Adventures At Heathrow Airport

Getting home from our recent trip to London has been a bit of an adventure, and still is for Lorie. Here’s our tale so far:

Friday, December 17

Notice ALL the snowWe were supposed to fly from London Heathrow to Seattle today on British Air 49 (BA 49), like we normally do. We got to the airport just fine, but noticed it was snowing pretty hard when we were checking in our luggage. The snow didn’t last long and resulted in only a dusting of snow on the ground.

We boarded the plane just fine, but then we were told that we had to wait to get the plane de-iced. After an hour or so, we were told that we were 6th in line to get de-iced. Then they turned on the video system so we all watched movies. Then they served sandwiches and drinks. Then they started the video system again so we could watch a 2nd movie. Finally after 5 hours, they said that they’ve waited too long and that they were required to cancel the flight.

30 minutes later a bus came to get us off the plane and bring us back to the terminal so we could get our bags.

3 or 4 hours later they still hadn’t taken the bags off the plane but they told everyone waiting for their bags to leave the airport. The “go home” announcement was the only publically announced communication of the night.

Then the employees went home.

Thankfully Lorie learned from some random employee that if we show up at a certain door (an employee entrance) at 6am the next day that we could get our luggage.

So we finally went to our hotel by catching the last shuttle at 11:30. Getting into our room a bit after midnight, we called our travel agent to arrange flights for the next day.

Then a mouse ran through the room.

Vending Machine Drinks at a Heathrow airport hotelOur upgraded room was a bit nicer and looked mouse-free.

Saturday, December 18

With 3 solid hours of sleep, I was off to the airport to get our luggage as Lorie slept – she was starting to get a head cold.

Standing near the magical “secret” door, I heard an employee announce that Seattle-bound passengers could go in and get their bags. This announcement could only be heard if you were within about 5 feet of the employee announcing it. No PA system. No bullhorn. No signs. Just luck.

So after 4 hours I finally got our luggage. The bags weren’t where the Seattle-bound bags were supposed to be, but thankfully the only 2 other Seattle-bound people left caring about their luggage found them (I think they were broke, homeless students who needed everything in their bags). I assume the BA system of incompetence and lack of communication had worn down all the other passengers who had given up by this time.

After enjoying our complimentary-due-to-mice breakfast (complete with old milk on my cereal) and abusing our late checkout-due-to-mice we left the hotel at 2pm and moved to a hotel attached to the airport. Much, much nicer. The taxi ride was slow due to traffic (again, weather-related), but otherwise uneventful.

We then washed underwear and socks in the sink, since the hotel’s laundry service wasn’t working because the service couldn’t get their trucks to the hotel. Yes, less than 2 inches of snow and ice closes England down. However, there are almost no 4x4s and maybe 100 pairs of tire-chains in the country, so this isn’t too unexpected.

As our clothes dried, we decided to go into the city to buy some newer socks. The tube is cheap and easy, so we got on it only to learn from others that they had been sitting there for 30 minutes. Then we learn that there is a signal failure at the next station with no estimate as to when it would be fixed.

Not trusting the higher-speed (and more expensive) train to operate properly, we opted to stay at the airport for the rest of the day.

After a good dinner and drinks with fellow stranded passengers (shared misery creates instant friends), we called it a night knowing we wanted an early start to check into our flights the next morning.

Sunday, December 19

4 hours of sleep later, we woke up and checked the status of our flights. Mine was still scheduled to fly, but Lorie’s was already canceled. After more time on the phone, Lorie had a new flight scheduled…. for Thursday.

So we checked out of the hotel, not knowing where Lorie would spend the night and I ran to catch a train to Terminal 3 (from Terminal 5 where we were staying).

Not trusting the tube given yesterday’s problems, I opted for the high-speed train (they both go from T5 to T3). It wasn’t running. So I went and sat on the tube. Thankfully after waiting for 5 minutes, it arrived and took off a minute later to T3.

Heathrow T3 chaosI got to T3 where a sea of people were standing, sitting and sleeping. Similar to what was happening in T5, but it was obvious that Virgin Atlantic had given out silver-space-age-looking blankets to their customers. Remember, British Air just told their customers to leave the building even if they couldn’t get a hotel room.

Then more flights got canceled.

3 hours later, I was able to check into my flight, which was one of 4 or 5 flights not canceled for some reason.

As I went through the security check, I overheard a BA employee say “I thought the airport was closed, but Virgin is flying”.

People sleeping in Heathrow T3 with space blankets from Virgin AtlanticAnother hour and I was on the plane and not too long afterwards we took off, which caused all the passengers to applaud loudly since we were all very excited to have escaped, even if very few of us wanted to get to the Washington Dulles airport. At least it was a flight that would get us out of “snow-bound” England to someplace with functioning airports.

Landing late meant I missed my connecting flight, so I had to get a new flight for the morning and a hotel to stay in for the night.

Monday, December 20

After another solid 3 hours of sleep for the night, I was back to the airport to continue my journey.

At this point, I was out of clean clothes, but at least I had taken the free pair of flight socks from yesterday’s trans-Atlantic flight. So I spent the day wearing purple Virgin Atlantic socks.

….

Lorie is still in London. We hope she can fly on Thursday as planned, but we have no faith in British Air at this point. A pigeon will probably crap on a windshield and they won’t have the proper windshield washer fluid to clean it, so the airport will need to be shut down for 2 days. Or something like that. But hopefully all is OK and she’ll be able to fly on Thursday.

…..

To summarize all of this:

  1. Avoid Heathrow airport if there is the threat of snow or freezing temperatures.
  2. British Air has terrible customer service, except for a few random employees. I intend to avoid BA in the future if possible. The above story would be worse if I didn’t have a good travel agent to shield me from dealing directly with BA (however, they mostly didn’t deal with anyone from what I could tell)
  3. Virgin Atlantic generally has very good customer service (real empathy goes a long ways!). I’d happily fly them again.
  4. The American Express International Travel Service that I use as a travel agent does an amazing job at all hours to fix me up with flights and hotel rooms!
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A Few Resources for Location-Based Services

I have been reviewing what Foursquare and Facebook Places can do for brands without a physical location. This is in line with the short list I created of brands using location-based services. In the spirit of sharing and helping each other learn, here are a few of the better resources I’ve found:

Foursquare Resources
Overall: Use Foursquare to engage your increasingly mobile customers with foursquare "Specials".

Facebook
Overall: Facebook Deals generate awareness, encourage in-store traffic and build customer loyalty.

You might be wondering why a guy from Microsoft is working on this… the answer is simply because I know some of our brand advertisers are looking into these services so I want to understand and help. After all, if they’re thinking about using a location-based service, then they’re ready to be thinking about mobile advertising and geo-targeted advertising on both the PC and mobile. Microsoft has the engaged audience and experiences to help drive those mobile and local efforts.