Saturday, July 07, 2007

Attention British Airways and British Airport Authority: Rant to Follow

D.C. Rush Hour is proud to introduce Dr. Lala--a good friend of mine who works for an ABC NGO and who travels. A lot.

This is her report about dealing with flight delays at Heathrow on her way back to her post in Continental Europe. Please note, as you read this, that Dr. Lala's job is to find and implement solutions to complex problems--like how to eradicate measles and improve immunization globally. In other words, she puts a lot of thought into things, and this piece is no exception.

Have you had similar experiences? If you have, you should know that more and more airlines monitor blogs, especially those written by travelers, and many of them respond to complaints they read in the blogosphere.

So, without further ado, here is Dr. Lala and her report to British Airways and the British Airports Authority.


As a (very) frequent traveller, it was inevitable that one day I would get caught up in an incident of some sort. At least it's not of my own making, this time (knock wood... although I'm still missing one of my bags after 5 days, but I'm having trouble seeing how Ouidad hair products, cheesy Utah DVDs, and my dirty laundry could have been the cause of a security threat... of course, the bag smells a bit musty, but really?)

I'll start with the good news first: my BA flight from LAX to LHR (Heathrow) was delayed by two hours, which meant that I'd been moved from flight BA 730 to BA 732 out of Heathrow. Why is this good news? Well, the unfortunate souls "lucky" enough to board BA 730 apparently also got to spend a happy 8 hours sitting on the tarmac in Heathrow, before being unloaded off the plane (presumably, to, like the rest of us, fend for themselves in finding food, shelter, and toilets, before being able to get out either via Gatwick or the Eurostar... or, if brave and/or stupid, via Heathrow the next day).

I fared better (since, eventually, I got home a mere 12 hours later than planned). I had just comfortably ensconsed myself in the BA Terminal 4 lounge (after enduring Heathrow's ridiculous security procedures, re-screening passengers who had just gotten off of arriving flights - procedures which, by the way, for the 100th time since 9-11, did not catch the pen-knife in my ONE measly carry-on bag, but did gripe over the three tiny tubes of liquids I had leftover from my long-haul amenities kit) when the announcement came over the PA to evacuate Terminal 4. Nobody seemed to be in a huge rush, so I (I note with self-congratulatory smugness) used the potty, grabbed a few diet cokes, and calmy made my way into the main terminal... to discover the most horrible bottlenecked traffic jam ever seen.

At this point in my diatribe/monologue/lecture, I will start to point out the first of the many flaws in the British Airport Authority's (BAA, to be carefully distinguished from BA, which is British Airways) grandiose evacuation plans.

FLAW #1: If you are going to evacuate an airport, you've got to have more than one way out. Otherwise, lock people down where they are (at gates, in lounges, etc) and take them out in a systematic fashion. But crowds milling around, pushing and shoving to get through the funnel... it's not pretty. It leaves everybody unhappy and stressed out. EVERYBODY. And think about the poor people with kids, who were having trouble not LOSING their kids in the pressured mass of humanity.

FLAW #2: Um, you know that people in Terminal 4 haven't been through Immigration, right, since it's a transit terminal for international flights? You do remember this? So letting all these people just loose in the parking lot...where many of them made their way, no questions asked, to the trains, easily paying cash for a ticket to Central London, with no records of their ever having entered the UK? I'm just sayin'... if I were a terrorist mastermind (which I am not), and I wanted to get a bunch of my people into the UK without any records, lesson learned - just have one of them drop a bag somewhere in Terminal 4 and watch the chaos ensue.

Now, we all figured out that they were possibly looking for somebody as we exited... the funnel approach to the exit, plus the fact that you had to walk a gauntlet of 15 security guys with machine guns to get out who all gave you "the stare", and that they let us out in small groups of 20 so they could peer more intensely, was a giveaway. You'd think they might've checked boarding passes and passports as we left...but no. Didn't happen.

So then, there you are, outside. And they are trying (with very limited staff) to herd everybody onto the 4-story parking structure. The 4-story, unsecured parking structure. The 4-story, unsecured parking structure, that we don't know if it can take all that weight. Good plan!

FLAW #3: So, again, let's pretend I'm a terrorist mastermind. (I'M NOT, OK?). Hmmm... not only have I managed to disrupt air traffic across Europe (actually, probably worldwide), but now, the authorities have (MWA-HA-HA-HA-HA) nicely herded the thousands of people scattered over the W-I-D-E expanse of the 25 gates at Terminal 4 (it can take 30 minutes to get from one of that terminal to the other), into a 4-story structure that has the footprint of a football stadium. And has no security. So all my victims are nicely positioned for the BIG car bomb that can be set off by remote control (as opposed to a little tiny thing I might be able to get into a bag and sneak past airport authorities but probably can't get too far away from). Nice. Really Nice. Thanks guys!

(Needless to say, I kind of stayed on the airport side of the bridge of the parking structure for quite some time, to see if my theory was going to play out. I was aware, however, that I'm probably several IQ points ahead of the average terrorist, and they might not have plotted
this one out).

So everybody's milling around outside Terminal 4 at the Departures level. Nobody is saying anything. At some point, they start forcing everybody who wasn't already on the parking structure over there. They call back the flight crews. It starts to rain. People are getting tired/thirsty/hungry/wet/needing toilets. They hand out (some) plastic rain covers (but I never got one...I just saw other people with them). It starts to hail. They announce that everybody should head for level 3 of the parking (which is covered) but provide no instructions on HOW THE HELL TO GET DOWN TO LEVEL THREE. (It wasn't obvious, especially since the line for the stairs and elevators was clearly at least 45 minutes long).

FLAW #4: If you are going to consider evacuating the airport a valid control measure, HAVE A PLAN, PEOPLE. It was abundantly clear there was none. There were no megaphones; no real attempts to get people information. Total lack of coordination! And it would be SO EASY!!!

Let me explain: (1) Have a box outside the airport with megaphones and whiteboards and sticks in it, plus walkie-talkies. (Markers, too, since I need to be explicit here). (2) Have all airport and flight crews automatically report to the location of the box in the event of an evacuation. (3) Use the staff, the whiteboards, the megaphones, to organize the evacuated passengers by flight and/or destination. This has several merits: (a) people are less likely to be anxious if they feel some semblance of a plan and that somebody is thinking; (b) when you have to start bringing passengers back in, you can bring them in by flights and get planes off the ground faster instead of having to wait for all the passengers to get back, you'll know who has given up because they can tell their group leader, so the flights don't have to wait for them; (c) If (as was the case on 3 July) a decision is made, even before re-opening the airport to cancel flights, the passengers can be informed as soon as possible, and taken over to other terminals at Heathrow to make alternate arrangements, reducing the strain on the (limited) remaining services at Terminal 4. But all of this is apparently too logical for BA or BAA.

Because what happened to me? Well, during the hailstorm, I made my way over to the third floor. From the view that I ended up with, I realized (they had not told us this) that Arrivals was still open. So I made my way down there, waded through the morass of people, found the BA Arrivals lounge (closed, of course, because the BA lounge staff from the Departures level of course, would not think that maybe they should open it up??? Hello?), but also found a plug... where I was able to charge my cell phone... and called the BA Service Center in Switzerland. Where, they were able to tell me that they had known - for hours already - that all European flights in or out of Terminal 4 were cancelled. (This, they told me at the same time that the PA systems was announcing that they were still securing the Departures level and that passengers would be informed about their flight status only AFTER that was completed. Can we say "lying through your teeth?"). I got rebooked out of Gatwick - I had to take the train to Terminal 3 and shell out $40 for a bus ticket over to Gatwick, but I eventually got there.

The flight from Gatwick to Continental Europe was late, and there was no meal service (they had to hurry to make it to my European city before the airport there closed for the night). I got there, and filed my bag claim. That was Tuesday. One of my bags made it home by Wednesday
night, but they never told me ("Airport policy is to not contact the passenger until ALL bags have arrived"). I finally called Saturday and found out my one bag was there (a bit pilfered!) and went to retrieve it. Bag #2 is apparently somewhere at Heathrow, and they cannot tell me when to expect if (if ever).

So what's the moral of my lessons?

(1) THERE IS NO PLAN. The airports have no idea what to do in a real emergency.

(2) If you have to transit through Heathrow, bring warm clothes, food, socks, a charged cell phone, and the phone numbers of your travel agent and the airline service centers.

Oh, and you wanted to know what caused all this hubbub? I don't really know. While at the airport, I heard different stories - one is that a guy ran off with his bag at security control, when they wanted to search it, and it took a while for the (intimidated) guard to inform a supervisor, and by then the guy was loose in the airport (and may have boarded a flight). A second story is that somebody dropped a bag somewhere in Terminal 4 and they wanted to find the guy (this doesn't entirely wash... shutting down an entire Terminal because of a suspect bag? Just take the bag and blow the thing up). A third story is that there was a bomb (again, unbelievable... they would've evacuated people much faster).

The real story? We probably won't ever know. My personal opinion? The whole thing happened because of poorly trained, poorly educated security staff, and a lack of a plan for how to deal with incidents. Ultimately, people's characters are far more important than what they managed to have with them in their bags. Haven't any of these guys ever watched MacGyver?


Di said...

SUCKS. I'm so, so bummed - I have always avoided BA and Air France because of their hubs, frankly - and the likelihood (or not) of getting your baggage. Yet, as luck would have it, our holidays are booked through BA/LHR. I'm trying to remain optimistic, but oy vey. What possessed us to fly through LHR on a HOLIDAY!?!? Oh yeah, cheap tickets for which we are paying ourselves. Sigh.

Wish us luck...

Janet M Kincaid said...

Di: Ironically, Dr. Lala sent this to me yesterday afternoon, after you and I had our conversation about your trip. I'm keeping all my fingers and toes crossed that your flights connect well and your baggage arrives with you! Besides, I have a vested interest in this as it means a trip to Taco Bell after you land!

Anonymous said...


I think the problems lies in the fact that there is no oil well in Heathrow Airport to motivate any sense of urgency about having a plan.

Thanks for this post. I'm showing it to my husband so that we'll have our own plan if caught in one of those funnels.


hm-uk said...

Oooh, it only takes one really crappy experience to put you off the whole idea of flying. Dr. Lala must have been at her wits' end. She should pen a letter to BA and BAA with her observation that herding a whole crowd into a car park might not have been the best idea in terms of safety or security! I heard the news story about it on the day it happened. People here probably don't want to admit it (British sensibilities and all) but even the smallest of security breaches are causing reactions based on emotion/fear rather than having a solid and logical plan in place. Interestingly, 'di' says she's avoided BA, but I will only fly BA to and from the States. I take it from Gatwick (which is a better flying experience, in my humble opinion, than H'row) and find the service much better than any other carrier I've flown.

Janet M Kincaid said...

HM: How is the service from Gatwick to the Continent, though? I have a feeling Dr. Lala travels through Heathrow because there are direct flights to her home town in Europe...

As for evacuation plans, I haven't yet experienced one during my travels, but I can only imagine how excruciating they are!

Di: I'm keeping all of my fingers, toes, and eyes crossed for you and Scott!

Di said...

Yeah, I shoulda been more clear. BA is great, no complaints ever. (Air France and Alitalia are still to be avoided due to their proclivity for striking all the time.) My issue is definitely with LHR. Which should be avoided like unrefrigerated mayonnaise-based picnic foods. ;-)

I usually use London City airport, which is loverly and ever so convenient. But alas, no overseas service from that wee place.

Janet M Kincaid said...

Di: I'll cross my heart (or my boobies, whichever), too, if it will help! I've heard flying BA is a lovely experience. Although, I flew SwissAir home from my mission, lo these many years ago, and it was quite lovely. (I flew Pan Am to Europe at the start of my mission. How sad is it that Pan Am is no more? Such an icon of the romance of flying. I love their old travel posters.)