Earlier this month, I was speaking at the JANET(UK) Networkshop 36 conference. Unfortunately, getting there involved the new Heathrow airport, a slight snowstorm, and Terminal 5. After having lived through it, I’m not sure whether the “snowstorm” or Terminal 5 was worse.
When we landed, snow had halted most of the ground activities at Heathrow. Our captain said that it was as bad as he had ever seen the snow, and he noted that Heathrow does not have a lot of snow handling equipment. As a result, nothing was moving and our plane had to sit for a while.
We are not talking about a huge amount of snow. Chris Hessing, the chair of the Open1X Project, was traveling with me. Chris is from Utah. I think he put it best when he said, “If the grass is poking up through the snow, it doesn’t count.” Here’s a view out the airplane window:
It was cold out. Here’s the tail of a Jet Airways plane. On the dark blue tail, you can clearly see the internal frame melting the snow along the structural elements.
Nevertheless, everything had ground to a halt because of the snow. Several hours later, most airlines other than British Airways had recovered. BA blamed the snow, cancelled lots of flights, and blamed the weather. To deal with the crowd of people who needed to be rebooked, BA called in extra service staff. For example, here’s one of the major service desks at Terminal 5, dealing effectively with the wave of cancellations that occurred at 11 am:
I did try to speak to the person at the desk, and he told me that my problem could only be handled landside. BA computers cannot automatically rebook passengers on to the next flight, which meant that huge crowds were going landside to get rebooked, waiting in lines, going back through security, and getting cancelled again. By the end of the day, anecdotal evidence suggested that their lines were best measured in hours, with estimates as high as six hours.
The whole experience was awful. I did finally talk BA into a hotel room for the night after the second cancellation of the day. They had resumed operations the next morning, and I was on an early flight to Glasgow. However, in line for security, I overheard other passengers talking about how the computer system for luggage handling had crashed again.
I wrote more about my experience on FlyerTalk in this thread
To answer the most frequently asked question, my luggage arrived without any problems. Although T5 has been notorious for lost luggage, I did not have any problem. My best guess is that I checked in for my flight in San Francisco with American Airlines, so entering my baggage record into BA’s computers didn’t need to use the T5 luggage system.
On Wednesday, I read that the problems at BA had actually made Heathrow better for other passengers. With fewer BA jets trying to get on to the runways, the other airlines had an easier time getting out on schedule.
The bottom line is that if you want me to go somewhere in Europe, you had better have a plan that doesn’t involve British Airways. I was quite glad to hear that American is expanding code share services with both Iberia and SN Brussels, which should allow me to avoid Heathrow in the future.