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.