Heathrow Airport made real drama out of a crisis

Like many who use airlines I have listened to others tell me on a regular basis just how bad Heathrow was. I’ve never really had a problem with it even if the erstwhile Terminal 1, which hosted Irish flights, was like something from a concentration camp, writes Paul Mills.

That’s not to say it’s perfect but on balance I did not think it was as bad as others made out.

Not for one minute could anyone suggest I tend to look at things with rose-coloured spectacles, but I really did not see what the problem was. Sure it’s not perfect with hopping between terminals, over-zealous security checks even when you remain airside, the need to give yourself plenty of time and very expensive eateries. However, events of last Sunday have caused me to rethink Heathrow as a hub for my ongoing flights.

Last Sunday I was ‘passing’ through Heathrow on a long haul flight that I have occasion to take several times a year. I arrived at Cork Airport in plenty of time to check in for my flight and mosey around the Loop, the new name for the duty free. However, soon after we boarded we were informed that because of freezing fog in Heathrow, our flight was being delayed by 45 minutes from its original departing time of 7.40, then by an hour, until finally we were told it would be delayed until 11.15am, or possibly earlier.

The contrast in how passengers were dealt with by Aer Lingus compared to those in T5 Heathrow was a lesson in itself. The Aer Lingus staff were friendly, courteous and, although not too informed about what was happening, were as helpful as they could have been. Regular updates were provided, as was water/coffee/tea and biscuits.

We finally arrived in Heathrow at 12.05pm and proceeded to T5 with our second flight having already taken off about 30 minutes earlier. So it was time to go to customer service to book a new flight. That’s when the problems started. Eleven desks were open to accommodate those displaced. However, tens if not hundreds of flights had already been affected by the closure of the airport. We joined a queue of several hundred people trying to rebook and that continued to grow well into the afternoon.

Many of those waiting appeared to be going to the US. There was no attempt to find out where people were going so that different destinations or even regions could be segregated, making it easier for both the customer and the ticket agents who could then be more familiar with seat availability during a very busy time of the year.

To put it mildly it was chaos as more and more joined the queue and others tried to get through to board flights. There appeared to be little organisation and many people who had flights, which were still to go out, found themselves in the wrong queues with nobody around to marshal them.

Sometime around 2pm sandwiches and water appeared and did on a number of occasions after that. It was sustenance, but just about.

Eventually we arrived closer to the desks at around 5.30pm, but by 7pm there were still some 50-60 people in front of us. We were now over seven hours in the queue. At this juncture ‘managers’ started to appear and tried to suggest that we should leave and go landside, get a voucher for a hotel and rebook through the call centre. However, several of us had been trying the call centre option throughout the day and there were considerable delays. We were also aware the queues outside were as bad as the ones inside.

At that point we spoke to a manager, who managed to get us tickets for the following day. However, he also advised us there were no more hotel vouchers available as they had booked 7,000 rooms that morning. More importantly, we were informed nobody could stay at the airport overnight as it was emptied for security reasons. Where then?

At that stage we left the airport and made our own arrangements which included a 10-minute £35 taxi ride, apparently a standard Heathrow tariff. As we left there were still over 100 people waiting with little chance of being rebooked and with nowhere to stay. Where were they to spend the night when they were chucked out of the airport?

Customer service, it is not. Methinks I should be looking at Schipol.


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