Escape from Heathrowistan

I’ve been back in America for several days now (and thank God, made it home in time for Christmas), but it became quite an ordeal getting out of the United Kingdom.

Quite possibly the only snowplow at Heathrow Airport attempts to accomplish the herculean task of clearing several inches of snow.

The four-inch snowpocalypse at Heathrow Airport led to an air travel catastrophe, with more than half a million passengers unable to get where they needed to be. I was lucky enough to have hotels and such at my disposal, unlike the thousands forced to sleep on the floor of various terminals at the airport. But let me break it down:

It snowed four inches on Saturday, December 18. This prompted the full closure of both Heathrow and Gatwick airports. By Sunday, Gatwick had reopened at more than 50% of capacity – but Heathrow remained closed. My flight, initially scheduled for Sunday, was thus canceled. Rather than spend hours on long-distance hold with the airline, I opted to book a new one-way flight for Tuesday, connecting in Dublin and leaving from Gatwick, which was operating more smoothly.

By Tuesday, Gatwick was almost 100% operational, but Heathrow was still operating at about a third of capacity, and its second runway remained closed. I then spent eight hours at Gatwick waiting for my constantly delayed flight, which was finally canceled because it had been snowing in Dublin for five hours.

At that point, I thought I was screwed. From what I could tell and from what a travel agent told me, the next available flights were not going to be until today – Boxing Day. Thus I would miss Christmas, stranded in a foreign land. But miraculously, ten minutes later the travel agent called back to report a block of seats on Air Canada flights had opened up. We quickly managed to a book a flight connecting in Ottawa for Wednesday, and despite snow-induced delays on the ground in Ottawa and later in the air above Boston, I made it home for Christmas. We landed in snow, because flakes don’t necessitate entire airport closures.

Britain: third world country.

From what I read, Heathrow is still struggling to return to a near-normal schedule. The reasons for this debacle are many: not nearly enough snowclearing equipment (Gatwick, at half the size, has twice the number); a shortage of de-icing fluid; refusal to accept an offer of assistance from the British Army; and a scandalously small sum spent on snow and cold-weather operations improvements in the last year. Plus, the sight of snow itself seems to send the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland into an absolute tizzy.

It was an unreal scene. Even getting to the terminal for our Wednesday flight required an hour-long wait outside the terminal, plus one at least as long once we were allowed in. And by that point, the line outside was four times what it had been when we first joined it. This was four days after the snow, and the worst of the terminal refugees had been moved or housed. I can’t even imagine the scene on Sunday or Monday.

The entire nation was in panic mode. BBC kept running the headline “FROZEN BRITAIN” and its presenters referred to the “arctic weather” that had beset the country.

It was chilly and it snowed a bit. “The snowfall bore about the same relation to a blizzard as a gentle breeze does to a gale. It snowed a few inches for a few hours. After that it remained cold, an unreasonable thing in winter, I know, but not unprecedented.”

The Heathrow disaster also speaks to the dangerous nature of privatization: BAA, the company that runs Heathrow and Stansted Airports (but which sold of Gatwick a couple years ago), has virtually no incentive to provide decent service. The British equivalent of the FAA, the Civil Air Administration (CAA), is endowed with few powers to regulate or even fine BAA for its catastrophic performance.

Richard Cohen wrote perhaps the best encapsulation of the entire struggle (and used the increasingly popular description of Britain as a third-world country), summarizing the problem thusly:

What we are witnessing on either side of the Channel is the double whammy of a debt-ridden public sector making cuts wherever it can and a bonus-addicted private sector making cuts wherever it’s profitable — with the resultant disaster foisted on a general public now so cowed and coddled and fearful and risk-averse in the age of terror and technology that an inch or two of snow sends everyone into a blind panic.

Britain loves a good crisis, and the sheer lack of resilience on display in the last week is appalling. Britons were told to duck and cover, to stay home and avoid traveling, and the fact that local councils were running out of grit (hint: it’s an island; there’s lots of sand to be found) was simply unbelievable. And rather than keeping calm and carrying on, everyone panicked and freaked out.

Keep our chins up, indeed. I have never been so happy in my life to see either Canada or U.S. customs. I wish they still asked you directly if you had anything to declare; Dennis Farina said it best.

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