Unexpected delay at Heathrow

With two friends, I traveled from New York’s JFK to London Heathrow on British Airways flight No. 112 on Sept. 15, 2006. Three hours after arriving at Heathrow, we were to connect with British Midland (bmi) flight No. 163 to Mallorca, Spain.

Due to bad weather in New York, our British Airways flight left 1½ hours late, causing havoc upon arrival at Heathrow, where we encountered thousands of people trying to retrieve luggage from the carousels and clear Customs and Immigration. There was nobody to assist us through this serpentine line of travelers, and we still had to walk miles to reach our next flight.

After moving from Terminal 4 to Terminal 1, we were advised by bmi personnel that we could not board the plane because the gate had already been closed, as it was only 30 minutes away from departure.

We then had to sit at Heathrow for six hours waiting for the next flight to depart for Mallorca, at 2:45 p.m. (bmi apparently runs two flights from Heathrow to Mallorca on Saturdays as opposed to just one daily flight the rest of the week.)

My two traveling companions had flown to New York from California and Arkansas, respectively, and both of them have disabilities, thus the long flight and the long walking at Heathrow were burdens on them, not to mention the six hours of waiting.

We were informed there are no small vehicles at Heathrow to transport passengers with disabilities; only wheelchairs are available. We had not requested any type of assistance on our flights from the U.S. as we did not anticipate the horrendous lines we had to stand in at Heathrow.

We finally arrived at our hotel in Mallorca at around 6 p.m. local time (one hour ahead of Greenwich time).

On our return to the U.S. on Tuesday, Sept. 26, the Mallorca airport was not affected by the mobs, madness and disorganization that we experienced at Heathrow airport (of course, the Mallorca airport is not in the same position as Heathrow), and we had no problem finding transportation for the physically impaired. A driver in a 4-passenger vehicle took us around the airport to our departure gate.

At this point, we asked bmi personnel to request assistance for us at Heathrow airport. They told us that they were going to request two wheelchairs for my friends.

What really got our attention in Mallorca was the plain fact that while we were inside the plane but still at the gate, 10 minutes prior to departure the door was still open and about six passengers boarded the plane! After these “latecomers” were inside, the door was closed and we took off.

Considering that on Sept. 16 our late arrival at the bmi check-in counter at Heathrow (which did not look overwhelmed with passengers) had been due to circumstances beyond our control, we found it rather insensitive on the part of bmi that we were denied access to the plane with 30 minutes left until departure and yet on our return flight people were boarding the plane just 10 minutes prior to departure.

When we arrived at Heathrow, the wheelchairs never materialized and nobody knew what to do or where to find any kind of assistance.

On the positive side, British Airways’ service, food and overall performance were excellent, as usual. The delay on our departure day was not the fault of the airline but, as they say, an act of God.

I understand the difficult situation the airlines are in and their very costly efforts in securing our safe passage. In writing this letter, all I wanted to do was make other travelers aware of a situation as frustrating as the one we encountered so that they can plan accordingly and, perhaps, allow more than three hours when connecting airlines in an airport such as Heathrow.


New York, NY

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to British Airways and received the following reply.

British Airways very much regrets the late departure of BA112 on Friday, Sept. 15, but the weather situation was beyond the control of the airline. And, of course, arriving on a Saturday morning in London Heathrow can be daunting with the number of passengers traveling out of the U.S. on a Friday evening.

We can only hope that the passengers will remember their good times in Mallorca. British Airways cannot be responsible for their experiences with BMI.

JOHN LAMPL, Vice President- Communications, The Americas, British Airways, 75-20 Astoria Blvd., Jackson Heights, NY 11370

ITN also sent a copy of the letter to British Midland Airways and received the following reply.

Thank you for bringing Ms. Ibanez’s letter to our attention, concerning her recent travel with us between London-Heathrow and Palma.

I am sorry that Ms. Ibanez feels she was treated unfairly at Heathrow when, through no fault of her own, she arrived too late to be accepted for our flight. In all honesty, however, we were strictly adhering to our procedures.

Having studied Ms. Ibanez’s original flight booking, I can see that her bmi flights were booked separately to her British Airways itinerary and she held one of our more restrictive “standard” economy fares and was therefore required to use our self check-in devices, which close 40 minutes prior to departure. At this point, our computerized systems automatically lock, preventing any further transactions from being processed. Even if a flight is delayed, our staff is required to close that service on schedule.

We can’t always delay a flight for a late-arriving customer, as our priority has to be to those already on board and officially we should no longer accept through-checked baggage for separately ticketed flights. However, as Ms. Ibanez experienced at Palma, we do make every effort to accommodate customers should time permit.

I can only hope to assure her that it would certainly not be our intention to deliberately cause inconvenience, and I feel certain that if our ground staff at Heathrow could have accepted them for travel, then they would gladly have done so.

This said, I can certainly appreciate how uncomfortable the inordinate wait at Heathrow must have been, particularly as I note two of Ms. Ibanez’s traveling companions are disabled. Strictly speaking, it is necessary to prebook any request for such assistance in advance of travel. As I am sure Ms. Ibanez will appreciate, we do have countless requests for assistance daily, and in most cases these are met without problem.

Individual needs of our passengers are extremely important, and clearly we have to carefully roster sufficient staff to meet daily requirements. The occasions where we encounter problems are normally when we do not have advance notice of passengers’ individual circumstances, although I realize the wait at Heathrow was entirely unexpected. Although every effort is made to meet requests on demand, this is not always possible, as extra staff may not be available at the time required.

Clearly, Ms. Ibanez’s experiences at Heathrow have left her with an unfavorable impression. We do work very closely with the BAA (British Airport Authorities) and are always concerned to receive negative feedback from our customers. We will, therefore, certainly ensure Ms. Ibanez’s valued feedback is passed to our senior airport management at Heathrow airport for inclusion in our ongoing performance reviews.

On behalf of the airline, I extend our very sincere apologies to Ms. Ibanez and her traveling companions for the dissatisfaction and annoyance caused. I do hope that we may have an early opportunity to fully restore their goodwill.

PETER HUBBARD, Customer Relations Executive, British Midland Airways, Donington Hall, Castle Donington, Derby, East Midlands, DE74 2SB, U.K.