Heathrow Madness

A Snowbound PlaneMy self-imposed vacation from blogging fell at the first hurdle. Admittedly, it has been a rather steep obstacle, indeed one that is impossible to ignore. The British have a penchant for complaining about the weather: seldom has that habit been more justified.

I thought I might be in trouble as I watched the snow come down on Saturday. My flight was and is scheduled for Tuesday, December 21, so I thought that it would be sufficient time for Heathrow to get its act together. Surely, I told myself, I’d be able to get to New York. Certainly, 72 hours should be sufficient time to deal with any ice and snow.

I was wrong, of course. There are times when the nagging voice of doubt is maddeningly correct, and this was one of those instances.

Nevertheless, I am one of the lucky ones. I am sitting in a hotel room, warm and comfortable. I have had a decent meal and will be sleeping in a bed tonight rather than seeking solace in a cold floor and wrapping an aluminium sheet around me: this triumph over adversity was not due to my own cleverness. Rather, since getting to Heathrow is rather difficult even in good weather, I had booked a room for the night before the trip: a dear friend in the travel industry supplied me with a good rate. Once trouble seemed to be my lot, it was relatively straightforward to get the reservation extended for an extra day. If I awake to a cancelled flight, then at least I don’t have to find shelter. I can continue to remain warm and pad around my cosseted confinements in pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt.

I cannot stress enough that I am fortunate. I did get a glimpse of what is going on at the terminals: from my present vantage point, they glow in the distance. The lights of the runway, in shades of blue and magenta, are warm and comforting. Occasionally, I hear a plane roaring overhead.

But these outward signs are simply a mask for utter chaos. In order to get here, I had to take a series of trains. The first train I intended to take was cancelled. There was a sudden downpour as I made my way to the train station and it left me soaked and chilly; the added wait did not help matters. I did finally manage to make my way to London, then to Paddington and to take the Heathrow Express. I was comforted by the fact that the young lady at the customer service desk visibly brightened when I told her I was travelling tomorrow. But as soon as I boarded the train, an announcement was made, stating that no more people would be allowed into Terminals 1 and 3 due to overcrowding. My sister phoned as the train began to move; she is taking a similar trip, sadly with an airline which has far fewer flights to New York. She has found it impossible to find out what precisely is going on.

“This is many different colours of stupid,” I said to her. I am unchanged in this opinion: many airports, not least in Scandinavia, have effective techniques for managing snow. That aside, the lack of clear information has likely fed the influx of travellers to the terminals. Just telling travellers that if they don’t have a precise confirmation they shouldn’t come isn’t sufficient. Airlines simply aren’t that forthcoming, as they likely don’t know themselves what services they will be able to run until it’s too late to stem the flow.

The train was quick; the ticket collectors sensibly let the passengers be. I suggest that being particularly bureaucratic in a situation as strained as the one we were in would not have helped. An Australian tourist wearing a grey blouse that was far too revealing given the weather had set her jaw into a firm, hard line and had a determined look in her eye. Most of the other passengers looked simply weary and surly, as if winter had used far too much of them up even before the season had officially begun.

Upon disembarking at Heathrow, my plan was to find the nearest taxi rank and to get to my hotel as quickly as possible. I battled past tourists dragging gigantic cases behind them to a bank of lifts, and upon emerging, I proceeded towards Terminal 3. There were several people camped out in my path: one was a young lady, wrapped up as tightly as possible in a grey scarf and coat, seated on top of her case. Her legs were tucked up beneath her in the Lotus position: her laptop was perched on her knees and she was typing with some vigour. A letter to concerned relatives? A missive to the airline? Both?

Another passenger sat slumped further along in the corridor. Her head was leaning down, as if the hinge by which it was attached to her neck had become loose. I assume she was doing her best to sleep, despite the constant march of fresh passengers that proceeded before her.

Kettling appears to be a theme of this year: I saw passengers bunching up down the tunnel to Terminal 3 Departures. “Ah,” I said aloud: here was the barrier, preventing further passengers from getting in. I turned on my heel and went to Arrivals: the taxi rank, I reasoned, would be more accessible from there anyway. It was less crowded than I feared, and it appeared that Heathrow has been highly successful keeping the shops open. I found the taxi rank: after spending 20 minutes waiting in a queue that stretched the length of the rank, I finally arrived here.

As I look outside my window, I can see that more snow is falling; fortunately its pace is gentle and slow, the flakes are coming down in large, cottony clusters. However, it is difficult to discern from this vantage point any activity that would imply the fresh snowfall is being managed.

I reiterate: I am lucky. It’s entirely possible I will get away tomorrow. There are hundreds, if not thousands of people not more than a mile away from this place who are cold and weary, whose prospects of arriving at their destination prior to Christmas seem rather dim. It’s at this point that we have to ask, how did we get here? Who is to blame? Or should we merely say, ala Mark Twain that “everyone complains about the weather but no one does anything about it”?

Let’s begin with the airport operator: if this weather was a once in a lifetime event, then their inability to respond would be excusable. However, there was a preview on the 2nd of December, which was a substantial snowstorm. Furthermore, there was a freeze even more fearsome than this one in January. What has been learned? What has been done? Apparently, not much.

It is perhaps also due to BAA’s lack of focus on its core business: I’ve been struck as to how much emphasis the airports in their care place on marketing their duty free shops. It isn’t inaccurate to say that the shopping mall aspect of flying is better than ever. However, an airport’s primary concern should be to get people efficiently from one place to another: but presumably the rewards associated with an investment in that activity are less readily obtainable than those which arise from sales of bottles of mint flavoured Irish Cream.

Perhaps the airlines deserve some of the opprobium. Don’t forget, there was a point when flying was considered something special. I recall newsreel films of the 1950’s and 1960’s in which people dressed up to travel. Rather than an experience, travel is now a commodity: the price pressure on this commodity is ever downward, with the exception of when fuel costs determine otherwise. However, the commodity is now so cheap that if passengers are stranded, this is merely unfortunate. After all, travel is no longer special.

It’s justfied to award the government with the proverbial wooden spoon as well. The privatised state has been proven not to work: airports become shopping malls, profit comes before utility, and yet they still adhere to dogma. Furthermore, they appear to have washed their hands of the responsibility apart from giving the airport operators a good telling off. This helps nothing; additionally, it feeds a reluctance to invest in measures which would mitigate the effects of future storms. Another ugly truth that the government doesn’t want to acknowledge is that the wild weather may be due to the effects of climate change, which it should be reiterated, is not the same as global warming.

We, the public, also have a share in this: we demand travel to exotic places instead of cherishing the pleasure of home. That said, the other miscreants in my list are doing a fine job in suppressing this appetite.

Soon, I will be heading off to sleep. If I so choose, I can tune into BBC Radio 3 and perhaps I will catch a Christmas carol or two. With a bit of luck, I will slip through the cracks in the “kettle” around air travel, and at the moment the plane ascends, I will enter into my holiday season, and leave Heathrow’s madness behind. I certainly hope so; and I wish the same escape for those who are stranded in the distance.

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