Fast Lane wasn't moving very fast at all last Thursday morning. In fact, this columnist had come to a bone-juddering halt in the check-in queue at the Scandinavian Airlines desk at Heathrow's terminal three.
In the column I had filed 24 hours earlier I had sung the praises of Japan's ANA and taken a swipe at Heathrow, new baggage policies and some slack carriers. As details started to emerge about the foiled alleged terrorist plot I was tempted to pull out my laptop and plead with my editors to refile.
After being advised that the airline had no idea when it would get its flight airborne and that I'd have to put my new Powerbook in the hold, I decided it was better to give up on my flight to Stockholm, grab a taxi and head home to watch events unfold on TV.
By lunchtime I had fallen under the spell of the various politicians and commentators who had persuaded me that my life shouldn't be interrupted by a group of thugs who wanted to top the horrors of September 11 2001. Buoyed by their words of encouragement I reached for the phone and called a couple of private aviation companies to see if they had any aircraft heading to the Nordic region and whether there was a pooling scheme in play. I was hoping to hitch a ride on a Statoil flight to Oslo or Stavanger and then catch a connection to Stockholm but the operations lady from the last company I called told me that there was considerable interest for special charters to Frankfurt and inbound flights to London but no one was in a hurry to get to Sweden. At this point I decided to try again the next morning. I then pulled on my trainers and went for a run.
Twelve hours after sweating it out in Regent's Park, I was back at Heathrow and prepared for the worst. The queues were horrendous, there were crumpled-up foil emergency blankets kicked into corners, terminal three had the dank odour of nervous sweat and wet dog and the thousands of people crushed in closely together struck me as the ideal place for a group of terrorists to detonate themselves. Nevertheless I shuffled along with the rest of the Stockholm-, Oslo-, Gothenburg- and Copenhagen- bound passengers and kept an eye out for anyone who looked like they might be carrying too much weight round their midriff in the form of Semtex and tightly packed nails.
On board an equally tightly packed SAS MD-80, a woman who had forgotten her handbag in the lounge almost caused a full evacuation of the aircraft. Running down the aisle towards the door, she came close to being head-butted by the purser, who, quite rightly, wanted to know why she was almost sprinting to get back into the terminal. As the passengers near the front readied themselves to join her before the fireball came roaring down the aisle, the purser finally let her off the aircraft. Seconds later she was joined by her son, who was also in a hurry to get off. Thankfully the broad-shouldered Swede in charge of the aircraft was having none of it and scolded both mother and son.
It was only on arrival at Arlanda that I realised how isolated the UK felt from the rest of Europe. As my fellow London passengers ambled along the corridor to the baggage carousel, clear plastic bags wrapped around fists or banging against thighs, it gave the impression that these 150 or so individuals had just escaped London with literally the clothes on their backs and the physical devices that validate personal identity. In far too many cases, that's exactly what resulted as bags failed to materialise on the carousel.
It's unfortunate that it had to take an event as epic as last week's to alert the rest of the UK and the wider world to the failings of one of the world's most important transport hubs. Regular readers of this column know that I'm no fan of Heathrow and have long catalogued its failings. Airlines, airport management companies and government should seize this extraordinary event to clean house and start again. In no specific order, here's what needs to happen:
* Heathrow is not dubbed "Thief row" for nothing. Management for all companies working there should use security concerns as an excuse to get rid of suspected law-breakers.
* If airports say a lot about a country's infrastructure, dirty, smelly and crumbling Heathrow suggests the UK must be rotting. If airport and airline management can leave rubbish piled in boarding ramps, let water pour in through ceilings and allow multiple toilets to go unserviced then it suggests there's a culture not focused on detail. The airport needs a battalion of managers focused on creating a culture of pride in the whole operation.
* There was supposed to be a plan in place at Heathrow for the types of measures imposed last week. So why didn't airlines already have checkable, disposable bags and boxes for everything that had to go into the hold? That nothing was available for passengers was unacceptable. This can be easily remedied.
* The terrorist threat seems likely to be with us for a long time, so passengers should be given the option to apply for a complete pants-down, pre-screening programme that will allow them to clear security faster because they've volunteered for a no-holds-barred series of background checks.
* Heathrow should be allowed to grow and flourish or be closed in favour of a new London hub elsewhere. If the airport is prevented from flourishing, London and the UK will suffer. To allow this to happen, the airport's managers and partners need to persuade neighbours and investors that they deserve a chance and they know what they're doing.
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