Everyone in the UK air industry felt a collective sense of déjà vu on the evening of December 18, 2010. Outside, several feet of white and drifted snow descended on the European continent. The same night, I was supposed to be coming in for a landing at Boston Logan Airport. But like so many other Christmas travelers, I found myself far from home and with little assurance that there would be any means of getting there in the next day. Or two. Or three.
I was an airport refugee for five days and an accidental global tourist of such world-class airports as Charles de Gaulle, Paris and Reykjavik, Iceland. My journey to Boston included fifteen pounds of international phone calls, seven boarding passes, three planes, and innumerable free ham and cheese sandwiches offered by an airport man with a loaded luggage trolley. Alas, just as surely as birds fly south in the winter, every piece of snow equipment in the country goes to the dogs as soon as the slightest of inclement weather bears down on the UK. Countless airport-beleaguered travelers have been forced to ask: why is it that the Norwegian and Swiss have their runways cleared, when western European airports don’t even hold a candle to these more arctic states? Surely, snow is an act of God, but operating snow plows and spreading salt is an act of airport ground handling firms. The travel chaos of December 2010 smacks of human, not natural, disaster.
I remember reading in The Guardian during one of my five airport evenings, a statement by the Prime Minister that “everything must be done to either get them on holiday or get them home safely.” That sounds uncannily similar to what the airport sales office told us when an entourage of five exasperated women barged in to ask for flights home before the 25th. “They are doing everything they can to arrange a rescue flight for the extra passengers here tonight.” What we couldn’t understand was who this “they” was. We slowly found out through the process of elimination. It wasn’t the guy in the sales office, and it wasn’t the lady at the check-out counter. It also wasn’t the voice on the other end of the customer service line (she hung up on us after we complained she was trying to comfort us with tautologous statements). Maybe it was the manager of the airport? He certainly wasn’t around.
Everyone seemed eager to lay the blame on someone else. With British Airways losing up to 10 million pounds a day as they continued to cancel two-thirds of their flights, airline officials spoke of disorganized airport executives who in turn complained about firms such as Passenger Service Agent in Heathrow and they expressed ire at Heathrow’s chief executive Colin Matthew’s alleged failure to order enough de-icer to keep the tarmac clear. Fingers seem to point in circles. At the end of the line, Matthew relinquished his Christmas bonus in a symbolic gesture of atonement. Needless to say, this act did little to sooth the thousands of passengers breakfasting on pastries and instant coffee on Christmas morning (last year, Matthews made a total of £1.6 million in salary, benefits, and a pension contribution).
In the wake of BA’s fiasco, the company’s stocks fell 1.5 percent on the afternoon of Monday, December 20th and Lufthansa, also with a large share of the market, fell 0.8 percent. With British transport secretary, Philip Hammond speaking of a possible “step-change” in weather, one wonders how many snow disasters it will take for British airports to equip themselves with a sufficient supply of de-icer, snow plows, and whatever other winter contrivances it takes, especially considering that halting traffic in and out of Heathrow is tantamount to throwing a wrench in the carefully balanced system of global air traffic.
I was one of the lucky ones. There were other travelers who found themselves still waiting listlessly in London Heathrow on Christmas, peeking out from a foil bedspread to greet the day, or worse: wandering around and around the labyrinthine French airport like a wind-up Christmas toy making laps around the tree.
I spent two days in The Hilton Hotel in downtown Reykjavik, a luxury which I couldn’t appreciate. Unlike Heathrow and de Gaulle, there was no logjam of airplanes competing for a chance at one functioning runway. There were no crowds of desperate travelers looking for someone with a nameplate to talk to. Instead, the airplanes we needed to take us home were stranded on the ground in other places around the world. I think of it like a card house. When British Airways canceled their flights for a whole day, one card had been taken out and the whole house came tumbling down. So we stayed in Reykjavik, waking up every morning to what looked like a midnight sky and waiting for the sun to rise at 11:20. “All we need is for another volcano to erupt,” one friend told me despairingly.
When you’re stranded, you notice things you wouldn’t otherwise give a second thought. Unaccustomed to spending the week before Christmas without their families, many people en route were drawn to each other for a semblance of holiday cheer. It was in this way that I learned where others had come from: a graduate student in Paris on his holiday break, a French woman and her American husband visiting family in Maine, a girl from Cork trying to see her brother in Boston.
It wasn’t all a horror scene of mile-long ticketing queues and sleepless airport sunrises as depicted on the front pages (although there was some of that too). If I had to come up with a slogan to back the BAA’s gross inadequacy throughout the storm, it would be something along the lines of: “de-icer makes planes fly, but it doesn’t make friends!”
Several weeks have passed since I was standing in queues all day and meeting strangers who shared my predicament. But the day after I got home, I was angry, as were my airport friends of late. With little else to do, we huddled in circles on the tiled floor and brainstormed lists of airline wrongs we planned to include in our future letters of complaint. No information no matter where you go. No overnight accommodations besides a makeshift trolley camp. No assurance that we would be on a plane by the 24th or 25th or 26th. It’s a strange feeling to suddenly panic that you might be trapped in an airport for the rest of your life, a Sisyphusean existence of waiting in a queue, learning there aren’t any flights, and waiting in the queue again. I’ll always remember the moment when I was finally boarding the plane to Boston and a girl walking through security with me exclaimed, “There is a God!”
Since then, I have been dreaming about airports. Beautiful, world-class airports with marble check-in counters and state of the art intercom systems. This is a place that exists only in my head. But I would be perfectly happy with a less grandiose airport where employees gave you honest information and it took less than half a week to plow two runways.
Are my dreams for next year too ambitious?