The story starts with my arrival at PHL (Philadelphia airport), about 1:45 before my scheduled departure to LHR (London’s Heathrow airport). Yes, I know international passengers are supposed to arrive at least 2 hours ahead of their flight, but I figured I’d be okay on a quiet travel evening.
My ticket – booked through British Airways – was a bit strange: PHL – LHR – DUB (Dublin) – PRG (Prague). Each of these three flights had a British Airways (BA) number, but each was operated by a different airline: American Airlines (AA) in the case of the flight from PHL; Aer Lingus for the remaining two. And the westerly jog from London to Dublin seemed odd, but who am I to question the inscrutable inner logic of airline reservation systems (motto: “The shortest distance between two points is a cube.”)
Though a British Airways flight number is the first one listed on my itinerary, I knew enough to check in at the American Airlines area (where the line was substantial) not at British Airways (no line at all). After only a short wait I was at an electronic check-in terminal where I successfully scanned my passport and was recognized. Do I want to check any bags? Yes. How many? Two. The second will cost $100. Ouch. But I figured not having to manhandle a heavy second bag through two connections was probably worth this, so I scanned my credit card and two baggage tags emerged. I noted immediately that both were labeled LHR – no mention of PRG, my actual destination.
I waited through a short line to talk to the American Airlines baggage person. Having heard my explanation of the problem, she consulted her computer terminal (this always seems to require hundreds of keystrokes) at which point she announced that I must take up the question with British Airways.
So with my heavy bags in tow I made my way to the BA area at other end of the building, where there was no line at all (as the last BA flight had departed), and indeed no one to talk to. After a 5-minute wait an employee emerged to consider my problem. Her several hundred keystrokes produced the conclusion that only the “ticketing expert” could help me; this person was not around, but was expected in “just a few minutes”. In this case, that meant 10 minutes, at which point the expert determined that for reasons she couldn’t explain my travel was booked as two separate trips: PHL – LHR, and then LHR – PRG with a DUB connection. I would therefore have to claim my bags at LHR, carry them to an adjacent terminal, and re-check them with Aer Lingus. Just over 2 hours would be available for this.
I marched back to the AA area to at last check my bags. There wasn’t time to take up the issue of not checking my second bag and having its now mostly superfluous $100 fee refunded. So I proceeded through TSA security (mercifully not too bad) and on to the gate.
Boarding proceeded normally, and on time. It ended with a notable piece of good luck: on a nearly full flight, I was one of the few coach passengers with a seat next to an empty one. The plane doors closed just a few minutes late, and we were on our way to London.
Well, not quite. Nothing happened for 15 minutes, at which point an announcement from the cockpit told of a problem with the flushing system affecting all bathrooms on the right side of the plane. Maintenance personnel were said to be on the job, hoping to have the problem fixed “shortly”. This became a 40-minute departure delay, eating into my Heathrow baggage-handling time.
At last airborne, the Captain told us of tailwinds that should allow us to make up most of the lost time. But Heathrow weather was grim (low cloud & light rain) and our tailwind gain was lost to traffic and ATC delays. We parked at the terminal about 40 minutes late.
Next the long march to the line for passport control, which finished in a hallway with some 250 people ahead of my position in line. A woman nearby says “Well, I’m here often and I’ve never seen a backup to match this!” I’m thinking she must lead a sheltered life if she finds a line of 250 daunting. The line hardly moves in the first 5 minutes and I’m thinking my connection is looking dubious, when I catch sight of a desk marked “Connecting Flight Information”.
At this desk, it’s all business:
“What is your connection?” “Aer Lingus to Dublin.”
“How long until the flight departs?” “An hour and 25 minutes.”
“Right – you must leave this line and follow the instructions of the man in the purple jacket ahead.”
I checked in with the man in purple, who briskly hustled me into the next room – filled with more than a thousand people (might have been 2000) waiting in snaking lines for passport control. (The woman’s comment now makes sense – the line of 250 was overflow from this enormous room.) Thanks to my tight connection I was escorted past all this and to a special desk where my passport was briskly stamped and I could proceed to baggage claim.
Remarkably, my two bags emerged with little delay (and just before a major problem with the baggage carousel that generated alarms, flashing light and running personnel). I packed them onto a baggage trolley and headed towards signs directing me to Terminal 2. It’s a long hike through a formidable series of underground tunnels. The trolley had 4 castering wheels, which made it much harder to control through turns (of which there are many) than the type with fixed rear wheels. But in about 20 minutes I was in Terminal 2 at the Aer Lingus electronic check-in terminal.
This terminal took several tries to recognize me from my passport. Sadly, it then popped up a message saying I must see an agent. After a 10-minute wait in line the agent, consulting his terminal, uttered the dreaded words: “There appears to be a problem – you must consult a ticketing expert.”
Mercifully, this entailed only a short walk and no line. The ticketing expert spent just a few minutes issuing a flurry of keystrokes, then directed me back to the first agent – who quickly determined that I was now properly booked as far as Dublin, with Prague still not in the picture. Back to the ticketing expert (whose expertise, in my view, was now in question). She issued another long flurry of keystrokes, and at last announced, with evident satisfaction: “Ah – I now see what the issue is here. Your connection in Dublin allows only an hour between flights, whereas rules require an hour and 15 minutes.”
“So what am I to do?”
“You must contact your travel agent. By rule, we are not allowed to board you on the flight to Dublin.”
“But you were happy to accept my money and to promise me a flight to Prague. Why did you do that, only to wait until now to tell me now that it violates your rules?”
“This ticket was booked through British Airways, nor Aer Lingus. You must take up the matter with them.”
“Look – I’m a poor traveler naïve enough to believe that paying for a promise to carry me to Prague would suffice to get me there. I don’t even know how to talk to BA about this. Possibly you could contact them on my behalf, and see if there’s any way for me to complete my trip?”
Perhaps because she saw some merit to my case, she was willing to do this. She quickly had a BA agent on the line, who asked a couple of questions: Did I hold a BA frequent flyer pass? Another relevant VIP card? When the answers were no, the call ended: BA firmly declined to take any action at all. My ticket from LHR to PRG was now officially worthless, and I had no choice but to make some other arrangement for onward travel.
In 30 minutes, with the help of a completely different agent, I had in my hand a EuroWings ticket for travel from LHR to PRG via a 4-hour connection in Dusseldorf – I would not reach Prague in time for my ride to Zbraslavice and would thus need a hotel for the night, but I was in no mood to complain. The price was 255 pounds, which included checking my two heavy bags – not too bad under these strained circumstances.
The assignment of gates for flights from Heathrow Terminal 2 is curious. A large status board lists all flights, but until about 30 minutes before a scheduled departure, no gate is listed. Instead, to take my flight with a 12:10 scheduled departure as an example, what appears is “Gate info at 11:40.” Some of the gates are a good 10-minute walk from the main terminal area, which can make for an anxious wait.
You can imagine that I was determined not to miss this flight. I chose a seat close to the status board (but not a comfortable seat, lest I fall asleep) and watched it carefully. All flights ahead of mine went through the expected orderly sequence: around 35 to 40 minutes ahead of departure time, “Gate info at …” would change to “Gate 32”. But not mine – “Gate info at 11:40” persisted until 11:46, at which time it changed to “Please wait” (Isn’t that just what I’d been doing?). Finally, at 12:02 a gate number appeared; I dashed off to this, and managed to board the flight (which, of course, was delayed – though this had not been reflected on the status board).
EuroWings apparently employs a strange seat assignment scheme. This A-320 flight was only about 25% full, but five rows near the back were completely full – three passenger abreast on each side of the aisle, with the rest of the plane very sparsely populated. I was seated among this crowd in the back, but was in no mood to complain and indeed was entirely happy to accept any seat on any flight headed even approximately in the direction of Prague.
Weather at Dusseldorf was good and we made what I took to be a normal approach for a landing to the southwest. But at less than 100 feet in the air the engines spooled up to full power and off we went for a go-around (just the second I’ve ever experienced in a good deal of airline travel). The Captain came on to explain that this was due to a “runway blockage” (no details provided). Our second landing attempt ended normally.
Waiting to deplane, I noticed several passengers taking photos out the right side of the aircraft. On board the shuttle bus that carried us to the terminal, I saw what had caught their interest: a large & nearly full dumpster containing a moderately damaged black SUV, nose-down among random trash. This provoked much pointing and comment by my fellow passengers – but to me, this curious sight somehow perfectly fit with the mood of the day. To borrow a phrase from Hunter S. Thompson: “I felt totally meshed with my karma.”
My stay in Dusseldorf was actually rather pleasant. The terminal was quiet and the long afternoon added no strange happenings to my travel saga. The flight to Prague departed 35 minutes late, a delay that barely qualifies for mention. We landed about 40 minutes late and I steeled myself for baggage claim difficulties, but again had none: my two bags emerged promptly and fully intact. I had only to summon an Uber driver to take me to the Hotel One, in the center city (from which a ride tomorrow morning had been arranged for me).
Without any local service for my mobile phone, this required me to use the airport WiFi signal, which worked only inside the terminal, and only for about a minute at a time. So a total of about 15 minutes was consumed summoning my Uber ride, but this struggle was successful: my phone told me that a driver was arriving in a car whose license plate began with the characters ‘5AM’. I dragged my bags outside, and there it was! I waved to the driver and he pulled to the curb near me. He spoke very little English, but no communication was needed – he knew my destination, and Uber handles the payment. My strange trip is coming to a smooth end.
Or maybe not. 10 minutes into our drive, I looked at the driver’s navigation display, which seemed to show a destination well south of the center of Prague. I asked him about Hotel One, which produced only a confused-sounding reply. Then my phone rang (how did that happen, with no local service?). It’s another Uber driver, who has been searching the airport for me. We finally worked out that two Uber vehicles were summoned at about the same time, both with license plates that have ‘5AM’ as the first three characters.
My driver now understood the situation, and that my true destination was Hotel One. He also understood that he can expect no payment from Uber for embarking the wrong passenger. He was able to make it clear that he’d like me to again summon an Uber ride, which he could immediately claim and thus be paid. I was able to make it clear that I had no mobile service that would allow me to do that. He made a quick detour to a local McDonalds parking lot, explaining that a WiFi signal should be available. But my phone could find no WiFi. It seemed like an impasse. In normal circumstances, I’d be finding this deeply frustrating, but my travel was now well into “theater of the absurd” territory, and this 7th act seemed merely amusing.
I recalled that I had some Euros with me. Curiously, though the Czech Republic is a member of the EU, Euros are not current there – the local currency is the Czech crown (~24 to the US dollar). But they certainly know about Euros, and I offered to pay 20 of them for my ride to Hotel One. He accepted, and we are on our way, this time toward the city center and Hotel One.
It was late, but the hotel desk was staffed, and I was soon through the door of Room 500, bags and all. The only problem was that no light could be made to operate. I was willing to sleep in a dark room, but figured I had just enough energy left for a ride back to the lobby. The helpful desk clerk told me of a slot near the door where the keycard must be inserted to make the lights function. He was right, and in record time I was showered and in bed. I believe I was asleep in 30 seconds.