Heathrow in “a state of fear.”
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
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.
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
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.