My journey over to the UK was awesome, but the departing experience at Heathrow airport was an ever longing wait of frustration, anticipation, and stress. The news of the foiled attacks prepared me for long waits and many more surprises, but what happened in my particular case was a bit of a surprise.
Let me start off with the rules: No carry on luggage, no food, magazines, liquids, electronics, and the basic harmful objects. The only things you could carry on board was your passport, tickets, wallet, medicine, and some exceptions to baby food all contained in a provided clear plastic bag. Many people ended up with broken laptops and other such fragile good you would generally carry on board, though starting today, small laptop bags are allowed. For the rest of the painful yet interesting experience, read on…
So, I went through 3 security checks but some unlucky individuals went through more if they were randomly selected. The security line was long, 2-3+ hours each. The first line was for checking in luggage, which was your only chance to check in everything and only carry on what was allowed (many people tried cheating this). The second line was the first security check to get into the terminals with x-rays, pat downs, and hand searches into your only plastic bag. This is also where a great deal of goods were thrown away. There was a trashbag on the floor full of cell phones, ipods, cameras, jewelry, razors, notebooks, usb sticks, key fobs, lipstick, some really expensive pens, and many other items that would be hard to throw away.
Ok, so 5 hours later, I finally make it into the terminal area with shops. My flights already been delayed but to an unknown time. Over in London, instead of giving a delayed time, they just post “please wait”. Rumors have it that our flight is delayed another 6 hours, so I browse around all the nice shops, try on all tons of Prada shoes, Paul Smith clothing, Tag Heuer watches, D&G sunglasses, and a few other high-end stores. I found a few things that I liked, but I’m not allowed to buy anything since we are not allowed to carry anything on board. (here’s a pimpin cool watch I tried on by Diesel that I’m craving to get) I end up reading 60 pages of Freakonomics in the bookstore and probably a good dozen magazines. Eventually, I become friends with a handful of other stranded Boston passengers which ended up with good chats and laughs at the bar.
10 hours later from my arrival to the airport, the monitor finally bleeps, “go to gate 24”! Wohooo!!!! I quickly throw down Freakonomics and scurry on to the gate only to find yet again, another security line. Again, many individuals would purchase goods in the shopping area that would be thrown away on the spot. This line did not take as long(1-2 hours), but it still was annoying. It was another pat down search, search into your plastic bag, and some questioning. Finally, I pass this part and hear the sweet sound of my ticket being ripped and allowing me onto the planes bridge.
So half the plane is full, and suddenly they close the gates and stop allowing passengers onto the bridge. What’s happening? I’m tired, ready to pass out, and just want nothing but to pass out. 20 minutes later, while food is being served, and the safety instructions have already been demonstrated, they announce the horrifying news! The flight is being cancelled!!!! WHAT!!!!!!!!!! “Please collect your belongings and depart this plane now”. Apparently, the pilots and crew had a limit at how many hours they could fly and they had about an hour to get everyone on board to depart, but because of this last security check point, it took to long and they had to cancel the flight while we were freakin sitting in the plane. You think this is bad, just wait to listen more.
So at this point, its about 1 am, many passengers are angry, a few are asked for questioning after they air out their frustration. What are we suppose to do! “Please return in the morning and try to re-book your tickets”. Now check this out, to freakin leave the terminal required us to somewhat go though another security check point. We had to use the emergency exists that required some security guards card to get through a few doors. Eventually we found ourselves in the customs check-in point, but where are we flying in from? At the customs point, we explain that out flight was just cancelled and they continuously ask us where did we just fly in from… We were in London, checking back into London. Eventually the chaos allowed us to get through.
Ok, now we are in baggage claim and are told our luggage is on the plane and it can’t be taken off. They claim it will be best for us to leave everything checked in and just wait for our next flight, though some are told it may take 3-4 days for this. Please leave the baggage claim and go to the main reservations desk outside!!! Will we have to go through the 10 hours of security lines again!!!
Ok, we leave the luggage area and return back to the main airport where anyone can be. I follow a flock of passengers to the reservations desk where workers are stressed out and really have not a clue what is going on. Many employees had already left work, and several were doing overtime. Many local passengers just quit, and asked to have their luggage shipped back to their UK homes, but for me and several others, we are pretty much homeless and have not a clue where to stay. At this point, many people had broken down and are crying on the floor. We want to re-book our tickets, but guess what, everyone working in the reservations area were not trained to do this as they were just employees filling in the desks. They keep passing around printed sheets apologizing for this chaos asking us to call reservations at 7am.
They also decided to take off all the luggage for a really surprising reason! So why did you guys decided to suddenly take off all the luggage. “Because the plane has to fly back to Boston to pick up people flying to London!!!!” WHAT!!! yes, an empty flight back to Boston, the plane that half the passengers were just sitting in, is flying back to Boston, our destination point, to pick up passengers! This was absolutely horrible…why tell this to us! We were just on that plane and now you are flying back to Boston without us!!!!
Ok, now we are told we will have hotel rooms for the night but only for 1 night. Any other nights is not the airlines responsibility. So now we have to go back through security through the employee security check behind some closed doors. No pat dows, just an x-ray machine and many confused workers though they seemed more like janitors. This leads us back into the luggage claim where I eventually bug workers for a phone to use to call family members. Instead of calling my family first, I call up the reservations number and whala, they pick up!! I immediately re-book my reservation for 2 days later. While on the phone, one of the employee over hears me re-booking and asks me “are you speaking to reservations?!” Yup….”DO NOT HANG UP, let me have the phone when you are done! I quickly explain to the operator that I will not hang up, and there is a line of angry passengers behind me scrambling to re-book their flights. I ask the kind lady to make sure my ticket is real before I pass the phone over to the now long line of people that have heard of my news! I decided not to call my family as they are not picking up, hence ask for internet connection so that I can e-mail them.
Ok, so my ticket has been re-booked, and I return to the luggage area outside of the security room where I’m pretty sure passengers are not suppose to be. A worker sets me up behind a reservations desk for internet connection. I send off a few e-mails, then check my ticket update. At this point, everyone is still being told to call reservations at 7am. Only a a few dozen people had heard of my news. I tell a few individuals about my luck, and they quickly run on over to the security door where a line is forming. As I type away, a few passengers confuse me for an employee as I am sitting behind the desk. Some I help re-book tickets through the internet, and some I redirect to the security room to wait in line. I felt like I was working at the airline.
I’ve had enough….the airport is empty besides the stranded Boston passengers, and our luggage is finally out. I collect the the luggage and make my way out of the airport only to see several passengers sleeping on the floor with provided foil blankets. I guess they did not hear of the hotel or they were not part of Virgin Atlantics hotel set-up. The bus taking us to the airport did not work for a bit which only made for another angry laugh, but eventually I made it to the hotel.
Besides the chunk of info above, the Virgin Atlantic staff was incrediblly kind, going out of their way for things and understanding most situations. Their british accent also made for a more kind experience. I left 2 days later and the airport was much more organized. It took a mere 2 hour to get to the terminal this time. Other small stories:
– Rich family brought jewelry box through 2nd security check point. They are not allowed to carry on board, but are allowed to wear, so, next thing you see is a family of 4 with their mothers jewelry all over them. REALLY nice jewelry worth thousands I’m sure. They were Blinging!
– A stranded college student went back to London seeking a place to stay, and ended up chatting with the waitress at a restaurant. He ended up getting set up in a reallllly nice room and an amazing breakfast from what he told me for free.
– Many people ended up sharing rooms at hotels. I was kicked out of the hotel the 2nd night since Virgin did not pay, but I ended up staying with a friend from RISD! (thanks go!)
– The Heathrow security is much kinder and more relaxing than the states. I actually had a nice long chat with a security guard who was holding a huge automatic. He was very generous in giving me the inside scoop on things.
– a older man is stopped at the 3rd security check and is asked to throw away some patches and nicotine chewables. He has paper work allowing him to take it on board as he will go crazy on the 6-7 hour flight without it. He made it through the first 2 security check points, but is asked to throw away his goods or he would not be allowed to board.
– At the 3rd security check point again was another bag of tons of goodies. I’m not sure if people actually snuck them though the first 2 security points, or if they just purchased goods again in the terminal, but otherwise, it was a bag of things I’d like to have.
My chaotic journey took place August 12th, 2006 from Heathrow Airport. My re-booked flight left Aug 14th, which was not as crazy and much more organized.
ps: sorry for any, many, of the grammer spell checks as i decided to write and post this story the night of my arrival back to boston…bewildered and very tired do not help out in typing, nor carring too much for that matter. 😉