Diary of a Heathrow victim

Oh Heathrow, how people love you. The biggest and busiest airport in the UK, the Poorhouse has yet to hear anyone say much good about it. It was therefore with some trepidation that a journey was attempted passing through this gateway to the heavens earlier this week.

The getting-there went fine. For once, the trains worked well, and one can't fault the off-peak Heathrow Express for getting you from Paddington station to the airport itself (other than for its rather high price, but that's what expense accounts are for, right?). It's like the future of trains, running regularly, seats that are almost comfortable and a looped video of "Welcome to the Express" running like a mind-numbing chorus throughout the journey. You can even wifi, if you really can't live 15 minutes with non-mobile-phone internet.

This was of course in stark contrast to the Heathrow experience itself. It did seem like there were quite a lot of queues going on in the departures part of T4. Still, airports = queues, nothing to worry about. Time to use the surprisingly efficient (theoretically) self-checkin machines BA conveniently provide that even let you select your preferred seat without the need for human contact. Erm, "you cannot be checked in, go seek assistance" messages came up, not entirely unexpectedly. So off the Poorhouse goes to seek assistance, from the sole check-in assistanty person. The queue wasn't that immense there, but of course they tended to be frustratingly long problem cases. Small rage.

Of course what had happened here was the curse of Heathrow springing to light again. It so happened that this H-day coincided with a bit of this:

Yep, some mighty heavy storm weather in the UK. Wonderful. Even though we are supposed to live in a man-made paradisical future these days, planes can't beat wind, so flight cancelled. Fury. Don't get the Poorhouse wrong, better cancelled than mashed up in a foolish attempt at flying, but really by now they should have developed some sort of storm-proof rocket planes to prevent these inconveniences. It would have been nice to have been notified in some way of these cancellations, but hey, they looked busy.

You can of course rebook flights, but not from the particular desk you are likely to be at at the point of finding out that you need to. That would just be plain sensible, so cannot be allowed. Rather it's the BA ticket office at the other end of the warehouse-proportioned terminal. Although it wasn't actually that far to walk because the queue stretched almost from one side to the other anyhow. In fact the queue was so intense, even by British standards, that a roped off section elsewhere had been created so that you could in fact queue for the right to join the queue.

To give them credit, one didn't have to wait for the whole multi-hour queue to happen. A very helpful bloke wandered up and down when you were maybe three-quarters of the way there and used his mobile phone to ring some mysterious place that allowed you to rebook standing within the queue. This is almost like living in the future. It would however be substantially better and less harsh on the staff if you could WAP-rebook via mobile phone or similar. The staff did a good job, all things considered, with some idiot wannabe passengers verbally assaulting the staff who actually could be bothered to help. Nothing like encouragement to do a good job huh?

3 hours down, just got to wait another 4 hours to get the next plane. Boring x 100, but doable. Handy tip: obviously the bar, restaurant and all other good areas to go are packed tight with furious people in these circumstances and are hence not fun or comfortable. Luckily people hadn't seem to realise that arrivals would have similarish facilities. They did, so a bun and tea could be had in grim industrialish but at least seated comfort.

Realising that the queues were no doubt immense now people have been bumped onto new later flights, the Poorhouse sacrificed reading the end of some magazine to go and check in with a nice 2.5-3 hrs before flight. Good preparation. Into the self-check-in machine we go and, yes, of course, " you cannot be checked in, go seek assistance". Wrath. But slightly understandable; perhaps the machine didn't understand that the flight was rebooked.

So after a surprisingly minimal 20 minutes waiting for the check-in help lady the check in had been successfully completed manually, and boarding passes were held. Yay. So all that remained was "bag drop", a facility that sounds like it would be quick and efficient, but somehow takes at least as long as the non-auto checkin facilities do. There was a good hour and a half of standing in an angry bitching queue to dump the load in preparation for joining another angry bitching queue in the name of faux-security.

As the Poorhouse neared the front it didn't help that another flight was getting imminent so some other poor stuck people had to be let in front to bag-drop first. Fair enough. What was less fair enough is that when the bag drop was reached they wouldn't take the poor-bags...because...this next rebooked flight was also cancelled. Double whammy joy! It would perhaps have been nice had someone bothered notifying the queuing masses of this to prevent >1 hr worth of painful standing around and getting in the way of people who were actually able to fly, but hey, a 5 second announcement that flight "BAxxx is cancelled" probably costs money or something. GRR.

So we know what that means right? It's time to join the now even longer queue for the queue to go to the ticket office again for rebook o'clock. Joyeaux. By now, the mood in the terminal was not good. Skiers, business people, backpackers et al were in no way in a sunny holiday mood. However, again what was impressive was the staff. Of course they didn't exactly do anything helpful, bar one man - again phone-rebooking - but they weren't as offensive as that Airport program might suggest despite no doubt yet another work-day from hell for them. The phone man did manage to rebook yet another poor-flight, but for the day after sadly. However, he did assure me that the BA ticket desk would sort me out a complimentary hotel rather than forcing the Poorhouse - several hundred miles away from his residence, sans transport - to sleep on the streets. And it would only take another 2 hours of queuing, hurrah.

So another 2 hours of queuing it was, until front ticket desk was reached. Joy. An explanation was provided and a hotel requested. Several times in fact, because it seemed that the ticket agent could not understand this scenario, which presumably she had been experiencing once every 30 seconds for the past 4-5 hours at least. And she wouldn't let me have a hotel. Apparently, you do get a hotel, but (important tip #2) only if you flew in to the airport from elsewhere. A substantial cross-country train journey with no hope of a nightly return does apparently not count, and weakened by the 7-8 (?) hour queuing the Poorhouse could only gently resist until defeat was accepted. A rather massive amount of frustration was felt at being told to queue for hours for something that wasn't ever going to be available. Hmm. It seems (silly tip #3) that if you are travelling a long way it might be safer / cheaper to actually fly from an airport near your house to Heathrow et al. before making the international leg of your travelling just in case you get stranded in notorious Heathrow. Yes, yet another stupid incentive to wreck the planet further by taking pointless domestic flights for no good reason.

So, downstairs to arrivals, where there is a handy hotel desk to beg and plead for somewhere to stay, it now being considerably late on. Luckily, despite the c. 90 cancelled flights that day, there was a place not too far away. Unluckily, the cheapest it could be had for was £210 (plus a £5 booking fee, just to tip the scales). Yes, half a month's mortgage for one short night, with no food, transport or other perks, in a bland airport-staff-mainly hotel. By chance, the poor-credit-card could just about fit this in, but if either a) it would push the balance up beyond the limit, or b) it was a personal (non-business) trip meaning that ridiculous unproportinate forced charges of that ilk were unacceptable in your budget - it could quite easily double your holiday cost if you're a budget holidayer - then it would be the cold hard golden pavements of London that would support your drained frame as you tried to sleep the nightmare away. This leads to important tip #4: never try and travel anywhere in any way distant if you do not have the best part of a spare £500 on you to bail you out of emergencies.

RSI is setting in now, so to quickly spoil the ending, the next day the flights worked OK, so the Poorhouse was only 6 hours late for the meeting, ~ £250 poorer than he should have been and in the mental state befitting someone who spent nearly double-digit hours in an airport with no gain. Boo.

Imagine the joy when flying back the next day to find...the flight is cancelled. Massive fury. Luckily it seemed here that despite the fact the cancellation was due to weather - and weather does not traditionally exist purely within an airport's limits - a workaround here was to fly to a different, non-Heathrow, airport, which of course bypasses the Heathrow curse and allows safe passage home. Comfortable safe passage even, due to some BA mess-up of the transfer ticket Air France accidentally put the Poorhouse in seat 01A of the plane - and this isn't one of those silly planes that restart numbering from the start of the economy class. Massive legroom, complimentary glasses of champagne, something approximating dinner (but a foul, foul combination of fat prawns and manky green leaves wasn't the best prize) and uber-fake insincere smiles from the air hostesses almost made life worth living again. Until of course back in London it turned out the return train journey was also cancelled. Trains may not fly, but it seems wind still hurts them. Rant rant etc.

To show topicality: Hip hip horray for the newly opened Heathrow terminal 5. Not only will it likely cause additional unnecessary environmental menaces but it spreads the famous curse of Heathrow to an even wider geographic zone. Aargh. Suggest you go quickly watch the hilarious slideshow of it on the airport website. Recent experiences suggest that the tagline "From here you can see tomorrow" is indeed entirely factual, there being little chance that you will get away on a flight less than 24 hours after the one you actually booked was supposed to take place.

PS: No, the weather isn't Heathrow's fault of course. However it is the curse of Heathrow's fault.

PPS: Yes, a lot of people have had far far worse experiences at the big bad H, but those people don't write articles on here do they?


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