They came, they queued, they even flew: 24 hours in the life of Heathrow

Days before the last Bank holiday of the summer, British Airways staff shortages at Heathrow resulted in more than 100 cancelled flights and a great deal of passenger anger. So how would the airport and airline cope this weekend? Matthew Taylor and Steve Bloomfield were there for the critical 24 hours
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The Independent Online


Noon, Friday

Noon, Friday

Even on a normal day, airports are places of tension. People waiting for reunions, friends and lovers not wanting to say goodbye, "Has anyone given you anything to carry?", documents mislaid, the sudden remembering of a vital item not packed, policemen with guns - and those who just want to get there, and those who would really rather stay. Edgy places, airports.

But today is not normal. It's the start of a bank holiday, one of the busiest days of the year, and it's the Friday after BA's Black Monday of cancellations. So, to the fear of flying, is added the fear of not flying. Already today, flights to Aber-deen, Glasgow and Manchester have gone down, and more than 20 others - to New York, Zurich, and Brussels - will not fly in the next few days. And it's only midday.

12.05

In Terminal 1, things seem calm. Everywhere you look, there's a fluorescent-clad helper, drafted in from BA headquarters, eagerly looking for someone to help. On Monday, BA staff were as thin on the ground as scheduled departures were rare in the air. Today, the place is swamped by these smiling Samaritans, more than 200 of whom have given up their bank holiday to guide, inform, soothe and shepherd the swarms of people expected to pass through their company's hands in the next 24 hours. Not all are as confident as they might appear. One says: "We are on top of things now because all of these extra staff have been brought in. But it's going to get busier and busier - this is just the calm before the storm.''

12.07

Humanity in all shapes and sizes wheel trolleys, tout bags and tug children. Lads off on the razzle, suits going home to their shorts, families taking the last break of the summer - and a carrot. A man dressed as a carrot is helped to check in at the European desk by a small army of BA staff.

12.40

Flights to Helsinki and Frankfurt delayed by 50 minutes, to San Francisco by an hour, but there are no queues at the check-in desk. Susan Millar, 46, waiting to fly to Milan, says: "We got here early because of all the trouble but at the moment there seems to be more staff than passengers.''

13.52

BA flights to Hamburg, Lisbon, Barcelona and Brussels join the delays, as do those to Edinburgh, Dusseldorf and Munich. Sarah Weigel is among a crowd waiting anxiously below the information screens. "I came three hours early for my flight because I thought there may be problems,'' says the 21-year-old. "I've got to get to a wedding in Cologne, so I did not want to take any chances.'' She is not alone. Planes may not be arriving early, but passengers certainly are. They saw the TV news on Monday night, read about the scenes of chaos in Tuesday's papers, and are taking no chances.

14.50

A middle-aged woman sobs quietly as she joins the crowd under an information board in Terminal 1. She clutches her ticket. Has she been badly delayed? Has she had a row with her husband? You half expect a BA volunteer with a Kleenex to step forward.

15.40

One of the extra helpers drafted in by BA tells a colleague: "By tonight all this will be full of people queuing and queuing from one end to another, I hope you know what you volunteered for.'' But so far no one seems to be queuing for more than 10 minutes.

16.48

A sudden, remarkable lull. Check-in queues disappear. A group of young men dressed in identical grey football shirts checks in and takes up positions in the Skylark bar. Less than 10 minutes after arriving inside the terminal they have drinks in their hands.

17.39

The evening rush-hour. Over at the South Africa Airways desk, where passengers must arrive four hours before their flight, queues are lengthening. It's too much for one screaming toddler, who is removed by his harassed mother. Judging from the exchanging of glances, other passengers are not sorry to see him go.

18.05

The queue at the Aer Lingus check-in desk stretches more than 50 metres. Tempers at the back begin to fray. "It's bloody ridiculous,'' says Steve Wells, whose partner was hoping to travel to Cork. "They have known this is going to be a very busy weekend for I don't know how long, but they don't seem to do anything about it.'' Nick Rafferty is more sanguine. "We were here this time last week ... this is just what you expect when you come to Heathrow.''

18.19

A steady trickle of people turn their backs on the lengthening queue at the bmi check-in desk to do battle with the airline's new self check-in system. A young couple spend 10 minutes arguing about which buttons should be pressed in which order, before giving up and rejoining the queue for the manned desk.

18.35

A family unpacks a suitcase along one of the main thoroughfares, causing raised eyebrows and disruption. They argue animatedly about which items should be discarded to meet the weight limits.

18.45

The refreshment areas are bursting at the seams. The Skylark bar has standing room only as a man in a blond wig and bikini, complete with false breasts, talks earnestly into a mobile phone. Most people ignore him.

18.56

The line at security runs to several hundred people, backs up into the departure lounge, and is in danger of causing a serious bottleneck. Of the 19 international departures listed on the information screen, five are delayed.

19.28

Restaurants and bars begin to thin out as those who checked in early head for passport control. "We got here almost five hours before we were due to fly because of all the problems,'' says Chris Wheeler, en route to Nice. "There has been a slight delay but it seems as though they are generally on top of things.''

20.24:

The queues have subsided. A knot of passengers is saying emotional, and sometimes tearful, farewells to family and friends. One child screams as he is prised from a young woman who disappears towards her boarding gate.

20.58

Staff are pleased with how the evening has gone. "Was that it?'' laughs a bmi employee. "It was quite busy for a while, but nothing out of the ordinary ... Maybe it will be worse tomorrow.''

It's all very different from the picture a long-serving member of BA's ground staff gave this paper when we spoke to them yesterday: "The management have let things go. There is no trust, no leadership. They keep cutting the frontline staff and putting in extra layers of management ... Everyone thinks the staff are being bolshie. But when you're coming in to work and you know that you're going to be 40 or 60 people down, it's not surprising that some people think 'I can't do this any more'. There have been cases of check-in girls being spat at, and last week some passengers went into the restroom in a restricted area and demanded that the staff went back to the terminal."

21.44

All seven flights listed on the departure information board are due to leave on time. Downstairs the check-in desks are beginning to close and several of the benches, which earlier were heaving under the weight of expectant travellers, have been turned into makeshift beds by young backpackers keen to grab a few hours of rest.

22.34

The arrivals hall still bustles with activity. Scattered among the crowd at the gates are the official greeters - men carrying cards with the names of people they have never met. There are occasional shrieks as a face is recognised, but for most a warm smile, a handshake or hug will suffice.

22.59

"Well what are you going to do about it?'' a mother says with quiet fury into her mobile phone. "I definitely said the 27th, and now I am stuck at Heathrow with my six-year-old son and have no means of getting home.'' The son slumps on his suitcase, chin in hand. "Well, get someone to ring me tomorrow because I want the money back and will take this further if necessary.''

23.40

Sleepers are everywhere, all seemingly able to grab 40 winks at a moment's notice. A young man slumps forward over his suitcase, the Daily Mirror tucked under his arm. The seats opposite are taken by four men sitting bolt upright, eyes closed. Further along, a girl removes her trainers, puts on a pair of night socks, unpacks a sleeping bag and settles down. All the while cleaners and trolley-collectors move around preparing the terminal for the next flight, which leaves in less then seven hours.

1.35am Saturday

In Arrivals, three women dressed for a night out jump out of a taxi, run into the terminal and make a beeline for the ladies.

2.11

In the still of the night, talking to a passenger about last Monday, it's hard not to recall what a BA pilot of more than 20 years' experience told this paper on Thursday: "BA recruited managers from outside the airline industry. However young and dynamic and skilled they may have been in their previous companies, running a huge airline isn't the same as selling chocolate bars."

2.17

Outside the terminal the bus station is deserted. The 285 from Kingston pulls up; the driver, Dave Stewart, gets out to stretch his legs. "It's better working nights, there aren't any school kids messing about. You do get all the clubbers, though - they're a nightmare - being sick, fighting, trying to open the doors while we're moving. I'll only do it for another five years, then that's it. I want to stop when I'm 50, then I can get out of London."

2.57

A dumpy woman, regulation blue coat over her orange trousers and dress, hoovers the carpets by the entrance. Every time she vacuums near the automatic door it swings open. Undeterred, she tries to hold it closed with one hand while vacuuming with the other.

3.31

More travellers start arriving. As most of the seats are taken, the new arrivals wander, stand, and wander some more.

4.23

Queues start forming at the check-in desks, but no staff have appeared.

4.47

Two teenage boys who had fallen asleep on their rucksacks next to a BA check-in desk wake up somewhat bewildered. When they went to sleep, the place was deserted. Now a queue of 30 passengers is staring down at them.

4.56

The terminal is filling up and everyone is queuing. A man with a clipboard tries to explain which queue is which: "That's mainly for Europe,'' he says, gesturing towards an orderly line of about 40 passengers. "This is the self-service,'' he says, pointing at some computer screens, "and that one...'' he says, looking quizzically at a mass of people and luggage, "give me two minutes.'' He consults his clipboard and disappears.

6.10:

"Are you sure that's the right queue?" a young woman asks her boyfriend. "No," he replies.

6.34:

Lucy, BA Zone J queue queen, bottle of water in hand, directs the confused to the right queue. Behind her, she's neatly divided her would-be travellers into two even lines of about 60 each.

6.41

Yellow-bibbed BA staff turn up en masse, clipboards in hand. Sue, small and bespectacled, is in charge, striding round, instructing the yellow bibs and occasionally shouting out a flight number.

7.17

The early morning crush has gone, but self-service isn't doing what it says on the tin. Two yellow bibs have taken over some of the computers and are checking people in themselves.

7.56

Barcelona-bound Emma, 29, tries to find the right check-in desk. "The queues are ridiculous, much longer than they normally are, but they've got all these stewards in the yellow so they're obviously making an effort.''

8.29

The stewards must be wondering what they wasted their weekend for. The queues for European travel have halved and those for international flights have dwindled to single figures. The yellow bibs end up talking to one another.

9.36

Getting the planes off the ground is another matter, though. Flights to Barcelona, Berlin and Moscow are all still boarding - all were supposed to be in the air before 9.00.

9.42

A man in a Stetson pushes a trolley with a large cardboard box on it bearing the legend "This Way Up'' upside down.

10.41

The flight to Rome that should have left more than an hour ago is still boarding. The next 10 on the departure board are also still on the ground when they should be somewhere up in the clouds.

10.51

The self-service computers finally have a satisfied customer. "It was quite easy,'' says Giorgio Serrerro, who is off to Rome.

11.41

The queues have picked up again although the airport is still nowhere near as crowded as it was at 6am. Around 30 people are waiting to check in on the Europe desk, with a similar number queuing for international departures.

11.52

At the bus station, the South African women's lawn bowls team search for a bus to Leamington.

Noon, Saturday

A look at the departures reveals a lot of delays. Whatever problems there are, they are clearly not confined to BA. Almost every airline is affected. Most of the delays are less than an hour, but passengers heading for Budapest, Dusseldorf, Stockholm, Nice, Helsinki, Los Angeles, Athens, Frankfurt, Madrid and Berlin might have a long afternoon ahead of them. The contrast with last Monday has been achieved by drafting in hordes of extra staff. But BA can't do that every peak travel time. There's nearly four months until the next rush, at Christmas. If the airline hasn't got its act together by then, there really will be a riot.

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