For the want of a plow, Christmas was lost

After spending six weeks in Budapest as a visiting researcher and a few days in London, it was a relief to both me and my wife to get into a taxi for Heathrow Terminal 3 last Saturday. The snow that had been forecast overnight had held off and according to the Air Canada website, AC861 to Halifax was scheduled to leave, on time, at 11:05am.

Heathrow, being Europe’s biggest (or the world’s—depending on whose doing the bragging) airport, was crowded as usual. The Air Canada departure area was busy but we managed to get processed and to the security check area by 9am. The snow that was falling seemed inconsequential.

Boarding was to start at 10:15am, so I sat back and read while my wife went to get rid of those excess pounds (Sterling) by buying duty-free chocolates for friends and relatives in Canada. 10am came and went, as did 10:15am, finally at 10:30am the boarding gate was announced.

As we walked to the gate, we passed a large plate-glass window—it was a scene worthy of Krieghoff: large fluffy snowflakes drifting down, aircraft and runways covered in a couple of inches of snow, and ground crews busily loading the aircraft.

A woman beside me said how pretty it looked. I replied, “We’re not getting out of here today—they may pull the passenger loading bridge away, but that’s it”. She replied that it was refreshing to hear someone so cynical; in response, I said that I wasn’t being cynical, I was just being realistic.

Needless to say, boarding started about 11:15am, after the flight was to have left. By 11:45am, everyone was in their seats waiting for indication that the flight was to begin. We were told that it would be delayed because of the snow, but not to worry, all we needed to do was wait for clearance. An hour passed and the Captain walked around the aircraft, chatting with passengers to reassure them. Those with cell-phones were calling Halifax and elsewhere explaining that the flight was delayed because of snow.

The snow stopped falling around 1:15pm and shortly thereafter, a de-icing truck appeared and cleaned off the wings and fuselage. The Captain gave more seemingly good news: there were 43 other aircraft waiting to leave and we were number 15.

By 2pm, we were told that since we had been on the plane so long and we were probably hungry, we would now have the snack that was to have been served before arriving in Halifax. Without a second snack on board, it was clear to me that they would either need to load more snacks or cancel the flight.

Around 3pm, the Captain announced that the flight had to leave by 5pm or he couldn’t fly that day. This wasn’t his fault or Air Canada’s, it was government rules. But things weren’t so bad, there were still 43 aircraft waiting to leave.

At 4pm, it was announced that since everyone had been so patient, we would be given the hot meal that was to have been served on the flight. At this point, it was obvious to most passengers that the flight would be cancelled because there would be no need to serve the meal if the flight was to leave.

A couple of minutes after the 5pm deadline, the Captain announced that after lengthy conversations with Air Canada’s management the flight was being delayed. However, the baggage was not going to be taken off the aircraft because the flight would be leaving on Sunday at 11:05am; all we were required to do was show our boarding pass, go through security, and proceed to the gate. Duty-free purchases were to be handed to an Air Canada agent; they would be available on Sunday. Around 5:15pm, some six hours after boarding started, we were allowed to leave the aircraft—but not via the gate’s departure lounge because we’d be walking through a secure area. After some angry words between passengers and Air Canada officials, the doors were opened and we returned to the main departure lounge.

We sat there with hundreds of others, purchased some fruit and water, and prepared for a long night. Without a mobile phone and no sign of payphones, we connected to a pay-for-use Wi-Fi network and contacted friends and relatives in Canada, explaining the situation.

Around 9pm, people in Heathrow uniforms appeared and began to herd the waiting passengers out of the lounge. When asked why, we were told that the departure lounge was a secure area and passengers weren’t allowed to stay in it—we had to pass through customs and wait in the arrivals area or leave.

As we made our way to customs, we encountered an Air Canada agent. When asked about compensation or assistance, told us that they had no responsibility because the problems were weather related.

After passport control, we went through the baggage collection area—passengers from other airlines were collecting their luggage.

The arrivals area was a sea of people. After an hour or so of wandering, we found two seats and settled in for the night. Sleep consisted of brief catnaps. At 5am there was so much noise that sleep, such as it was, became impossible, so the day began.

Sometime through the night, aluminum-mylar blankets must have been distributed. People who had been fortunate enough to get them were wrapped up like basting Christmas turkeys. There may have been a snowfall overnight. The parking lots were a sea of slush. Cars, taxis, and some buses were driving to and from the parking area.

Despite that activity, the Heathrow website didn’t appear promising. Only one of its two runways was operating at greatly reduced capacity and it promised limited departures. Given what we’d been told on the aircraft less than 24 hours before, getting out on AC861 looked promising. We made our way to the Air Canada departures area—again, it was bedlam; however, since we already had our boarding passes and the luggage was on the aircraft, we made our way to the security check area.

An Air Canada agent was handing out “Dear Valued Customer” letters, which listed AC849 and AC859 as being cancelled and that other flights were “subject to cancellation or long delay.” Another agent called out that AC861 was cancelled and that passengers on AC861 were to follow him to the arrivals area to pick up the baggage.

This degenerated into another circus. First, we had to pass through security as if we were departing on an aircraft. This went as far as taking off shoes and belts. When people complained to the Air Canada agent, he responded that he didn’t really have to be there (as it was a Sunday and no regular flights were scheduled) and that he’d gone through security (by simply waving his security badge).

We retraced the steps from the night before and wound up in the baggage claim area. Here, insult was added to injury—instead of the luggage from the Halifax-bound flight being offloaded in a single area, it was in several different locations. After 20 minutes of searching, we finally found the suitcases.

We reemerged into the arrivals area where there were, again, hundreds of passengers, but unlike the night before, there was a lot of crying as the holiday travel plans of many people had been ruined.

It was now decision time, should we gamble and try calling the number given on the Air Canada letter and rebook the flight or simply book another flight and settle the problems later. Other Canadians we spoke with had tried the number and, not surprisingly, it was busy, so they’d contacted relatives in Canada to rebook their flights—the Air Canada lines in Canada were busy as well.

We decided to get a hotel room first in the belief that many of the people stranded would try to get a hotel room as well—this was very easy and we booked it until Thursday.

Getting new tickets on-line was initially a heart-stopper. First, the website gave a diagnostic when we tried to book Heathrow to Halifax for Monday and Tuesday—the wording implied that we had done something wrong. We next tried Wednesday—yes there were flights, but at $5000 a seat; same with Thursday, only $5000 seats. Friday, at last, had something in our price range, $600 a seat on a noon flight to Halifax via Ottawa. We immediately booked these.

We then made the long trek back to the hotel via the Underground. The hotel staff didn’t seem that surprised to see us as we weren’t the only ones returning to the hotel because of the troubles at Heathrow.

Late Sunday or early Monday we learned from the BBC that at 10am on Saturday, British Airways had suspended its Heathrow operations and that at 11:26am, while AC 861 was being loaded with passengers, the BAA (British Airport Authority, the owners of Heathrow) gave up clearing the runways and closed Heathrow. Why Air Canada was either unaware of BAA’s decision or chose to ignore it is unclear.

BBC news also reported that airlines, such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, had been giving out meal vouchers and helping their passengers find hotel rooms. Regrettably, we had no such experience with Air Canada.

Although Gatwick and other London airports were able to get up and running long before Heathrow did, Air Canada does not want to leave Heathrow. This being the case, perhaps another Canadian carrier will step forward and offer a scheduled service to an airport other than Heathrow. From our experience with the service (if it can be called that) offered by Air Canada and Heathrow over the past days, I suspect that there would be many people willing try a new airline and airport.

My wife does have one nagging question though—will she get our duty-free back?

Published. 22 December 2010.