On Tuesday, December 19th at around 4:30 PM we sat at the departure gate in Los Angeles waiting to board our flight. It had already been a very long day for us, and we were looking forward to a 10 hour flight to London with a connection that would take us to Rome. It was me, Paola, our 17 year old daughter, and our 7 year old son.
I remember thinking and commenting at that time that if all went well, we would be getting in our rental car at Rome in about 16 hours, then make the hour and fifteen minute drive to Soriano, and finally be in our own beds. The worst case scenario was that we would miss our connection. After all, we only had a one hour layover at London Heathrow, so we might miss our connecting flight and have an additional 2 hour delay.
That worst case scenario was a dreaded thought at the time, but looking back, all I can say is: IF ONLY!
The flight to London was uneventful. I didn’t sleep, but I rarely do. Still, I had a decent seat and the crew was good, which can make all the difference.
About 20 minutes before we were scheduled to land, however, the announcement came over the intercom stating that we would have to circle over London for 45 minutes before landing. Oddly, he also assured us that we had enough fuel… duh!
OK, at this point we figure we will either miss our flight or with any luck, our connection will be late, too… IF ONLY!
The Adventure Begins
We landed. We were about an hour late, but we had been told that many flights were also late. Cool. We got off the plane and proceeded to the transit area where we would find our gate and figure out if we would make our flight. It is 6:30 AM on Wednesday back in Los Angeles. I have now been up for 24 hours.
The moment we got to the transit area, we were greeted by hundreds and hundreds of people looking just as confused as us. Something was clearly not as it should be. We couldn’t find our flight on the monitor, so we proceeded to an ‘Information’ line. I kept looking at the monitor and every few seconds the word ‘CANCELED’ would appear next to a scheduled flight. Not good.
After a bit a woman comes to us with a sheet of paper. She said that some flights are being canceled due to fog. As it turns out, ours was one of them. She explained that we would need to proceed to baggage claim, get our luggage, and then go to the British Airways ticket desk to get ourselves rescheduled on the next flight to Rome. At this point we are not happy campers. How inconvenient that we have to get our bags, go through customs, and navigate Heathrow to get a new ticket… only to come right back here. Why can’t they reschedule us here? Whatever… we’ll deal with it and get to Rome a bit more tired… IF ONLY!
We made the trek to baggage claim and waited… and waited… and waited. No bags. Finally someone explains that we were given bad information. Our bags were in ‘holding’ and would be automatically placed on the next Rome flight. Well, that certainly makes more sense. He explained that we did still need to clear customs and go to BA ticketing. So we left.
We went through customs and entered Heathrow. For those that don’t know, Heathrow is enormous and very confusing. We walked and walked and walked and walked to find British airways ticketing. When we got to the general area, we were greeted by thousands of people crowding the terminal, looking as confused as we did. We finally found a BA employee who explained where the line was for ticketing. She warned us that the line was ‘dreadfully long’ due to the fog problems, and that everyone we saw in the terminal was in the same situation as we were.
We went to the end of the line, and it was by all definitions ‘dreadfully long’. We figured that we would never make the next flight. I was then informed that what I believed to have been the end of the line was merely a break in the line to allow people to cross to the exit. The end of the line was ‘down there’. As I ventured ‘down there’ I would get to what I thought was the end, only to find it wrap around another corridor… and another… and another… and another. My conservative estimate is that the line was roughly 3/4 mile long. This does not look good at all. As we stand in the line, we move forward roughly 50 feet in a half hour. It didn’t take long to do the math on this one and figure out that we were not going anywhere today.
I decided to venture toward the front of the line to hover and gather all of the intel that I could. The first thing that really struck me was that all of the airport employees were just as confused as we were. They were overwhelmed and had no plan of action. They were winging it. The next thing to happen was ‘The letter’. They began to hand out apology letters. I truly felt bad for these people, as they were dealing with thousands of angry travelers while they were doing the best they could…. And the best they could do at this point was an apology letter.
At one point, toward the front of the line a British Airways employee who was helping another passenger asked me if I had a pen. I said I would go grab one for him, so I started running back to Paola, who was way back in line still. I got the pen, gave it to the man, and he told me to stay there next to him. As it turns out, he was British Airways Executive Vice President for the Americas, who just happened to have flown in from New York that day. He told me that standing in that line was an act of absolute futility, and then got out his cell phone and called his New York office. He got us rescheduled on a flight the next day and said that BA would pay for our hotel that night. He scribbled some information on paper and gave me instructions. WOW! Good thing we had that pen.
I got Paola and the kids out of the line. The apology letter had a list of hotels, but I figured that with the thousands of people that were stranded, we would be wasting our time trying to get one of those. When I am in London, I usually stay at the Paddington Hilton because the Heathrow Express takes you straight to Paddington station in 15 minutes, and the hotel is an escalator away from the trains. We quickly booked a room there, called some close friends that live in London and boarded the train.
We spent a nice evening with friends we would not have otherwise seen. This wasn’t so bad, after all. We’ll be rested and on a flight to Rome tomorrow… IF ONLY!
That night we were watching the news, and the Heathrow situation was the top story. 80,000 passengers were stranded at Heathrow. All flights that day after we had arrived had been canceled, and they expected the fog to last for a few days. Already, 350 flights had been canceled for the following day.
We tried to call British airways and the airport over and over to see how we were affected, but their lines were beyond capacity and there was no hope of getting through. Even the New York office was impossible. I tried their website, but their system wasn’t responding to the load. We had no way of getting any information. The following morning nothing had changed, so we figured our only option was to go back to Heathrow to get the lay of the land.
We woke up (Paola couldn’t sleep that night) and quickly got showered and to the trains.. Once we arrived at Heathrow, we found that gigantic line again, only now it was worse! Now there was a giant line that wrapped around outside in the freezing cold fog that brought you to a tent where they would give you a ‘Lottery Ticket’ that would give you the right to be in the ‘dreadfully long’ line. OK, I’ll hover at the front again and gather intel! All the while, we are trying to call the numbers we have for BA, but there was just no hope of getting through.
I was able to find out that our flight was, in fact, canceled. At best, we might get out in a day or two. At this point we decided the best bet was to get off the Island any way we could. The first thought was to rent a car. We quickly found out that while we could do that, all of the ferries were backed up with people that had the same thought we had.
The next idea was train. We could take the EuroStar to Paris (Through the Chunnel) then get a train or a car in Paris to Rome. Or perhaps we could fly from Paris to Rome. We made some calls and were told that the flight would cost us around $2,600.00. Screw that… we’ll do the train. Some calls were made, and we had instructions and times. We would get to the station in London, and then purchase the tickets through to Rome. We would take a night train, and arrive in Rome the following morning. Cool… IF ONLY.
We got our tickets for the Eurostar, but as we entered the station, we learned that you are technically in France at that point, and you had to purchase tickets outside the station. Unfortunately, we were not allowed outside the station at that point, so we had to buy the tickets once we arrived in Paris. Keep in mind that we were told that we might not be able to get a ticket for the Rome train, so time was of the essence.
During the train ride to Paris, we kept calling British Airways in hopes of getting information. Remember, our suitcases are somewhere at Heathrow, and perhaps they could get us on a Paris-Rome flight. Nothing.
Finally we arrive in Paris and start to make a run for the subways so we can get to the station where the Rome train leaves from and try to get on it. I decided to try British airways one more time and somehow I finally got through. The woman on the other end suggested that I should go the airport and see if BA would get us on a flight. She said there were two flights for Rome, but she couldn’t do the booking.
With a quick change of plans, we took the subway to the airport and walked and walked and walked to find the BA desk. When we got there, we found another long line. We left long lines of people trying to leave London, and here we found a long line of people trying to go TO London. Again, I hovered for intel. Unfortunately, I don’t have much luck finding helpful French people. After a bit, a very nice Hungarian lady from a different airline decided she wanted to make my day a little better. She was able to produce four tickets to Rome that night for us.
We boarded the flight and made it to Rome. We finally made it to Soriano at 1:00 AM Friday morning. All in all, our day had started 58 hours prior. That moment back in Los Angeles when I dreaded the thought that my bed was 16 hours away was actually 48 hours away. It never felt so good.
We left Los Angeles on December 19th. We were supposed to arrive in Soriano on December 20th. We arrived on December 23rd. The following day one suitcase arrived. All of our Christmas presents are somewhere in London. On December 26, another suitcase arrived. As of now, we have no information on the other four… which have the presents. I‘m at the point that I am driving to Rome daily to check for the suitcases (they rarely answer the phones), and have gotten on a first name basis with many of the customs Agents at FCO :-).
The funny thing is that while it was crazy, especially with a Teenage daughter and a 7-year-old son, we were all troopers and laughed all the way. Oddly, it is a wonderful memory, and I am sure that I will look back at this as one of the best Christmas Holidays of our lives.