2006-08-17

If we crawl at two

Anybody who may have believed that my hope of arriving as scheduled back in Boston on Friday was sorely misplaced is undoubtedly right. Probably if I had not thought that there was a chance of arriving in time for my meeting (it was paid work ...) I would have simply changed the ticket to avoid going through London, although JAT was maintaining the level of responsiveness which continues to make it wholly dependent on its monopoly.

On Friday morning, JAT is pretending to operate as normal: they take luggage, print boarding cards, check passports. Departures are announced as on time. Then the “on time” time passes, and the departure is announced as delayed thirty minutes. After sixty minutes, they add another thirty minutes to the announced departure time. No reliable information is available, no indication of whether the flight is taking off or not, and it becomes clear that the staff of JAT and Belgrade airport have, in fact, no idea what is happening. Three hours after the originally announced departure time, a gate number is posted. Thirty minutes after this, the gate is opened. But wait: JAT has taken on the duty of applying the Heathrow security regulations, no carry-on baggage, no liquid, no electronics. Except their staff is not clear either as to what these regulations are or how to apply them. Ninety minutes after the gate is opened, all of the resilient passengers are on the plane.

Arriving in mid-evening at Heathrow, it is clear that every person on the plane who had hoped to make a connection in London has missed their flight. Not to worry: a good half or more of flights have been cancelled anyway, and those that do fly do so without many of their passengers, because the airport operator BAA has not figured out a way to enforce their security regulations and get passengers to the terminal in less than two and a half hours in any case. No problem: JAT will certainly schedule another flight and provide a hotel, no doubt. The first challenge is to find the JAT service desk, which is off in a corner autonomous from the service desks of the other airlines. The JAT service desk is lovely: a spacious segment of clean formica, computers and telephones on the counter, a little room behind where the light is on, and coats are hung. The only thing it lacks is a person staffing the desk. It is clear that at some point one or more (there are two coats hanging in the back room) persons must have shown up to do their job behind that desk. But there is no direct sign of this for ten minutes, fifteen, thirty. There is, however, a solution: Alitalia remains the international agent for JAT. Alitalia does everything JAT does not: they swiftly provide a taxi, a hotel room, meal vouchers, and a reservation (standby, unfortunately) for the following day. Little do I know that this is the best service I will receive on the journey.

A quick jaunt to a shop where I buy toothpaste, a toothbrush and deodorant, and a quick visit to the hotel reception desk, and I am set to rest up for the next day's challenge. Nothing special here, the hotel is identical to every airport hotel on the planet. There is one distinction – it is in Hounslow, the neighborhood made famous to the world as the home of the Hounslow Harriers in Gurinder Chadha's delightful film Bend it like Beckham. Strolling about, I believe that I recognize the row of houses where Parminder Nagra's character lives. It is one of my daughter's favorite films, and I recall the excellent performances: Keira Knightley's sly pro aspirant, Anupam Kher's honest and tormented father, the casual comic turns by Ameet Chana and Frank Harper. But there is not much time for cinematic tourism. The toiletries get left in the hotel room (they cannot be taken to the airport anyhow) and it is off to see whether my standby reservation will get me to Boston.

One would imagine that Virgin Atlantic, with its public face constructed by the mildly interesting exhibitionist Richard Branson on the one hand, and by its sister record label's oh-so-safe catalog on the other, would have the situation in hand. In fact, what distinguishes Virgin from JAT is primarily the stylishness of its graphic resolutions. There is a standby desk, where after a while it becomes clear that there is no line. One reaches the desk by maneuvering through the crowd of people seated at a depth of ten meters in front. Then one quickly realizes that there was no point in reaching the desk, because the person who stands behind knows nothing and will do nothing, other than to instruct you to come back at another time, at which point the person will still know nothing. There is always the option of trying to find a certain reservation at Virgin's ticket desk, where the unfriendly agent will tell you that the fact that you have purchased a ticket confers no obligation on the airline to assure that you reach your destination. By way of explanation, an agent who has not purchased a ticket and who has slept the previous night in her own home, and who knows with assurance at what time she is coming to the airport and at what time she is leaving, declares “we are all in the same situation.”

Four hours after reporting to the standby desk, and one half hour after the plane is scheduled to leave, the standby agent begins to distribute tickets. Announcements on the loudspeaker instruct people not to get into the line for security inspections until one hour before the departure of their flight. Since it is already after the only announced departure for my flight, I get into the security line. The line snakes through the entire upper floor of the terminal, blocking all of the takeout counters, bookshops and gift outlets. This is just as well, since anything that a person purchases at one of the shops would have to be handed over to the security inspectors. They are taking books away! Getting to the front of the security line takes two and one half hours. The inspectors have been ordered to hand search 100% of passengers, a task for which they do not have the staff, space or time. The strict 100% search regime continues for five days, and must have been tremendously effective: while treating every passenger as a terrorist, they did not turn up a single one (they did, however, let through a passenger carrying a banned cell phone, which caused a flight to turn back, and a minor who had no ticket or passport. No offending books, though).

Passengers are instructed that they can buy books to read on the plane once they have passed into the area after the security inspection (by the end of the day, everybody has learned that airport operators call this section, for reasons that must not be aesthetic, “airside”). It turns out that this information is false, and as I am relieved of my half-read copy of A history of tractors in Ukrainian – nothing special as a novel, but a bother to have interrupted all the same – everybody begins to wonder what kind of mayhem the security services expect people to wreak with their mass market paperbacks. Nonetheless, the weary and irritated Boston-bound travellers breathe a sigh of relief when, around 9:00, their 2:30 flight is called. For the lucky ones at the front of the line, this means that they get to experience the pleasure of one more 100% hand search, for people who have just gone through a 100% hand search. The ones at the end of the line have to pass on the pleasure, because before the plane fills up the flight is cancelled.

After the second cancellation in two days, all of the travellers have questions. Will there be another flight to take us to Boston? Will we get our luggage back? Will the airline provide a place to sleep? Nobody, however, has answers to these questions. In fact, it turns out that Virgin has no staff in positions of responsibility at all, at least ones that would be visible to their passengers. Quickly it begins to appear that the entire corporation is run by uninformed teenagers, who are sent out from time to time to give contradictory information (no, there are no hotels; yes, there are; no, it is not possible to get luggage; yes, hurry to get your luggage right away; yes, there will be another flight; no, fend for yourselves). It becomes increasingly clear that not only are none of the people whose faces appear endowed with the authority to make a decision, but also that none of them are of sufficient rank to be told what is happening. In the end, we head to the luggage area to get our bags (one more security inspection), are deposited at 3 AM a subprime downtown hotel, and are given a printed sheet with a phone number to call in the morning to try to get onto some other flight.

By this point, I am not about to spend another 24 hours at Heathrow, where all systems have broken down and post-Fordist rationality is exposing its translucent center, trying to get onto a flight which will in all likelihood be cancelled. I call the Virgin reservations line, accept a seat for Tuesday, and set about to ask my friends in London whether they would like a surprise visit. By Tuesday, the either the level of chaos will have been reduced or the people responsible for managing it (the government security agencies, the airport operator BAA,and the airlines) will have figured out how to cope.

Not likely. Police are close-lipped about their investigation into what they have publicly stated is a massive terror conspiracy. At one point, they declare that in their sweep of the country, they have turned up one rifle and one handgun. Tony Blair remains on vacation: unselfconscious, he frolics in flowered swimming trunks and hangs his own laundry out to dry. The Home Secretary makes use of the general mood of panic, fantasizing publicly about the security inspections regime becoming permanent and the government having another go at lengthening the period of time that people can be held in custody without charges being filed against them. Meanwhile I enjoy an unplanned London vacation: visiting friends, sampling the fantastic Indian cuisine that is available everywhere, wondering who got the idea of deep-frying skate wings in batter. By Monday night, hopeful announcements are being made that perhaps fewer than a third of flights will be cancelled at Heathrow the next day, and that security agents may stop taking people's books away. And broadcast media faithfully relay the message that passengers should plan to come to the airport early.

In fact, coming to the airport early is an entirely useless gesture. The technique that is being used to relieve crowding inside the airport is to create it outside. Thousand of people are assembled on the sidewalks with their luggage, straining to hear the airline employees who occasionally emerge to announce for which flights passengers may have the privilege of entering the building and waiting two hours to reach a check-in desk. Nonetheless, somebody has been thoughtful: tents have been put up on the sidewalk in case of rain, and there are tables with (free!) coffee, sandwiches and mineral water. And today it looks like flights are likely to leave. At the security checkpoints, they are only handsearching 50% of passengers, and there is no line to speak of at all.

The new semifunctionality of Heathrow is illusory, of course. Once past security, it seems as though there are only a few minutes to peruse newspaper headlines about the collapse of the transport system turning into a national embarrassment, or about how the sudden evaporation of revenue from duty free sales (apparently all those last-minute perfume and whiskey purchases amount to 24% of Heathrow's income, which is used principally to subsidize airlines, who mysteriously do not translate their windfall into improved service) will force the air transport industry to restructure. Immediately, they claim that the plane is boarding, and on time at that! But of course it is not. Instead people are being asked (but not informed of this) to leave the kobajagi comfort of the waiting lounges in order to be crowd the hallways and wait for one more 100% search, a special pleasure reserved for people foolhardy enough to want to fly to the United States. Just ninety minutes after the announced departure time, which is never changed, we have a plane full of tired, angry, humiliated people ready to take off, in the event that a takeoff is cleared.

In my case, the whole experience was not so bad. I got home four days later than planned, spent some money on hotels and meals that I certainly would not have spent otherwise and lost some income from missing a meeting that I certainly would not have missed otherwise. But I am fortunate to be in a position that allows me to absorb a small loss of money, and very fortunate to have friends in London, a city I have always been happy to visit up until now (and may still be happy to visit, if I can come by boat, train, Vespa, or mule). At the same time, I understand completely people like Catherine Mayo, for whom the sustained mistreatment by airport and airline staff triggered a nervous reaction inflight. The fact that instead of getting assistance, she got an F-15 escort, a long delay, and criminal charges is symptomatic – not of her condition, though, but of someone else's.


Update: We did not meet, but it seems this person was on the same flight. Interesting detail -- the flight that we were removed from on Saturday went off after all, empty (!), to Boston to pick up passengers bound for London.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your entertainining story about our recent (in)security scare. It reinforces one of my golden rules, which is to avoid LHR. Living in Scotland, you can often use one of the European airports as a gateway to points further away. Please be reassured that we would love to have you back and I'm glad you can distinguish our real life from governmental and corporate chaos.

Eric Gordy said...

Of course I'd love to come back! It is also years since I have been to Scotland, and there are hundreds of places I did not visit then which I would happily visit now. In the meantime, enjoy a pint of heavy for me!

sensitive sniffer swab said...

Having to fly JAT is bad enough (though I love their always informative in-flight magazine), but what you went through makes for a pretty horrendous travel story... Hope it didn't ruin end of your summer. Though we're all probably in for more such delays given today's news: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/5261456.stm
I take some comfort in the fact "both the swab and sniffer dog tests were extremely sensitive."

Eric Gordy said...

There is something nice about seeing the category of sensitivity brought up in this context.

Yakima_Gulag said...

Well is if that wasn't enough, the probability that the plot would even have WORKED is very low, and a lot of the 'precautions' were contradictory and would not have worked in the event of a real terrorist plot. I didn't mind Heathrow back five years ago, but in Toronto, someone stole one of my saris from my baggage and the skirt too! I think it was someone in U.S. Customs actually. I hate that sort of thing, and I think it would be well for airlines and authorities to figure out how to handle things so people are not wildly inconvenienced, for example ways for people to mail stuff to their homes or destinations or to repack. This was VERY badly handled in a lot of places. In panic authorities can be as illogical as the general public.

sniffer said...

The West Virginia story - the one with the sensitive sniffing - was another false alert caused by trigger-happy guards who thought that a four months pregnant woman "of Pakistani descent" absolutely must be an evildoer since she left water bottles in her bags. Turns out that, all sensitive sniffing and swabbing aside, there were no explosives:
http://www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=22&art_id=qw1155882421853R131

Eric Gordy said...

Even beyond not working, some of the security measures would seem to achieve just the opposite -- all those computers and mobile phones they have told people to put into their suitcases are transmitters, for example, and every one of them has a built in timer. Far more potential danger there than in a stray bottle of water.

Daniel said...

Maybe you could tell us do ordinary Serbs (that you were in contact with) still deny Srebrenica genocide?

Do they still deny that they committed this horror, take a look, follow this link:

http://srebrenica-genocide.blogspot.com/2006/08/srebrenica-child-raped-hung.html

Will expect your comment. Thanks.

Eric Gordy said...

Hi Daniel -- A good answer to your question would take more space than what I can fit into a blog comment. In fact, I am working on a book on that very topic. What I think I can say generally is that although I have run into a wide range of perspectives, denial of the facts seems to be fairly rare. If you go through the archive here, you will find a lot of observations on other types of denial. If I can, maybe you will permit me to answer the question more slowly, over time. It is questio I am working on.

Daniel said...

Hi Eric. I am glad you are working on this question. Your opinion is important to me because of your connection with Belgrade and Serbia. I am looking forward reading your opinion and will also do some more searches on your blog. Thank you.

isoglossia said...

Very nicely done. You've cemented in my mind the idea that I'd rather stick a fork in my eye than fly these days, particularly transatlantic. The broader message from this latest terror-turmoil seems to be "everybody just stay where you are from now on."

DarkoV said...

Eric,
Your entry brought back so many memories. The last time I had flown on JAT, it was still feeding off of 6 republics for its staff, so the service, that would be including the engione maintenance staff as weel as the passenger service staff, was, well, inconsistent. The most memorable experience I had with JAT had us parked on the runway in Beograd for over 2 hours. It seemed the pilot and co-pilot, who turned out to be Croatian, were having some disagreements with the ground crew, who turned out to be mainly locals from Serbia, who were ferrying the luggage around and (supposedly) closing all of the luggage compartments. The short of it was that the co-pilot, a rather swarthy-looking guy who looked he could still be playing some water polo back in Split, got out of the plane and proceded to put a beating on one of the more talkative ground crew members. The airpoprt police and an ambulance had to come out to clean up the mess. The co-pilot returned to the cabin, to loud cheering from all of the pasengers, regardless of ethnic background. We took off within 10 minutes and the avionic fisticuffs made for conversation for the entire trip to Zagreb.

Which was good, since the movie set-up in the plane was not in operation for that flight.

Eric Gordy said...

Darko, that is a very JAT story! My last JAT experience (it made me say never again, but obviously that is not how things turned out) was trying to fly from Belgrade to Tivat. The flight was delayed six hours, we later found out because a plane had smacked a truck on the runway in Tivat, forcing the airline to close. What made the experience worthwhile was that the Bg airport still had that big mural by Zuka Dzumhur at the time. But flying late also meant that we could not go Tivat, because that airport closes in time for all the workers to get home in time for apertifs. So we land in Titograd at 11PM, a bus speeds us to the empty Tivat airport, where a cab waits to take us to seek lodging in Kotor.

The next day we had our first postwar border crossing at Debeli Brijeg. It works like this: you take a taxi to the border crossing, and all the while the driver keeps in cellphone contact with his cousin, a taxi driver on the other side. Then you grab your bags, walk across the border, and get into the other cab to Dubrovnik. On reflection, it was not a bad transport system at all.

DarkoV said...

Eric,
That's the kind of transportation story I truly enjoy. The only thing that was missing was a ride on a horse-drawn wagon, complete with hay, truck tires (that you swear were swiped from an Army transport), and a bottle of home-squeezed rakija thorwn in by the driver. To ease the pain of the dusty bumpy road, or so he says.

Who remembers a smooth ride complete with foot-rubbings? No one, I say. It's the tale of the Transport of the Primitive (i think Josip Generalic did a painting of that concept,complete with goats and chickens) that draws people in at parties and faculty gatherings.