Heathrow Experience
Heathrow Experience
2006-08-14 16:47:30 by Andrew Hitchcock G+

Today I had the good fortune to experience flying out of London's Heathrow airport on a US-bound flight. Sarcasm aside, I was lucky that my flight wasn't canceled.

My dad flew out last Thursday when the plot was revealed and the airport chaos began. The rest of my family assumed he was spending the night in London. A day or two later we checked our e-mail and discovered he managed to get out with only a four hour delay.

On the BBC the morning after the plot was revealed, I was aghast to learn passengers were allowed only the vital essentials (passport, napkins feminine hygiene products (curiously, I don't think pocket knives and space blankets were part of the airlines' ideas on 10 essentials)) in clear plastic bags. If this is the future of air travel, I want no part of it. Alas, I still had to get myself and my valuables home. I loathed the thought of sending my laptop in my checked luggage, and I don't have any faith in FedEx.

This morning I went down to breakfast in our B&B and turned on the telly. The BBC was talking about the relaxed restrictions. I did a little dance, but was disappointed when I learned that the airports weren't going to adopt the new practices until tomorrow morning. Blast. Nevertheless, I still had to fly home and I knew there was nothing I could do.

After saying goodbye to my brother Jeff at Paddington station (he is continuing on to see more of Europe by himself), my mom and I caught a train to Heathrow. I was curious about the whole ordeal, but still not looking forward to the chance of delays and not having any entertainment on the flight. The conductor of the train told us to head toward arrivals instead of departures. The directions stopped once we backtracked to baggage claim. We asked one of the many uniformed employees and were directed out to the parking lot and up the elevator. There were large numbers of people sitting around at the top floor of the parking garage. There were a few large tents set up employees had food, water, and blankets on hand. I felt like a refugee. After asking, we were told we should stay in the area until two hours before the flight when they would call our flight. We waited until the time came near, and then moved down to Area B, where our checking was located. Once you flight is called, you were allowed to cross the pedestrian bridges and enter the terminal. Not seeing any signs, we asked another employee where we should go. They directed us to a line in Area B, but someone soon came buy asking for our destination. It turns out we were in the wrong line and would have to head to Area A.

Walking the short distance to Area A, we passed a number of, presumably, BBC correspondents. One man was discussing luggage size, and demonstrating how standard carry-on luggage wouldn't fit the new restrictions (he was using a hastily constructed wood box painted white and emblazoned with "BBC"). A woman was interviewing a passenger and later doing a monologue in while walking past the line.

We waiting in that line for over an hour. About halfway through, employees starting asking people destined for Washington, DC (and later Vancouver and Montreal) to come to the front of the line for expedited processing. Eventually they asked for everyone destined for Seattle, and the first two and a half switchbacks raised their hands. At this point the plane was supposed to depart in 55 minutes. It was ten more minutes before we reached the front of the line, and the majority of Seattle bound passengers were still behind us. Note, the bottle neck here was completely the fault of British Airways. The actual check-in procedure was quite quick, despite the fact that I reached into my bag for a few items while at the counter. Only one third or one fourth of the stations had staff, so the process could have easily been sped up.

Upon entering the terminal, I saw passengers carrying non-essential items in their plastic bags (including Pringles). After inquiring, I learned that magazines and even laptops were allowed. I was still skeptical, so I delayed removing my laptop until the last minute before checking the bags. I triple checked with the check-in agent before removing my laptop and headphones.

After checking our luggage, we made our way to security and, presumably, more queues. My mom commented that she felt naked without her carry-ons and I agreed. At the entrance to the security area, where they checked our tickets and passports, they had one final garbage collection (a godsend in a country with a conspicuous lack of rubbish bins). The security line was quick, and would have been even shorter had we not been ambushed by a government surveyor asking about our traveling experience in England (in an attempt to gauge the economic benefit of tourism in the UK). At the x-ray machine, they had me remove my laptop from a clear plastic bag (filled with just two magazines and my headphones) and put it in a clear plastic bag by itself. I also took off my relatively new belt because I remembered it set off the alarms in the States. Upon navigating the arch, I was frisked by a male attendant. I had caught a glimpse of my mom with the female attendant, but had assumed she was being wanded. The boy was thorough, I'll give him that. He went quick, and even felt around the waist of my jeans. I was afraid they might drop, since I was missing my belt. The security check was amazingly quick—contrary to everything I had been hearing—and it took more time to just get dressed again.

My mother looked for lip balm for sale in the inner sanctum, but all shops were sold out. We eventually made it to our gate and got in line to board the plane (which was already in progress). Walking down the walkway, we passed a final inspection point which seemed to be only interested in Muslims. People boarded relatively quickly, an advantage of not having any carry-on luggage. We taxied for a little while before stopping… for an hour and a half. Finally US immigrations gave us the A-OK (which garnered much applause in the plane) and we took off. I'm currently above Canada's Ungava Bay.

Surprisingly, the delays were not caused by security, which I presumed and the media reported, but by the lack of employees checking-in luggage and the extremely long delay getting approval from US immigration. The delays were not inherent in the level of security checks, but by the apparent incompetence in planning and execution by the airlines and mysterious delay from the US (perhaps based on increased background checks on passengers?). Assuming those two problems are resolved, I see no reason why service can't return to normal. I don't know what the situation is like at the domestic terminal, but if it is anything like that at the international terminal, then BA need only hire more people to work the baggage checkins to increase throughput. The domestic flights aren't slowed by US immigration, which was the main cause of delay for our flight.

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