04 September 2008

One night in London (are we there yet?)

The journey started out uneventfully. I was flying from Vienna to London Heathrow last Sunday night. The Austrian Airlines flight was quite full. Scheduled for 7:45 p.m., it left at 8 p.m. due to availability of the landing slot in London, but the pilot told us he would try to make up the time in the flight, so we expected a close to ontime arrival.

After two hours, we were approaching London Heathrow, when the pilot informed us we needed to sit in a holding pattern, while we waited for our landing assignment. Everyone on board was relaxed -- there had been no turbulence, and the cabin staff were friendly and attentive. After four or five circuits, some people were beginning to become impatient -- and then the Captain announced that we had to divert to Gatwick, due to weather-related problems at Heathrow.

Well, this was a major inconvenience for many, but not an unmitigated disaster. The pilot expressed the view that perhaps the plane could be refueled, and fly on to Heathrow when a slot became available. We landed at Gatwick 20 minutes later, and waited for the airstairs to arrive, along with the necessary buses.

After fifteen minutes of waiting, the Captain apologized for the delay, explaining that Austrian airlines wasn't able to find a gate agent to assist, but they were working on the problem. Again, he suggested that some people might wish to deplane at Gatwick, but their checked luggage would have to stay on board due to safety regulations (which in my view shouldn't apply for such a diversion -- but sorting through the luggage to separate items for individual passengers would of course be too time consuming.)

The time dragged on. The Captain was apologetic but professional, and gave us regular updates on the situation. Eventually, we waited two and a half hours on the ground, with no one able to leave the plane. The Heathrow option was no longer on the table -- that airport was closed. It was now past midnight. According to the Captain, in his more than twenty years of flying, including many airports in Africa, he had never experienced such a situation, where passengers were kept on a diverted aircraft because of unavailability of a gate agent company.

With the one hour time zone difference, our expected UK arrival time would have been 10:30 p.m. Including the holding pattern delays, we eventually landed in Gatwick at around 11:30 p.m. Two and a half hours later, we were allowed to board the buses to the terminal. Our pilot informed us that the matter had to be escalated through the Austrian foreign ministry, using diplomatic channels, as the situation was so unusual.

But things were't over yet. Once inside the terminal, it took forty minutes before any announcement was made about our luggage -- and another twenty minutes before it arrived on the conveyor. Next, I had to wait another half hour for the bus to Heathrow airport -- which took an hour.

Eventually, I arrived at Heathrow at 3:30 am -- that's after more than eight hours of travel, for something which should have taken less than three hours. Naturally, we weren't the only flight affected, leading to all hotels around Heathrow being full (except for the ones charging 200 pounds per night.) I chose to spend the night sleeping on the floor in Terminal two, to meet my wife's flight the next morning.

Next time, it might be faster to take a train.

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