British Airways (BA) — as a member of OneWorld Alliance — reaches some 200 destinations in about 90 countries (one world.com). Tyler and I just tried to reach one (Italy). After BA computers when down globally on Monday September 5, it became painfully apparent we weren’t going anywhere fast.
The fun began in Denver Colorado. After morning bike rides in Dillon, and a leisurely breakfast, we received a text: our flight was delayed three hours (we were schedule to cross the pond at 7:40; now the flight would leave at 10:40). No big deal: we casually made our way to Denver with the rest of the Labor Day traffic. The slow creep was punctuated frequently by stopped trucks and cars, hoods up, conceding victory to the steeper grades and high elevations of the Eisenhower Tunnel.
At the airport, worn out BA staff informed us their computers went down worldwide and doing things manually was the new black. Eventually, hand-written tickets in hand, we proceeded to security where our smudged, hand-written tickets threw TSA for a loop.
At our gate, we discovered the flight now slated to depart at 11:11. Passengers clogged the queue in front of the gate in search of seats until the harried staff made an announcement: Computers were still down and they could not assign seats, but they were working on a solution to this problem.
As one BA employee told Tyler, “We’re not gonna get out of here until 2 a.m.”
To pass the time, we worried about our connection in Heathrow which would take us to Bologna, Italy; according to our calculations, we now had about 25 minutes to make our connection in expansive Heathrow Airport.
Four hundred sixteen passengers fit on a three-class, 747 aircraft which is exactly what finally listed on the tarmac beyond the glass. The BA computer system reared its tired head briefly before it succumbed again to silence. By then it was time for boarding which quickly devolved to confused chaos, as all 416 of us crowded around waiting for instructions. Eventually, BA announced a system: first class passengers with seats assigned (either written on their tickets or, like us, with proof on phones) would load first, followed by first class passengers without seats. Business class would follow suit, followed by World Traveler Plus and then us plebeian World Travelers.
Settling into our seats on the hot, stuffy airplane we sighed with relief: it was over, we were on board and we could leave all the technology-working-against us stuff behind.
Then: “This is your captain speaking.”
He sounded more apologetic than a pilot ready to steer his 416 passengers across the ocean. First, our captain explained the delay: the plane we were sitting patiently aboard was the second try. The first had technical problems which required the last round of passengers to disembark and reload a new plane; their bags enjoyed the same fate hence the three-hour plus delay.
Now, our apologetic captain explained, the bag loader — which weighs upwards of 5 tons — had broken down completely outside the plane. Shortly, it would be dragged away with chains. Another bag loader would be located from somewhere across the airport, which might take a while. True story; for anyone that hasn’t had the pleasure of a Heathrow visit, just a bus ride from Terminal 3 to Terminal 5 (outside of which our plane still sat) is enough to make a person think they’ve left an airport and taken a lengthy tour around a small city.
By fifteen minutes after midnight or so, the staff were waist deep in figuring out exactly how heavy the plane was. The captain reassured us in his calm British tone, “But we should be getting away shortly.”
Around 1 a.m., the Captain came over the speakers to announce problems had arisen reconciling the number of passengers who checked in with the number on board. But, of course, we should be “getting away shortly.” Now commenced a dozen rounds of various staff — some of whom I recognized from the check-in counter — walking around with pens and paper, counting heads.
A long period of radio silence commenced. Tyler and I fired up “Captain America: Civil War,” casting dismayed glances across the staff still lapping the plane. I imagined we passengers were like a giant stack of cash, mostly $1 bills, which — until somebody got the same number — just couldn’t be taken to the damn bank.
Finally, at 2:38 a.m., the plane began to move backwards. Nobody cheered, clapped or said anything at all; most of us, if we were lucky, were sleeping.
Eight plus hours later, the plane touched down on London tarmac, which stared up at a bleak, gray English sky. All 416 of us navigated a confounding stream of corners and stairs, followed by a lengthy march over to Terminal 3. The walk was punctuated by confused staff telling confused customers to go this way or that. In Terminal 3, we found the beginning of a British-themed horror movie: a line that originated at the BA ticket desk, stretched all the way up the hall to a doorway, made a dismayed u-turn and headed directly to where we stood, our mouths dropping to the smudged floor.
After two and half stuffy hours and half a dozen extremely loud and incredibly apologetic messages over the loudspeakers, a man came through the crowd handing out papers. On the papers, said the man, were all the numbers we would need to accomplish the following:
- Rebook our own flights.
- Find our own meals.
- Find our own hotels.
At some point in time, we’d be reimbursed for the last two. We were told to head down stairs and first find a hotel. For about twenty minutes, we stood in line to find out another line existed further down the hall for hotels…
White still in the un-hotel line, we met — with our new petite Japanese friend Junko as translator — a man who crafted miniature ships in bottles and tiny, thumb-sized glass capsules. He proceeded to pull several out of his carry-on (he’d just attended an art competition with them in London). The larger ship, which he proudly displayed, took him three months to complete.
Back outside the world of ships in bottles, morning progressed in a gray haze. We looked at each other: it seemed backwards somehow, finding a hotel before we knew when our rebooked flight took off.
No matter; we soon learned, after abandoning the long line in front of the accommodation desk, there were no more hotel rooms available. Bleary-eyed, I approached a BA customer service representative and politely demanded meal vouchers — for Tyler and I and our two friends, Junko and impossibly tall former basketball player Mark from Philadelphia (now settled in Norway and coaching basketball). Temporarily victorious, we marched over to the only restaurant in the arrivals area and ordered toasties — or grilled cheeses, to us Americans.
Bellies full, we scouted the arrivals area for suitable places to sleep. Upstairs, the lights were dim and the expansive room quieter — except for the area, hidden behind innocent-looking white panels, where construction fired up just around the time we wanted to sleep. Nevertheless, more tired than a kindergarten teacher running after a room of sugar-powered 5-year-olds, Tyler and I lay down on the cold marble floor. True to form, Tyler fell asleep before I even took my camera out of its case.
Two hours later (around 2 or 3 a.m.), I was wide awake, watching a tall man ride a petite machine he maneuvered in spry little circles, waxing the floor. Over by the bathrooms, I located the first class lounge, and more importantly two padded chairs which, when pushed together, offered a perfect respite for cold Heathrow floors.
Once the construction (now literally separated from our eardrums by the innocent-looking white barrier inches behind us) ceased around 4 a.m., I fell asleep again. I awoke just after 5 a.m. to find the British Airways employees manning the first class check-in walking by, showering me with piteous glances. Luckily I’d been laying on my back, snoring, with a spare skirt over my face as they checked in their early passengers.
The “Sylva” lining in all of this? Our new friends Junko and Mark! Junko we saw before braving Heathrow floors overnight and lost track of her in the morning; Mark was harder to lose. I joked we picked a perfect new friend: one who couldn’t be lost in a sea of shorter humans. We exchanged information before finally boarding our 8:20 flight to Bologna.
After sleeping through the Bologna flight, we took a bus to the Bologna train station and a train to Faenza, then a much-needed nap. The next day, we’d be moving to our friend Lisa’s funky, centrally-located apartment in downtown Faenza:
But little did I know I’d only be able to enjoy Lisa’s “castle” for one day. On the 9th, I was asked “Sylva, would you like to go on tour in Austria and Slovenia… in 5 minutes?” In reality it was more like an hour. Now, here I am in Lake Faaker See, Austria (let the jokes commence — it’s pronounced just as you’d think. Lake Faaker see is the official title — often, it’s just called Lake Faak. Again, pronounced just as you’d imagine).
Tomorrow, we cross over into Italy for long enough to grab a gelato and say “Ciao” before we head into Slovenia.
I’ll leave you with a traditional Austrian informal goodbye (tschuss!) and a view of Lake Faak, taken from the cool waters just outside our expansive, four star hotel. Did I mention it’s on an island?