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Crisis Day LHR To HEL Via Purgatory, And Back

Wed Aug 23, 2006 4:19 am

I knew that it was going to be a tough morning as I passed a few miles away from Heathrow airport on the coach from Central London to Oxford. I knew that my scheduled Finnair Airbus A320 would already be overnighting at the airport for a flight 7.5 hours hence, whereas I still had 45 minutes bus ride to Oxford, a 10 minute cycle ride home from the bus stop, and still be up at 3.45 am for a shower, a tea and meeting my father in the living room at 4.15 am as we had arranged, to start a trip in the direction of London again.

Well, it was 4.08 when my father woke me up. I had missed the alarm clock. Indeed, 2.5 hr sleep felt far from adequate. The euphoria that I still felt on a fast cycle ride home in the cool air of 1 am after seeing Madonna and Cloud on tour a couple hours before, had vanished. So shower but no tea. I had packed my suitcase and hand luggage –belt in bag to breeze through security- the previous day as I knew the time constraints.

So at 4.20 am we left the house for a 5 minute ride to the nearest airport coach stop –I had decided to take the 4.30 am bus to save my dad the trouble of a 2 hour return trip to the airport at such ungodly hour, but also to save some kilograms of carbon emissions- The coach –or bus- service is fairly expensive at £19 return (~$35), but it is frequent, comfortable and reliable. At the Thornhill Park and Ride stop, an airline captain got on, put on his eye mask and slept the 50 minutes to Heathrow. Lights are dimmed for night time trips, but teh day was already starting to clear.

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So a rough morning so far, but what I did not know is that events that morning would become a sore pain in the backside a few days later–and that is quite literal, as I shall explain later-

It was 5.20 am and I power-walked my way across from the bus station to terminal 1 using the underground walkways. Went up the lift to departures and the first scene in front of me was of a very busy bmi check in area, guarded by policemen in an unusual light blue uniform, bullet proof vests and machine guns with large attachments that resembled weapons out of ghostbusters. -Wow, security is visible these days, I thought- I then walked along on the left hand side to the BA counters. First real sign that something was wrong as I noticed that every automated check in-machine had a blank screen. –Oh dear, It’s going to be a long queue, I thought- I doubled checked that it was check in areas E, F and G where I should check in. BA handles Finnair flights at LHR. So I joined the queue that was already going to the rotating door to the outside, but that had contributing queues from other directions too. These rivers of people would become a solid sea within a matter of minutes that would spill outside the terminal. There was yet a smartly dressed cocky young woman who insisted on pushing her way to "club". She did not get far.

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A member of BA staff standing by the rotating doors shouted what was to be the confirmation that this was really an exceptional situation: “Please note that NO hand luggage will be allowed beyond security, except for wallets, essential medication not in liquid form and spectacles”. Somebody asked “How about mobile phones?” –No mobile phones, no laptops, all has to be checked in- She replied. “No room for negotiation about this, let me be clear” shouted another BA man later. Well, a significant security alert it had to be.

Some other staff started handing out tags for labelling the hand luggage that now had to be put in aircraft holds. I tried to reach for one, but even my stretched hands would be unable to break through the barrier of people between me and the BA ladies. The message stating the ban on hand luggage was repeated many times by assorted members of staff and over the tannoy, but there was no check- in staff, even 3 hours later!

In the mean time I had checked the news on my mobile to see if I could gather what was going on. Indeed, the BBC wap site had the breaking news of a foiled terrorist plot. I shared the news with 2 New Zealanders who were hoping to go to Edinburgh. Other people had also heard the same as they spoke to friends and relatives on their phones. Soon everybody knew. There was no alarm, only resignation. There were some moments in which a group of passengers started to slow clap as if to encourage check in staff to come out. Air Lingus, Asiana and bmi had not stopped checking in people. Why had BA? I can only assume that they knew that the delay so far would mean cancellations and were unsure of which ones. They later decided to cancel every single short haul flight –the bulk of flights at terminal 1. And to think that I had been so close to booking a Finnair coded BA flight.

In those 3 hours I also looked up Finnair telephone numbers. There was no answer from the London office –probably just a few meters from me- but I was successful with Helsinki. I was transferred to different offices 2 or 3 times as I repeated the predicament of being at the mercy of BA’s non-happening check in, but all I was told is that they had no information on the departure time of my flight. I was glad to have confirmation that the plane had not left! Well, there were no passengers.

BA’s message was now that some flights would be cancelled and that people with non essential travel should go home and rebook –free- on the website. But I was not on BA, and a fellow traveller told me that flights to HEL were fully booked the next 3 days, and I was meant to meet a friend -travelling blissfully from BCN at Helsinki airport to start a cycling holiday –He’ll be lonely going around those quiet islands by himself, I thought- I had sent him a text message early on stating the situation and hinting that I would be late, at the very least.

At 8.30 -1 hour after the scheduled departure time- some angels wearing a light blue uniform and holding up Finnair signs appeared. They were carrying the message that Finnair passengers should go to Zone M. What a relief I felt. Maybe we would make it out, albeit late. Zone M is the South African Airways area, which was not being used until then. It would be impossible to walk across the terminal, so it meant going out and in though the end door. There were a series of hurdles as were told that the 1030 am flight would be checked in first. In 2 minutes this had changed. Then the conveyor belt was not going, apparently there was no staff “downstairs” to process the bags, then came word that security had only been told to allow Air Lingus and bmi passengers. These problems were overcome and I was the fifth passenger to check in. The BA staff doing it tried to be as helpful and quick as they could.

After going through security, shoes scanned and a few questions asked as to the motive of the trip, the airside was an oasis. So much room for so few passengers to get lost in. Still, my stomach ached from 4 hours of anxiety -or was it the veggie burguer at the concert?-. I had my café láte and a almong and chocolate croissant. Bmi announced the on-time departure of the flight to Jeddah from gate 40. An arriving Finnair plane quicky took position in that same gate.. That would be the 1030 flight. Capacity was now full, no more flights were allowed in. My flight would depart from gate 17. I had time to buy a socket adaptor for the assorted chargers (mobile, shaver and camera) that I had in my hand luggage –now presumably making its way though empty bowels of Heathrow and onto my plane. Surely it would be a easy all the way from now on.

At the gate, BBC news reported on the security alert, the cancelled flights and the misery of passengers that I had just left before going airside.

FINNAIR 836. 10th AUG 2006
Scheduled Departure: 0730, Real: 11.30
Airbus A320. Registration OH-LXA.
SEAT 10F, an emergency exit. Window.

A wide seat, Nicely textured and stylish seat upholstery in true finnish style, fine leg room, a smily 4 member cabin crew, including the friendliest middle aged, tall, quite large man, with factions from a finnish version of Royston Vasey.

The captain apologised for the delay and warned that some luggage had not made it onto the plane, but said that it would be delivered later. He also proudly stated that the weather in Helsinki Vantaa was “beautiful”. His announcement was made in Finnish, Swedish and English, as are all announcements made by the crew. A video was played for the safety instructions, with cabin crew pointing out emergency exits. The fold down screens also showed images from a camera in the front of the plane as we taxied –a breeze in the eerily quiet taxiways- and took off. A different camera image came on as the landing gear retracted, it showed the scene below us. What a relief it was to finally leave London that day.

Typical airline hot breakfast: Omelette, asparagus, sausage and hash browns. A small muffin, margarine and jam. Cold drinks (alcohol for those who wanted it) and a hot drink.

A video on the Turku archipelago (my main destination) was played –no sound or earphones but English subtitles made it watchable. Route map came up every so often. Stomach still uncomfortable. I needed to pee, but neighbour was asleep and tall man on aisle was engrossed in his book. I hold for 3 hours, until I am at the airport.

Video screens were retracted for approach. Shame, I wanted to see camera images of the landing (I did on the return to Heathrow).

Disembarking was by stairs onto buses. Passed a few AY B757s, E170s, and 3 MD11s. I wanted to get out as quicky as possible as my friend might still have been waiting all these hours. He had gone to the hotel. He had tried to call me, but my phone had to go in the luggage. Soon I would retrieve it and I would able to call. Not so.

Neither my main bag nor my “hand” luggage had made it. I had no phone or phone numbers, no city guide either. I had read the part on transport from the airport in the midst of the check in chaos, just for this eventuality. I reported non arrival of bags, gave hotel name and address, and left carrying my plastic bag containing a passport, a wallet, my itinerary and a hotel reservation printout. I get a map and find the hotel in relation to the train station, where bus number 615 would leave me. One hour hence I am in the hotel, and just managed to catch my friend just as he prepared to leave the room to start the exploration of the city by himself.

Have a rest, but do come back later as I have some more to tell, including playing chase the luggage (1 bag is still missing), and luggage chasing me as we cycled around the small islands of the Turku archipelago, some pictures, and the return trip. I shall post that in the next couple of days in this same thread.
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RE: Crisis Day LHR To HEL Via Purgatory, And Back

Wed Aug 23, 2006 8:15 am

Thank you for the story, you had quite a morning at LHR.
A FA looking like Royston Vasey, that something!  Smile
Chinese cookie in SFO: "You're doomed to a life of forever travelling abroad and to be able to afford it!"
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Joined: Mon Oct 04, 2004 7:57 pm

RE: Crisis Day LHR To HEL Via Purgatory, And Back

Wed Aug 23, 2006 7:24 pm

Oh MAN,, that must have been some experience thanks for sharing it with us, it made for interesting reading.

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Joined: Sat Jan 13, 2001 1:27 pm

RE: Crisis Day LHR To HEL Via Purgatory, And Back

Thu Aug 24, 2006 4:40 am

Thanks for posting this, a pretty rough morning & day.

Hopefully the missing luggage will turn up, I know how it feels, same thing happened to me once, though at least I had my hand luggage.

Look forward to the return report.


Topic Author
Posts: 1800
Joined: Thu Mar 11, 2004 1:30 am

RE: Crisis Day LHR To HEL Via Purgatory, And Back

Thu Aug 24, 2006 8:13 pm

Thank you for your comments!
Part deux is now ready. A bit more significant than I had anticipated, so I have posted it here..

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