Monday, 21 December 2009

From London to Belgium in 80 Days

We all travelled home yesterday and I'm not sure whether all of us made it home.
If you were at home following the news of cancelled flights and closed airports, consider yourself lucky.

I was supposed to go home by Eurostar. There was a slight worry last week when the British Eurostar crew announced a strike. That worry subsided when it was decided that the French and the Belgians would work instead.

But that was before the White Christmas decided to make a real effort this year.

On Saturday morning we found out that the Eurostar was broken. Apparently it froze when it came out of the tunnel.

Cat immediately bought me a backup flight, and I thought I could go down to St. Pancras on Sunday, check it out and if it wasn't happening, still head to Heathrow for the backup flight.

But an hour later United Airlines left Cat a message saying they'd cancelled the flight she just booked and they put me on a BMI flight earlier on Sunday morning. But I had to go to the UA desk first to pick up my new ticket.

Throughout the day it became very clear that travel was going to be chaos. Wherever you were planning to go, it wasn't going to be easy.

So on Sunday morning I decided to get to Heathrow early. I got there at 8am, and went straight to the UA desk. Terminal 1 was heaving. Check-in queues were looooong, and all around people were sitting on there luggage, looking at the departure screens, some of them crying, most of them on their mobiles.

The queue I was in wasn't that long. There were about 7 people ahead of me (I didn't count couples, as they would be served together). But it was United Airlines and their flight to Washington had just been cancelled, along with some other flights to the States. Most people in front of me were there to attempt to find an alternative way to get to their destination.
At 9.45am I had my new ticket. I felt enormously privileged, because most of the people around me would not be able to fly that day.

Check-in was quite fast, and so was security. The gate opened at 10.45 (half an hour before the flight), and everything still seemed fine.
But then a man came out of the double doors that led to the plane and said Brussels airport was closed because all three landing strips were covered in ice.
He said the plan was that Brussels would open again at 4pm, but because this plane couldn't just sit at that gate for so long, he suggested we board the plane immediately and wait on the plane. He thought we'd be on the plane for two hours before taking off. He gave us 10 minutes to decide.

This was weird. A group of people who didn't know each other had to come to a consensus about boarding or not boarding. I left and went to get some food just in case.
By the time I got back they'd decided not to board just yet. We'd board at 12.50, aiming to leave at 2pm, so we'd be landing at 4pm Brussels time.
I stayed at the gate. The departure hall was heaving with people who were not going anywhere for quite some time, and the gate was calmer.
At 12.45, the man came back and said we wouldn't be boarding after all. He sent us all back to the departure hall, telling us to keep an eye on the screens.
The screens kept saying 'Delayed until 12.50' - even though it was now later than that.
Suddenly, at 1.50pm, the screens read: 'Flight closing'. Me and quite a few other people ran back to the gate. We got on buses that drove us to the plane and by 2.45pm we took off.

I was in Brussels at 5pm local time. The arrivals hall looked spectacular: suitcases everywhere, every conveyor belt was full, and airport staff tried to clear luggage from previous flights off the belts to other areas of the hall. I didn't quite understand how all that luggage could have arrived without people, but that must all be from people who were on connecting flights and had gotten stuck halfway. The luggage must have been on another flight.

I was out by 5.30pm, and as I bought my train ticket, the man said all trains were suffering severe delays. On the platform I saw a lot of people who hadn't gone anywhere, who'd been told to go home.

I've been stuck in airports before, but never that close to home. London-Ghent is about 300km. It took me 11 hours.

Still I feel very lucky. I got home. A lot of people didn't.

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