Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Airport living

Earlier this year, the story of Anthony Delaney hit the headlines when he breached an ASBO than banned him from Gatwick Airport where he’d been living for the past few years. It was a sad yet fascinating story.

For the last few years, whenever anyone has asked where I work, I’ve tended to flippantly reply “at the airport ... or at least my car lives in the airport car park and I seem to spend a lot of time there too.”

But to have no other home, and to have run out of better options than camping in a airport terminal, is quite a different matter.

For all my joking, I’ve only had to spend two nights in an airport. Once was about six or seven years ago on a stormy night when a flight arrived so late at Heathrow that the trains and tubes had shut down for the night, there were enormous queues for taxis, no rooms in any airport hotel.

Travelling with a colleague we tried to book a hire car – but the firms wouldn’t accept new bookings outside normal business hours, and wouldn’t take us on their shuttle bus. So we rang the hotel, cancelled our room (at midnight!) due to weather conditions, and settle down on the uncomfortable seats in Terminal One.

Woken the next morning by the BA staff coming on shift around half four, we caught the first (and one of only a handful) Heathrow Express that made it into London that morning, reached the meeting, and later found that none of our London colleagues could make it in from the suburbs – though a Wales colleague did arrive half only half an hour late. Meeting cancelled, tubes suspended due to flooding, we got a minicab out to Heathrow, where we got on a (delayed) flight home, and the Welsh guy hired a car to drive to Cardiff.

It’s only occurred to be now – six or seven years later – that we could probably have got a bus from the Heathrow Central Bus depot into London throughout the night, avoiding the taxi queue, and the night on the bench. Hindsight is wonderful.

Of course it happened again about three and a half years ago. This time easyJet cancelled the Friday night 1830 flight from Stansted to Belfast. They’d had problems all day, and at ten o’clock decided to cancel our delayed flight and let the 2230 flight go pretty much on time.

Once a flight’s more than an hour late, it gets counted as a late flight on their CAA stats. If you’re a league table-conscious airline, there’s no point making two flights late, even if it seems unfair to the passengers. Except, they’d already tried this trick at lunchtime: announcing the boarding of the 13:15 flight while the 11:00 passengers were still waiting around for information. The Northern Ireland-bound passengers didn’t take it lying down, and the airport police were called by the gate staff … and the 11:00 flight departed first!

So they didn’t make that mistake with our flight. There hadn’t been an orange-jacketed member of staff at the gate for over an hour when the armed airport police arrived and shortly afterwards, the tannoy announced the cancellation of our flight: “Please make your way back to departure hall to collect your bags”. This was despite the couple of times they’d announced that “your flight has just landed and will be ready for boarding shortly” throughout the evening.

The losers that night were a primary school class heading home from a trip to Paris and EuroDisney. With tired teachers, and parents waiting at Aldergrove, they’d been sitting cross legged at the Stansted gate for four hours.

Once back in departures, the tannoy was again used to tell us that the first available seats to fly home would be on Sunday ... a day and a half later. To get hotel accommodation, you had to queue to book onto a new flight (only two staff to cope with four cancelled flights).

An AMEX 24 hour emergency travel booking number on my mobile finally came in handy as I booked onto the first flight out of Heathrow on the Saturday (needed home to view a house at 11am the next morning!) and headed down along with my new best friend from the Royal Mail to catch the midnight National Express coach to Heathrow. But as we left, the primary school class and teachers still hadn’t been told if they could all be accommodated in the same hotel, or where it would be, and what they might do to occupy thirty over-tired children all day Saturday.

Second time around, Heathrow Terminal 1 had improved. The Costa coffee was now open all night with someone sitting strumming a guitar and giving a bit of atmosphere. The lights were a bit too bright, but a doze was possible, and it wasn’t as draughty as I remembered it the first time.

Well, that was cathartic. Just think of the miserable posts I’d have been publishing if I’d been blogging back then! It would have been twitterific :)

But two nights in an airport is more than enough to teach me that it’s not a nice place to live. It’s not a place you’d chose to live if you felt you had any other options. While airports are full of interesting people, you don’t get to talk to them unless you’re travelling, standing in the same security queues, joking in the same airport departure lounges. That’s not available when you’re stuck in departures, and never get airside.

logo of the Independent newspaper

Writing for the Independent, Tom Mitchelson spent three days and nights at Gatwick’s South Terminal this week. He had the keys for a flat to return to, money in his pocket to spend on food and entertainment, and no reason to hide away or be shy of the authorities. And even with those safety nets, he had a miserable experience.

How much worse for the 110 people reckoned to be living at Heathrow, or the twenty or so hiding away in the shadows of Gatwick?


Timothy Belmont said...

About nine years ago I booked a flight only to Tenerife. It arrived around 12.30am and I had no accommodation booked; so I kipped as best I could on the airport benches with my feet under the "arms" of the seating till the first bus at 7am or so into Las Americas! :-)


克莱夫 said...

@tb - such hardship, such steely resolve in overcoming it.

jamesbrownontheroad said...

You may find the following handy for any future overnight stays :)

My only overnighter was shortly after the launch of bmibaby, when I availed myself of a completely free (not even the taxes) flight from Nottingham EMA to Barcelona and back. The return arrived around midnight, which back then was far too late for any public transport at such a small airport. I slept fitfully, primarily due to an automated announcement every 20 minutes advising me not to leave my bags unattended. By 5am I was so used to its rhythm that I could predict in my head to the second when it would boom across the empty halls...