Week 9, part 5
We were scheduled to fly at noon on Friday. Check-in time for international flights is two hours early. It takes two hours to get to Heathrow on the tube. It takes us two hours to wake up in the morning. We needed to wake up at 6 and to be on the tube by 8, just in time to join the peak commuter rush. Oh goody.

We said our good-byes to Jen before Gabe took us back to the tube station in his little Mini. After another quick set of good-byes we descended into the Bethnal Green tube station. We had to let the first train leave without us, but we were able to squeeze into the second one. By this time it was 8:45, and the only way we'd get to Heathrow in time would be to go to Paddington Station and take the Heathrow Express ... runs every 15 minutes, takes 15 minutes to get there, but it costs 12 pounds/ticket.

The Heathrow Express was a strange train. From the inside it looked like one of those airport shuttle buses, except that they had strategically placed tv screens spewing out a steady stream of commercials (or adverts, as they're called here). Eventually the advertising gave way to war news courtesy of the BBC. By this time they should have known of the passing of a famous musician, but it looks like they found the bombing of big rocks into little rocks to be more compelling. Sigh.

When we got off the train we were immediately reminded why we disliked Heathrow less than O'Hare: trolleys are well-maintained, widely available, and free. In American airports they are called baggage carts, and if you can find one it will usually cost $1.50 to unlock one from its stanchion. An ample supply of trolleys waited for us on the train platform. The 80-90 pounds that we were carrying could now roll in front of us rather than ride on our backs.

After a quick change of clothes we found our way to the Air India check-in counter. At O'Hare we had to stand in line for 45 minutes to get checked in. At Heathrow there was no line at all, and we had our boarding passes at 10:10, giving us plenty of time to find some serious no-bs coffee.

While we were having coffee an alarm went off. We heard an announcement come over a loudspeaker, but it was drowned out by the alarm. RoZ overheard the words "Air India" in the background conversation. The proprietor of our coffee stand told us to "stay seated and remain calm." Frankly, those words did not calm us as we watched people streaming out of a nearby wing of the airport, albeit calmly. The evacuation zone ended right next to us, and after about 15 minutes or so the people in shiney yellow suits let everyone back in. We never did find out what that was all about.

Our flight was on the departure screen since we got off the train, but as of 11 they still hadn't posted our gate number. All it said was, "go to departures." With less than an hour before departure time, we had to go from one waiting zone to another. To get to "departures," we had to stand in a long line and endure the biggest security checkpoint of the "airport experience." Run packs, bags, coats and such through an x-ray machine, take the coins and other metal out of pockets and walk through a metal detector, then get buzzed by another goon who waves a wand around. At the end of all this we found ourselves in yet another concourse lined with newsstands, gift shops, and other airport stuff. This led to an area with enough chairs to fill a theatre, where we could sit and watch the departure screen. We kept hearing announcements warning that if we weren't on the plane half an hour before departure time, they'd leave without us. We kept hearing these announcements 15 minutes before departure time, yet we still didn't know what gate to go to.

Gate 31 appeared on the screen at 11:50, and we set off on another long journey down some of those endless corridors that only airports have. At the gate we waited in a short line to have our bags inspected by hand and to be frisked. Once we cleared the last line of defense against whackoes, we found ourselves in yet another corral. This one was filled with Indians (as in people from India), and it looked like they had been here for quite a while.

The bulk of the passengers on this plane were going to Chicago from India, only a handful of us were getting on in London. Not long after we joined this crowd, the announcement came out for first class passengers and people with little kids to board the plane. The entire crowd of restless Indians rushed for the door, and the frazzled gate keeper had to announce that no one was going to be boarded until everybody sat back down.

Once chaos was turned back into something resembling order, we all got onto the plane and imprinted ourselves into our seats. Then the "flight supervisor" came onto the loudspeaker with an announcement. They were having "an engineering problem" and there would be a "slight delay." In the meantime, everybody gets a meal of Indian airplane food. (As we pointed out in the week 1 update, Indian airplane food is not bad ... it's a LOT better than the schlock they try to feed us on American planes.)

This astute strategy for customer relations must be in the Air India management handbook: Whenever the natives are getting restless, feed them. We can't say this strategy is totally ineffective. After all you can't complain with your mouth full. Once the food was eaten and the plates were all cleaned up, the voice came on the speaker once again. He had "bad news." The plane needed a new engine, so it wasn't going anywhere today. We'd be "escorted to coaches" that would take us to a hotel ("escorted" means "herded"), and hopefully tomorrow they can find us seats on other airplanes going to Chicago.

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