Sunday, July 22, 2007

... Leavin' on a Jet Plane...

This is the saga of our attempt to return from our summer vacation in England and Wales. I wouldn't normally start a vacation story with the end, but this is the worst airline mess I've ever personally suffered through; and it was complicated by the way the travel agent set up our lodgings.

Friday morning we started from York, in northern England, and hit the M1 for London. All was smooth until after we stopped for lunch in Leicester; it started to rain then, and rained continually for about 70 miles, until we reached Luton, just north of the M25 (London ring road). This was world-class rain, too - so bad the M1 traffic slowed under 30 MPH (think of I-80) because the windshield wipers couldn't keep up. The water couldn't drain off the roads fast enough. The only other place I've seen it rain that hard was in the Arizona desert. It had quit by the time we got to the M25, but that was no help: it took us an hour and a half to go about 25 miles to our exit. We now knew why our first London cabbie had called it "the biggest car park in the universe". We inched our way down to exit J13 for Staines, where we had a hotel reservation; this is 2 exits past the M4 junction, which is (among other things) how you get to Heathrow.

By the time we got off the motorway, checked into the hotel, luggage unloaded, it was 5 PM; and we still had to return the rental car to Heathrow. We now know that you can get to Heathrow from Staines without going on the motorway; but we didn't know that then, so back we went into the meat grinder. It took us another hour and a half to get to the car rental return (the directional signs at Heathrow conform to the general English road sign assumption that if you don't know how to get somewhere, you probably shouldn't be going there; but I assumed the car rental firm wanted their Mercedes back). By this time my husband had been driving in appalling traffic for something like 7 hours since lunch, and was fraying badly. It took us almost an hour to return the car, since we had managed to remove the passenger side mirror early in the trip and they had to do a detailed damage report (the extra insurance fees just paid for themselves). The car rental shuttle got us to the terminal around 7:30 PM, when we found that the line of people waiting for taxis was longer than the line of taxis.

We gave up and went into the terminal to eat dinner. If the taxi situation was still bad after dinner, at least we'd be fed and somewhat relaxed. After dinner the line was still long, but at least now there were taxis stacked up; at which point we discovered how badly our travel agent had placed us. Heathrow taxi service only does metered delivery into central London. Staines, where we were staying, is an outer suburb and there is no standard taxi service there from the airport (because they couldn't count on a return fare); it's a "fixed fee" of £55! (At the current Exchange rate of $2.05, that's almost $113 to go about 6 miles!) And in cash, which fortunately we had.
We managed to negotiate it down to £50, including tip. We probably could have gotten a cab, or a shuttle, to one of the hotels in the airport, which was where we had wanted to stay; but the agent hadn't booked us into any of them.

During the cab ride, we learned from the cabbie that Heathrow had also had torrential rains the day before: the runways were flooded, multiple afternoon flights were cancelled, and in fact the single tunnel that allows ground transport access to the terminals was also flooded. (Can you spell crummy access engineering??) In addition to the Heathrow problems, the M4 itself was down to 1 westbound lane about 15 miles west of the airport, due to landslides from still more rain. All this may explain why the traffic at the M25-M4 junction was so ghastly around 4 PM, added to the fact that it was Friday at 4 PM. (Mem. to self: next time, fly on Wednesday.) We got back to the hotel around 9 PM, and spent the rest of the evening packing everything into 4 suitcases and 2 backpacks, since travelers leaving Heathrow can carry on one and only one bag (and this DOES include women's purses).

Next morning we had a 10:50 AM international flight, so we got to the airport at 7:30 AM (taxi fare in that direction?
£16), to find a howling crowd on the access road in front of the terminal. A British Air person asked us for our flight and directed us to a queue that was about a block long; before it was over it was almost 3 times that. We stood in that queue, refused entrance to the terminal, for an hour and a half, while BritAir let in people with earlier flights (including, I think, everybody whose flight the day before was cancelled; other people who got into the airport without standing in this line included everyone who took the train, which goes directly into the terminal. Only people who came by road were blocked this way.). The howling crowd included abnormally large numbers of children and adolescents, accompanied and not, because 7/21 is the first day of the British school summer holidays. (Mem. to self: travel earlier or later next time...)

At 9:00 AM they finally allowed in the people on flights after 10:30 - they had a big flight out at 10:30 - so we went into the terminal and found another howling crowd, all trying to check in at once, in at least 14 languages. The self-service check-in kiosks hadn't worked for us the night before, and they still didn't work. The BA rep suggested we were late checking in for our flight and I snarled at her. We stood in line for another hour and a half (my husband had been freaking out spectacularly ever since we got in the terminal, but by this time even I was beginning to wonder if we were going to get on a plan that day at all), in front of a plaintive German woman, on her first solo flight, whose plane was leaving at 10:45. We finally (in the nick of time) discovered that they had an emergency check-in station for people whose flights were leaving Real Soon Now, so we first shoved the German woman to it, and then we used it.

It was now 10:35; our flight was scheduled for 10:50; we had boarding passes and had checked our bags, but we hadn't cleared security. We got through security in the fastest time I've ever seen by telling the few people in line that our plane was leaving in 10 minutes (they let us cut in; actually, due to the massive backups at check in, security had almost no line at all; I've never had a faster pat-down); then we ran for gate 52. It wasn't the farthest possible gate, but by God it wasn't much short of it. And as we panted up to the gate, desperately waving our passports and boarding passes, the attendant said, "Oh, you're fine; take a seat. I haven't called the flight yet."

After that, everything else was anticlimactic. We even sat together, and my husband had the window seat he likes. The plane actually boarded around 11:30, and lifted off at 11:50. British Air serves you the least amount of liquid they possibly can, as infrequently as they can; the air conditioning didn't work (my husband was carrying an altimeter that also shows temperature; it was 78 degrees Fahrenheit at our seats); you couldn't get a cup of water from the dispensers because the water pressure was so high it splashed out of the paper cups; and one of the lavatories smelled of stale piss and had a nameless liquid sloshing around the base of the unit. I was not impressed with the service; but nothing else actually went wrong until we landed at SFO and discovered - wait for it - that our luggage had not made it onto the plane. None of it.

We have a tracking number; British Airways insists they have our luggage; they just don't know
exactly where it is. It might be still at Heathrow, waiting for a flight; it may be somewhere at SFO; the U.S. Customs may be going through it. I wish them joy of my dirty underwear; at the moment, those bags contain almost all the underwear I own. I've talked to BA twice, and it's clear that they are completely overwhelmed and may not get this sorted out until mid-week; and that even our bags do arrive today, it may still take hours for someone to get around to updating the file that tells BA knows where they are. But at least we're home.


  1. Anonymous2:30 AM

    Welcome back, dear. Other than that how was your vacation?

  2. Thank you, cooper! Actually, other than that the vacation was MARVELLOUS. We went to gorgeous places and saw fascinating and beautiful things. I'll be posting more over the next few weeks.

    But as of this morning BA still doesn't know where our luggage is...