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Heathrow Headaches

Heathrow Headaches

Approaching Heathrow in “a state of fear.”

Roy Askey
Coming to the end of what had been an extremely enjoyable extended leave in the UK, during which I had met and made a fuss of my brand new grand-daughter, celebrated my mother’s 87th birthday, an event you miss on pain of death or worse; as well as attending the wedding of my youngest daughter, I was looking forward to returning to Chiang Mai for a well-earned rest. Readers will then perhaps understand my alarm upon hearing on the Wednesday prior to my departure from the UK of the recent terrorist alert at London Heathrow, with lurid reports of massive disruption, long waiting times and flight cancellations.
I immediately telephoned Gulf Air, the airline with whom I had booked my return flight, requesting them to confirm my seat for the following Sunday; and at the same time, enquired if there was likely to be any problems in light of the recent terrorist threats. A charming Arab voice replied that Sir’s seat was surely confirmed and any disruption was happening only to those foolhardy enough to choose to travel westwards to the US, but certainly not to anyone wise and gracious enough to have chosen to fly with Gulf Air.
Re-assured that my return flight was secure I settled back to enjoy my last few days in Pembrokeshire, in the company of my eldest daughter and her family. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, with daylong bright sunshine and temperatures into the low 30’s. My daughter and I went out fishing most days and between the two of us, caught enough mackerel to make that fish an endangered species. In fact we were out on the boat on the final afternoon of my holiday, when my daughter received a voice message from Gulf Air on her mobile phone. The message referred to me and warned that I should arrive at Heathrow, Terminal 3 at least 4 hours before my flight was due to depart; and under no circumstances was any hand-luggage to be taken aboard the plane. I packed my case accordingly and after a final farewell family dinner, set my alarm for the unearthly hour of 1.30 a.m. ready for the trip next morning from Pembroke Dock in S. Wales, up the M.4, to Heathrow.
In the wee small hours, my daughter packed her two children, still asleep, into the back of her car and drove me to the airport, a journey of 5 hours. Despite the fact that it was now 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, the approach to Heathrow was choc-a-bloc with traffic proceeding at a snail’s pace. We eventually reached the setting down point in front of the departure lounge of terminal 3; and as there was nowhere to actually stop, I gave my daughter a hasty peck on the cheek, said goodbye, see you next year and managed to extricate my suitcase from the boot whilst she was still on the move.
The area in front of the departure lounge was a solid mass of people standing shoulder to shoulder, 10 deep and apparently going nowhere. Everywhere you looked there were grim looking policemen armed to the teeth and cuddling Heckler & Koch sub-machine guns. At every entrance to the departure lounge there were several security personnel, who stopped everyone trying to enter the airport and questioned each passenger concerning their destination, flight number and departure time.

Some of thousands of milling, wet and anxious passengers.

Bearing in mind that everyone who wished to fly that day had been told by their respective airlines to be at the airport 4 hours before departure time, imagine our surprise when after struggling with our luggage to reach the doorway, we were each told to go away and walk around; and return 2 hours before your flight was due to depart. There was nothing for it, except to turn around and struggle back through the throng of humanity that was pressing forward only to be told the same depressing news.
Of course, the glorious weather previously referred to had changed to a normal English summer and the steady drizzle was making the lives of already disgruntled passengers even more miserable. Airport staff had thoughtfully erected several large marquees in front of the departure lounge, presumably to provide shade from the noticeable-by-its-absence scorching sun. These tents were now crammed to capacity and there was nothing else for it but to stand around getting soaked.
Periodically, some airline representative would shout for passengers for such and such a flight to make their way to the booking-in desk; and this was immediately followed by people scrambling to get inside the tent as others vacated it. Lukewarm tea and coffee and limp sandwiches offered at exorbitant prices, did little to relieve the discomfort of the sodden passengers who had waited for so long to seek shelter from the rain.
Eventually, my flight was called and I joined the serpentine queue in front of the check-in counter of Gulf Airlines. I had taken the liberty of carrying a book with me to read on the 14 hour plane journey, but this incurred the wrath of the airline staff who told me in no uncertain terms that it was not allowed.
I was not alone in incurring their displeasure, because I witnessed nursing mothers being told to throw away the contents of their baby’s milk bottles, as well as old age pensioners being forced to abandon liquid medications unless they could produce a current prescription. On top of that, mobile phones and laptops were not allowed on board, including any device that was battery operated, such as cameras and even hearing aids.
Everyone in the checking in queue was issued with clear plastic bags in which to carry travel documents, passports wallets, etc. When reaching the check-in desk, passengers were issued with their boarding passes and their luggage disappeared on the conveyor belt as usual. However, despite all the hoo-ha about no hand luggage being carried aboard, suitcases were being taken away with no check as to their contents in the presence of the owners. Perhaps they were X-rayed later before going in the hold, but the owner, if they had been part of a terrorist plot, could be miles away before that occurred!
After checking in and being issued with a boarding pass, I then joined one of the several lengthy queues to go “Airside”, into the duty free lounge. This involved everyone having to remove their shoes, belts, wristwatches, coins, etc, which were placed in a tray and put through the X-ray machine. Everyone then had to submit to a thorough pat-down body-search, with several guys standing there with their arms outstretched and their trousers round their ankles.
A young fellow in front of me in the queue, obviously of Middle-Eastern ancestry, tried to take through a tiny plastic phial containing a miniscule amount of a clear liquid. Despite explaining that he wore contact lenses and the bottle contained cleaning fluid, he was given the ultimatum of “lose it or don’t fly”. I left him behind at the search location and never did find out whether he flew blearily to Mumbai or stuck to his principles and stayed bright-eyed in the UK.
One further reminder of the restrictions put in place to cover this latest terrorist threat occurred when I bought a book to read on the plane. I observed a notice saying that it was OK for passengers traveling to the US to buy reading material from Airside shops to take on the plane, but only if they were traveling on a British or non-American carrier. Books or any carry-on hand-luggage were strictly forbidden on US airplanes.
Anyway, to make a long story even longer, I eventually was glad to get back to Chiang Mai after an exhausting trip of 28 hours, feeling utterly gob-smacked, reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned, but glad that I don’t have to face that again for another 12 months.