Sometimes, shit happens. Today, shit happened to me.
On Friday, May 24, a plane engine caught fire at London’s Heathrow airport. For 2+ hours, 2 runways were closed and countless flights were cancelled.
What followed was a crazy chain of events that now sees me on a train in NW England with a father and young golf protege, set to spend the night on the floor of the Glasgow train station before arriving in Edinburgh 15 hours past schedule.
Failure Number 1 – British Airways had to know this situation would affect connections while we were in the air. The first runway was closed at 824 local time, our plane did not land for another 5 hours. The second runway was closed 20 minutes later. It is a bank holiday in the UK and with 225 000 people passing through the terminals, an increase of 15%. In the end, 191 flights were axed, they had to know a problem was brewing before we landed at 130p local.
Still, they made no mention, or warning to passengers. We were just released into Heathrow to figure it out.
I opted to wait. After figuring out the LHR wifi, I went to Twitter to seek out advice from @British_Airways
Failure Number 3: While BA was very good at responding to each and every tweet, they weren’t putting information into the stream for all to see. If you @ reply a tweet, only people following both parties can see the conversation. This meant a lot of repetition from the BA twitter team and no general info going in the stream.
After discovering I had to plan for another flight by contacting my travel agent, I Face Timed with my wife at home to get her to call them, while I sent an email to the Toronto Agency.
Word came back that all the flights between LHR and EDI were booked for the next 28 hours. The best option would be to take the train.
So, after waiting in line for nearly 2 hours (you know it’s bad when they started passing out free water and sandwiches), I switched lines.
I went through passport control at 3:30 with my heart set on catching a 4:30 train. When I got down to the baggage floor, it was chaos.
Failure Number 4: There was very little information coming from staff, or on luggage boards. Was I to pick up my bags from my arriving flight, or the cancelled departing flight? There were no public address announcements, people had no idea what to do.
After a few quick laps of the floor and not finding my bag, I saw a long snaking line to the Lost Baggage desk. I spent nearly 3 hours in that line when, after finally getting to the front of the line, I was told my bags would soon be arriving on carousel 9.
Nearly 5 hours after landing, bags were finally being brought to the luggage hall. This all despite the fact that BA knew flights were cancelled and didn’t tell anyone, and had plenty of space in the hall to stuff the bags that were, no doubt, just sitting beyond the doors.
HOW *DO* YOU GET FROM LONDON TO EDINBURGH?
BA cancelled the flights outright instead of bumping people along because of the long weekend. They decided to knock a few people for a loop instead of the entire weekend schedule. This meant that a 15:30 Friday flight that was cancelled would not be able to be rebooked until 21:30 on Saturday.
That’s not good enough. So now, what to do?
Some public address announcements came inviting people to go to the hotel desk and have accommodations booked and flights rebooked for them. Already knowing it was 28 hours until the next flight, I hightailed it to King’s Cross to try and catch the last train out of town at 19:30, some 8 hours after landing in London.
That meant taking the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station and a cab to King’s Cross. I joked to the cab driver how much it would cost to take a cab all the way to Edinburgh. I wasn’t joking. He looked it up – 1200 pounds, nearly $2000. No dice.
Long story short, I missed the last direct train from London to Edinburgh by 10 minutes. When I finally got to the ticket desk, the man advised against taking a train to Newcastle and spending 4hrs on layover there between 2a and 6a.
“Have you ever been to Newcastle before?” he asked. Well if you have to ask that question, I don’t want to know the answer.
He advised going to Euston Station half a mile down the road and trying to get on a Scotrail sleeper. He said they would all be likely full, but we could try.
So, schlepping my bags through the streets of London, we arrived at Euston station to find all of the information booths closed. Virgin Trains had a wicket open, so I went there to get more info.
“Get me to Edinburgh as quickly as possible,” I told the man in my best this-is-a-race-for-one-million-dollars-panic voice. He booked me on a train leaving 15 minutes later to Edinburgh via Glasgow. Again, it would be a 4hr layover, but this time in Glasgow and we would arrive in Edinburgh before 7am.
So here I sit on a train, after taking an automobile and a plane. The trip from Calgary to Edinburgh which should have been a 9 hr flight and a 90 minute flight, will now include 7hrs of train rides, and a 30 minute cab ride and take a cumulative 27 hours of traveling.
In another 27 hours after arriving in Edinburgh, I will run a half marathon. Finishing it will be an achievement.
British Airways really dropped the ball on this right from the beginning. They knew there would be problems before we even landed. I heard stories of a flight from Boston landing at Gatwick and spending 5hrs on the ground there before moving on to Heathrow.
They knew there would be connection issues and severe cancellations throwing thousands of passengers into a panic and they did nothing to warn, funnel, or manage the situation.
I have spent $150 to get myself to Edinburgh this evening with no real idea how to get the money back from BA or even if I will get it back.
The lessons are simple: give people information. Lots of it. That means sending out frequent tweets to the entire stream. It means shouting from megaphones at people in line. It means announcing the situation over the PA and offering solutions.
While both BA and LHR were very responsive and apologetic to direct questions on Twitter, it feels like they spent too much energy on the small stuff while the big picture, that could have solved many problems, was ignored.
While I could catch hotspots on the Heathrow train, and in Heathrow airport, not being able to really talk to people on the phone was a problem. I would have liked to have been able to speak to someone instead of play email tag.
In the end, the best solution came when it was too late. After scrambling to get a train to Edinburgh, I received an email from my travel agent saying there were hotels for $99 a night near the station. The advice was to crash there, and then catch a 615a direct train in the am.
I will arrive in Edinburgh at 7a, 4 hrs earlier, but will have spent 4 hrs on the floor at a train station, and be up well into the night on a loud train.
If this really was an Amazing Race, arriving 4 hrs ahead of the other teams would be huge, now I will just be really tired.
I’M SORRY TO TELL YOU THAT YOU HAVE BEEN ELIMINATED FROM THE RACE
My spirits have been fine this whole fiasco. I met some great ladies from Anchorage and Sacramento who were taking their 80 yr old mothers on a river cruise in Germany. My train adventures to Edinburgh have been with a father and son from Phoenix. Dominic is in 5th grade and playing his second golf tournament in Scotland. The kid is pretty good too:
It’s been fun having a travel team to hang with.
After all, when you’re on the Amazing Race, you’re never in last place when you’re with another team you can beat in a foot race.