” The people behind me tittered in sympathy.

The British Airways slogan is a damned dirty lie.

Back to the departures board, with four more potential escape routes. Okay, at least one of these flights will take off, I told myself. But which one? There were rumors that more snow was arriving at 5 pm, and all flights scheduled to depart after noon would be cancelled. Ominously, the 11 am flight to JFK had been delayed to 6 pm, then was reinstated back to its original departure time 40 minutes later. I hesitated.

Maybe New York and I simply aren’t meant to be today. I got in line for the 11 am flight to Boston, reasoning that once there, I could always take the Chinatown bus and be in New York in another 4 hours. Many of the faces around me were becoming familiar, all members of a displaced tribe. “Where are you trying to go?” I asked the Asian girl with an orange suitcase. “Washington D.C.,” she said, “but I’m willing to settle for Boston at this point.” “What about you?” I queried the Latina girl. “I want to get to the United States. Well, actually, I need to get to Venezuela. So, anywhere in the U.S. would be great,” she said.

At an agonizing pace, we inched our way forward, past a merry band of Nigerians bound for Lagos. While I twisted my fingers, the clerk inspected my documents and printed a boarding pass. “Wait,” I said, “this doesn’t have a seat number on it.” “This isn’t a confirmed boarding pass,” said the clerk. “You have to go the gate first and wait to see how many seats are available for stand-by passengers.” Great, so I had moved one step closer to being massively disappointed again.

Clutching my seat-less boarding pass, I forced my way through the crowded terminal. It had gone from a scene of relative serenity populated by exhausted shadows to a chaotic hive of agitated travelers. Determined to make it to the gate as fast as possible, I elbowed and buffeted my way to the security checkpoint, which was uncharacteristically devoid of people. Up the stairs, onto the tram, down the hall, I careened to a halt at the gate, gasping for breath. The gate attendant looked at me quizzically. “Good day,” I wheezed, “I’m hoping to fly stand-by for the Boston flight. Can you give me a seat?” She pursed her lips and told me I would have to wait another while. “Please,” I said, “any seat will do, I just want to go home.” I was still clutching my airplane blanket from the night before, grimy and dirty with other people’s hair, acting as a shield against the harsh realities of airport politics. The clerk considered for a moment, then grudgingly printed a new ticket for me. Seat 40E, in the middle of a 5-person row at the back of the plane. It was the most comfortable seat of my life.


About seven hours later, we landed without incident in Boston. Logan Airport was covered with a solid layer of snow, yet operating normally. “You know, if Heathrow looked like this, it would be closed for a month,” said the man behind me. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was still far from where I wanted to be, but at least there was light at the end of the tunnel, or at least, salted roads at the end of the gangway. God bless America and its army of snowplows. Later, I heard that the 11 am flights to JFK and Chicago had both been cancelled, but the flight to Philadelphia had taken off. It had been a close call.

In the end, my experience at Heathrow was tragically comical, and not nearly as miserable as it could have been. Unlike most of my terminal compadres who had been stranded for 3-4 days, I only spent one night there. Luckily, I met the right people and heard the right information early on, which was the key to getting out. I only wish I had been in the right frame of mind to get more contact information from my airport buddies. I have no way of finding out whether the rest of them made it out of London that day.

For kicks, I went back to read Heathrow’s statement on winter preparedness, issued in late November immediately before all hell broke loose. “Heathrow is determined that it doesn’t run out of the highly concentrated de-icing fluid it uses on the runways,” it states. So much for that.

Lessons learned: Make friends or perish. Always bring electronics adapters. Never travel to an island in winter.

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