It’s 4am, local New York time, 9am UK time, and Felix waves his laptop at me saying ‘write this up now, while you’re “fresh” ‘. Not the adjective I would have used, perhaps.
I didn’t need to come here, it wasn’t critical. And I was already feeling guilty about burning the carbon, despite offsetting, in order to meet colleagues in Maine. When the terrorist threat brought all British airports to a halt, I resigned myself to the fact that I was going nowhere. And that was fine. But when I rang American Airlines, expecting them to be relieved when I offered to have myself bumped, the customer services woman sounded perplexed. And when I asked, therefore, how I early I should turn up before my flight, she answered two hours, as always. (Funny, I thought the official check-in time for trans-atlantic flights had been three hours for a few years now).
It took a little while after I arrived at Heathrow before I realised why.
Packing was weird. I decided to not take my laptop in the end but rather a disc of documents. I can borrow computers in the US, or share my boss’s, and ultimately the most useful time for having the laptop is in the departure lounge. I wondered if we would have still organised this meeting if flying rules stated ‘no laptops, reading, or writing, material after security’. That would certainly discourage me from a few long-haul work trips.But this one was going ahead.
There were long queues at the airport, as expected, but not that long. It took about an hour and a half to check in and pass through [initial] security checks.
There were plastic bags, as expected. Only passports, travel documents, essential medications, sanitary requirements and nappies, milk for babies (to be drunk in front of security personnel), glasses outside of their cases. No books or magazines. No pens. Definitely no laptops.It was the pen deficiency that hurt me most.. I’d even printed my e-itinerary on three pages of A4 so I had something legitimte to scrawl on.I was told I could buy reading material in duty free, which I did, but it was later confiscated.Those damn exploding books.
What I didn’t expect was the calm, even the smiling faces. The entire staff at Heathrow seemed to have been fed chill pills, were available and informative, relaxed even. And, thankfully, had a consistent story.Whether the training for this scenario has been practiced many times, or was just pieced together in the last 24 hours, they were on top of it.
The man at the check-in desk was young and quite cool. Him and his colleagues all had funky assymmetric haircuts and a relaxed demeanour. He admired the stamps in my passport and, to my dissapointment, was much more impressed by the one from Wide Awake Airport at Ascenscion Islands than any of the ones with penguins on. He asked about my job, why I’d been to the Falklands. These weren’t security questions, just chat. No hurry to process the queue.They’d been here for a day and a half now and the queue would not diminish this week. No-one was in a hurry, everyone was atleast four hours early because all planes had been delayed. People would make their flights and if they didn’t, they’d make a different one. This wonderful air of calm and resignation. No hysterical passengers hurrying for a plane. No hassled staff overwhelmed by the system.
The mood inside the duty free area was similarly quiet. Quite a few people bought magazines or newspapers. I read the first few chapters of my new book:….. No-one was speaking on a mobile phone as these had all been checked or confiscated. No-one was working on laptops, hanging out in the wifi corners. No-one was shopping much: liquids were prohibited on all flights and chocolates on most. Hamleys toy store ingeniously had a magician entertaining kids. The duty free shops passed out trays of free sweets. I bought a beer and some pizza, and asked for a glass of tap water. They sold bottled but I didn’t want that as I’d only have to leave it behind. In the end the server poured me a glass from his bottle.
I was intrigued to see how westerners would cope with forced inactivity. No shopping, no reading, no writing, no tv. And I was impressed. It seems we do, after all, in the face of inevitability, know how to wait.
Our 1830 flight was delayed by two hours. I knew that already at check-in. When it was finally called, we were all segregated by gender and searched again. My book went. One poor woman had bought three bags of presents from duty free Harrods and had to leave them behind (they shouldn’t have sold them to her, atleast at the book store I was warned that my odds were 50:50). Lots of strangers chatted to each other in the queue.
We were on the plane by 2100 and then sat at the gate for another two hours. But again, we had been told to prepare ourselves for a long delay. I didn’t really understand the point of this second delay. They apparrently had to check each passenger’s details individually, and also send in more fuel as they hadn’t prepared for sch a long wait. We were comforted with the information that once we were in air we would be on the safest flight we’d ever experienced. We were served snacks and drinks, they started the [terrible selection of] movies rolling, and kept us informed of how ill-informed they were.
I didn’t hear a single grumble, just sighs of resignation. Weirdly, the flight was full but not packed and I was fortunate to get a window and aisle to myself.
We finally left at 1830 NY time, 2330 local. We arrived in New York seven hours later, 0630 UK time, 0130NY.. and had another hour or two’s wait to collect baggage. I arrived at Felix’s at 0330, pretty chilled really.
Everyone assumed I had a terrible trip, but I didn’t. In fact, it was better than many, just longer. No-one seemed to understamd the security measures, why exactly I wasn’t allowed my book or pen, but today rules is rules. My theory is just that you can process passengers quicker if they are carrying minimal stuff. And you know what,- there was no rush for the overhead locker and no bags under the seat in front. Is this the way of the future?