If you travel regularly the odds are that something will eventually go wrong at some point. Well that happened to us on the 27th May when we were impacted by the meltdown of British Airways IT systems…
“Ely… The first, tiniest inkling you get that something, somewhere, has gone horribly wrong.”
(Quote by Douglas Adams/John Lloyd from The Meaning of Liff)
I was en route to the airport when the first tiniest inkling that all was not well appeared. Stacey had landed, from her flight from Houston, but texted to say that their plane didn’t have a gate due to delays with outbound planes leaving so they were still stuck on board. She initially wasn’t too worried, waiting for a gate isn’t that uncommon, but every 15 minutes or so the crew would give an update and it began to sound like more than just some flight delays – especially when the crew said that the computers were down so staff were preparing paperwork by hand for departing planes.
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Arriving at Heathrow Airport
Arriving at Heathrow Terminal 5 there were no obvious signs of issues until I arrived at the door to the terminal. Instead of walking in, Heathrow staff were stationed there telling people they couldn’t enter the terminal until 90 minutes before their flight. Very odd. As I have status with British Airways, I asked why I couldn’t check-in whenever (as normal) and was directed to the far door of the terminal.
Once there I was allowed only when I’d physically shown my executive club card to the people “guarding” the door. Entering the terminal the queues were out of the Tensa barrier and halfway back to the door. I joined the back and the queue moved at a reasonable rate at least. The next inkling that there was a problem though was the cordoned off area at the very south of the terminal where a line of people dropped off their luggage to be added to an ever increasing pile of bags. Also Heathrow staff handed out bottles of water to people queuing. It didn’t look good.
Once well inside the Tensa barrier, the queue slowed and eventually stopped. We were told that there were too many people in the departure are and check-in was temporarily closed. Due to the number of people in the terminal, the WiFi and mobile networks were struggling to cope but someone managed to get onto BBC news and told people that apparently all flights were cancelled until 6:00 pm. It started looking a lot worse. The funniest moment was when a British Airways staff member told us that the information from the BBC wasn’t confirmed or official and was then interrupted by someone that told her that all flights were cancelled until 6:00 pm!! You have to wonder how the BBC knew quicker than BA!
Meanwhile Stacey and the kiddo had finally been deplaned and were now inside the terminal wondering what was going on. There were only a few BA staff and hundreds of passengers trying to get information. Lines to the BA desks had already grew to be hours long waits so there really wasn’t any point in her joining those queues.
British Airways staff then handed out EU261 pamphlets at this point detailing passengers rights. Typically the airline would help to provide hotels, food/snacks, phone calls etc. but with so many passengers affected it would have been impossible for them to do this in any kind of timely fashion. They couldn’t rustle up hundreds of staff to find empty hotels etc. Perhaps there should have been a process in place for people to get food from the shops by showing a boarding pass and that food be billed back to British Airways? But even then the shops would have been emptied in minutes with no chance of restocking.
With the queue at a standstill and no idea of what the problem was rumours swirled… was it a cyber-attack? With our flights now cancelled, and little chance of getting out of Heathrow that day and Stacey still stuck airside, I left the queue. Many people though seemed determined to continue to queue (it’s a British thing :-)) Texting with Stacey, it seemed clear that we wouldn’t be leaving for Germany so she decided to immigrate to the UK. This, of course that meant joining a looong line of people that had arrived with final stop in the UK, plus all the people who were in-transit like Stacey and the kiddo were, plus all the people that had checked in to leave the UK but were then forced to immigrate back in to the UK because their flight wasn’t leaving. It was well over an hour in the queue for passport control but finally they were through and we met up.
It was whilst in the immigration queue that announcements were finally made that all flights were cancelled for the rest of the day. This was done by Heathrow staff shouting to groups of people surrounding them and handing out letters from British Airways detailing what they would cover for expenses. Seriously Heathrow, buy a megaphone or two! But even more sensibly, use the tannoy (public address) system to make these announcements which was clearly working as we continued to get the “Don’t leave your bags unattended” messages etc. It was also at this time that all the lifts up to the departures were were shut down. People could come out into arrivals but not enter the lifts, and the up escalators were shut down and roped off and the entrances to departures closed.
The Immediate Aftermath
Finally, about four hours after we expected to meet up airside of Terminal 5, we were at least in the same part of the terminal. We discussed options and used Hotels.com to see if there were any hotels within a sensible price and distance. Nothing found unless we wanted to spend hundreds of pounds we might not get back :-(. We also looked for alternate flights, but they were upwards of £600 each with no assurance it would be covered by insurance and British Airways were saying they wouldn’t cover alternate airlines at the time. On top of this, Stacey and the kiddo’s luggage was stuck in the bowels of the terminal with no way for it to be retrieved. I did overhear one lady at baggage enquiries ask if she could go and look around for her bag! I’m not sure she understood how big a pile of 25,000+ bags would be!
We came to the conclusion that we weren’t going anywhere tonight, staying local was not an option and headed back to my place. So what do you do when your holiday plans are in tatters? First you buy fish and chips from a lovely local chip shop on the way home and have a cup of tea :-) Then we looked at changing our plans.
With so many people trying to get through to British Airways to re-book their flights the phone lines were jammed. Even with my different phone number (for passengers with airline status) the line would either not connect or drop after a few minutes. We also called Avis to discuss our car hire that we wouldn’t be able to collect. They answered immediately and assured us our car would be held for 24 hours with no problem.
When Life Hands You Lemons…
So after a night’s sleep instead of seeing Wurzburg and Rothenburg, we headed into London for the day. We had to get an Uber to a nearby station on a different line as my line was closed for Crossrail works, meaning a replacement bus service was in operation (just to make things more difficult!). I dread to think how long that would have taken to get to London! To make the most of our day we enjoyed a visit to the Imperial War Museum and just putzed around enjoying the capital. A visit to the new Lego store in Leicester Square (the world’s largest) can brighten anyone’s day! We tried calling BA again a few more times but were either not connected or cut-off again. We’d try again when we get home.
Once home we called Avis once more (as we still couldn’t pick our car) and they assured us it was no problem and to just call them when you have your flights and they would sort it out. They also said they could change the car to Munich if we could fly there instead. They really couldn’t have been more amenable (this and previous experience is why we use Avis for all our car rental needs). And so we rang British Airways, from a landline this time, hoping it wouldn’t get cut-off again. Two hours, yes TWO HOURS, later, someone finally picked up the line – not long before the office was due to close in fact. We were expecting the phone to suddenly say, “Sorry, this office is now closed”, after the two hour wait, and cut us off to be honest.
I explained to the agent that we needed two separate PNR’s changed; no point changing one and not the other and he looked for seats the next day (which would be Monday). Nothing found, all flights were full :-( Because we were due to be in Munich on Tuesday, I asked if there were seats to there instead. I was a surprised when he said they couldn’t fly me to another airport, even if there were seats! This was the low point for me with British Airways; they should have been bending over backwards to help people they had disrupted. It’s not like we were due to fly to Singapore and now wanted to go to New York! So we ended up re-booked on flights to Frankfurt on Tuesday – three full days after we should have flown and with the prospect of a four hour drive to Munich to catch up with what was left of our itinerary. This decision by British Airways cost us an extra half day of our holiday and one of the subjects of my complaint to the airline about their treatment of passengers after the disruption.
… Making More Lemonade
With flights finally sorted, we decided to make some more lemonade with those lemons we’d been handed and had another day in London. We visited the Westminster Cathedral (not Wesminster Abbey!) and had lunch at the 5th View restaurant at Waterstone’s in Piccadilly. Stacey wanted to do a little browsing at the bookstore and we thought we’d check out the view. Lunch turned out to be absolutely delicious too.
We had booked a hotel for the night to be nearer the airport ready for the flight in the morning. This saved us trekking round the M25 during rush hour and as British Airways should be reimbursing us for the hotel it made sense. So we first went all the way to the Urban Villa (where we had recently stayed in March) in Brentford to drop our luggage, before heading back into town for the afternoon.
Germany at Last…
Finally, three days after we should have been in Germany, we boarded our flight to Frankfurt. Again I feel British Airways let themselves down here with no mention of the disruption at any point. British Airways cabin crew have tablets with a tonne of information on them about passengers so an apology for the delay in person would have been well received. They could have supplied a free snack and a drink from the ‘Buy On Board’ menu at little cost to them to apologise and these little gestures would have meant a lot but no, nothing.
We were finally in Germany though but we still had the four drive to Munich to deal with (after sitting in the plane for an hour due to the weather on the tarmac in Frankfurt. Stacey and the kiddo were getting pretty used to this now :-) ). First we reported Stacey and the kiddo’s bags missing; they hadn’t made it on the flight like we’d been assured they would after all. No offer of a prepaid card to buy essentials with, not even an offer of an amenity kit. I could understand this was not possible at Heathrow due to the number of people disrupted, but at an outstation, British Airways fell short once more.
With the bags reported missing we could finally head out, not quite yet though as Avis had re-booked our car from the wrong terminal!! (luck was clearly not with us this trip) We had to catch the train across to Terminal 1 although Avis did offer to bring a car to us, but it was just quicker for us to switch terminals. At Terminal 1 we were offered a Skoda Rapid, not a “similar” car to the VW Golf we had booked in my view. Upon discussion they changed us to a Ford Kuga which was more than adequate and off we went…finally on the road.
Four hours later, and briefly hitting 212 km/h (131 mph) on the way (:-D this is completely legal on the German autobahn), we arrived at our Airbnb for the night and were finally ON holiday – all be it without Stacey and the kiddo’s luggage (which would finally catch up with us on Thursday).
Once we were back from holiday we put our claims into British Airways for the EU compensation for our flights, the expenses we incurred due to the cancellations and delayed bags, and claimed from our travel insurance for the lost Airbnb nights. While it is good to have these options for some compensation (assuming we receive it) we still would have rather have had those three days in Germany to enjoy all the sights on the plan we’d worked on (and looked forward to) for months. But, what can you do? Travel isn’t always sunshine and rainbows and you need to take the good with the bad and make the most of what you are given. In the end we think we did pretty well to make the best of the situation and enjoyed our two days exploring London too.
British Airways Response
We will update this post with information we receive from British Airways about our claims and any response they make to our complaints about their performance.
In the end whenever there are problems with flights I always remember: “I’d rather be down here wishing I was up there, than up there wishing I was down here!”
Have you had your travel plans disrupted? What happened? Did you make lemonade with the lemons you were given?
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