Hello, this is my first posting here, so please be gentle. Hopefully this doesn't count as a trip report.
I flew LHR->ORD on Saturday and thought I would give an update on the Heathrow experience. I was first class on AA.
I got to the aiport about three hours before my scheduled departure. I knew right away things were bad when there was a huge line just to get into the lift to go from the Heathrow Express up to Terminal 3 departures. Only one of the three lifts was in operation, probably deliberately to throttle the flow of people up into the terminal. Also, many luggage carts had been moved down there, causing extreme congestion.
Checking zone A was the only place directly accessible from the lift. All other zones required you to go outside and connect outdoors. I say a huge queue to get into Zone B. After a brief inquiry to the security guard, I was directed to a tent where AA passengers were being staged. Basically, they would not let you into the terminal until the airline decided to process checkins for that flight. There was a giant crowd already, and only people for an LAX flight were being let in. However, because I was first class, I got a personal escort into the terminal building and was dropped off at first class checkin, where there was no line. I was issued a boarding pass, a clear plastic bag, and had all of my bags checked without issue. I was looking forward to a pleasant stay in the lounge.
However, going upstairs there was a gigantic queue for the security area. I made repeated inquiries about fast track but was told it was not operational and that "fast track" was only for people whose flight was departing shortly. I saw no other alternative but to join the queue, so I started walking to the end of the terminal - and walking, walking, walking, walking. The queue streteched down the hall with arrivals lounges, over a skywalk out of the building, and into a holding area in the rear of an outdoor parking structure. I was seriously worried about making my flight at this time.
The queue moved in fits and starts. It took an hour to get into the terminal building. Overall, it took three hours to clear security. Periodically, people would walk along and call for flights with near term departures. For example, anyone with a 2:15 or earlier flight, follow me. (Usually this would happen about 30-45 minutes after the flight was scheduled to have departed). Also, various agents from airlines would come fetch passengers for their flights. The Air Canada agents were particularly friendly. "Anybody going to Vancouver? Anybody want to go to Vancouver?" No one from American ever put in an appearance, however. About two hours into the wait, announcements started that no one should queue for security until 60 minutes prior to their flight. I stayed put.
When I got close to security, my flight was about 30 minutes from departure. I flashed my boarding pass to someone in the hopes I'd get put through. They said, "Oh, you're first class - get in the fast track line". I wanted to scream. But they did put me into "fast track", which still took 30-45 minutes to get through.
Overall, the queue management for security lines was horrible. A true embarrassment for BAA. No employees really seemed to know what was going on. They gave conflicting answers or no answers at all. Two quick examples. There was a gap in the queue between the skywalk to the garage and the terminal building proper. This was to let people exiting cross over. Well, at some point the BAA employees just left and stopped "minding the gap" with the result that many people started queuing after the gap instead of at the end of the real queue. One of the other people in line basically made an executive decision to just move forward past the rope. Number two was two people I chatted with in the lounge. They got through in an hour. They said there was so much confusing that employees were just splitting the queues into groups at random, so they attached themselves to one group that just happened to be taken to the front of the line. Also, the BAA employees were variably rude to the people in line. And of course there was my fast track experience. This has to be fixed pronto. I can understand why the airlines are complaining.
The screening process itself is simple. Scan your plastic bag in the detector, along with shoes, belts, and jackets. You then get a personal pat down. The UK seems to have instituted outbound passport control. They don't stamp your passport, but they do inspect it to see when you arrived, and ask a lot of questions.
Once through, I was basically home free. Just hang out in the lounge until the flight, which was of course delayed. Given that you couldn't even get out of the tent easily, I can't imagine anyone made it through security in time for the flight. I know I didn't. What's more, included in that was our flight crew. Our flight took a significant delay because the crew was stuck in security. According to the lounge staff, there is no security bypass or priority line for crew, which is astonishing. This could have been wrong, but I do recall a pilot arguing with one of the BAA drones about trying to get to his flight, so its certainly possible. There was a perfunctory pat down at the gate are, but nothing that delayed me.
We left about three hours late, and had a nice flight back to the USA. The flight attendants were super. Luckily there was a good movie selection (by AA standards) including classics like Orson Wells "Touch of Evil", as well as of course the small selection of video tape movies for first class.
In Chicago, Customs (yes, Customs) was questioning everybody coming in, though they didn't seem to be doing too many bag inspections.
On the whole, I'd sum it up as "It could have been a lot worse, but having said that, it was still pretty bad". I heard a lot of horror stories from other passengers who'd been trying to get home for a couple days, as well as seeing the look of joy on people's faces when told, after clearing the three hour security line, that their flight was canceled.
My advice to passengers:
- Don't show up ridiculously early for your flight. You'll only spend it cooling your heels outside the terminal building, especially if you are in economy.
- Don't even bother queueing for security if the line looks ridiculously long. Rather, just enjoy a Starbucks or a pint and wait until it gets close to your flight time, then join the people getting pulled to the front. Keep in mind, once you reach the "front", you still have to wait about 30-40 minutes.
My advice to BAA:
- Get the security queue management sorted pronto, including customer communications.
- Stay vigilant to make sure the staff are not rude. I thought the people standing in line were far politer than the staff. (Airline staff appeared to be very professional, however)
Hope you found this interesting.