May 26, 2017 | Written by Patricia Murphy

London: The Unexpected Stop

Long story short: British Airways can bite me.

During the nine hour flight from Phoenix to Heathrow, I was seated next to a woman with a pharmacy in her purse. Before take-off she took several pills, and she spent the entire flight passed out with her head dangling like a door knocker. She looked just like the woman at the LA Marriott Amy Lerman and I saw get Roofied and removed by ambulance. The woman’s husband was seated in business class but kept coming back to check on her, which involved asking me to poke her until she shook her head up and grunted.

Our first indication that something was wrong on the ground came when we were held on the tarmac for about an hour waiting for a gate. The captain let us know slowly that BA was experiencing a global IT outage and that all flights up to 6 pm were canceled. Our flight to Cape Town was not set to depart until 9:30 pm, so we figured (hoped?) we would be safe.

Once the plane got a gate we had to wait for a jetway. The captain came on the line to let us know they had no way to communicate with ground, and that he and the co-pilot were calling friends and acquaintances to try to get someone to pull the jetway over. My seat mate used this opportunity to sort through and find some more choice pills, which she swallowed with a large slug a of cough syrup straight from the bottle.

Once we finally disembarked, we knew immediately that the situation was worse than we thought. The hallways at Heathrow are usually packed, but this was total chaos. Babies were screaming, Adults were screaming, and there was not a BA employee to be seen. Some Heathrow officials were trying to direct traffic and answer questions, but the only reply they had available was, We don’t know.

The line for customs is always long at Heathrow, but this day it was terrible. We waited for 3 hours in a snaking queue without any food or water. We passed my seat mate about 30 times as we zigged and zagged through, and each time she looked worse and worse, slurring words and barely able to stand. Her husband finally rushed her through to the front of the line. I couldn’t help wondering about their story.

Once we cleared, the scene in baggage claim was like a horror film. People screaming, crying, cussing, and angry. We were told we could not get our luggage then we were handed a letter saying we must leave the airport and do not call. They said check Twitter for updates.

We still didn’t have confirmation that our flight was canceled, but we decided to behave as if it were. So we tried to find a hotel close to the airport so we could get back quickly if another flight came up. Hotels had clearly gotten word and the price surge pushed rooms to $1500 and more. We normally stay at The Ampersand in South Kensington, but it was booked so we found a hotel nearby and took an Uber into town to check in.

The room was comfortable and quiet. We were so hungry, so we headed out to a pub and we were able to catch the end of the Arsenal Versus Chelsea game while eating fish pie. Not too bad. But then, back at the hotel, we spent the next six hours on the phone trying to get any news on how we would get to Cape Town. No one at BA would answer the phone. We tried Chase Bank, who holds our BA Visa, and they were no help. A friend worked from home on getting help from his Centurion Amex folks but they couldn’t book the flight. When we finally got through to an agent, she booked us on the next flight to Cape Town and told us our luggage would be on it.

We got a few hours sleep before getting up and wandering our favorite South Ken streets. We had lunch at one of my favorite local pubs, Bumpkin, then had a beer at The Scarsdale Tavern. We grabbed an Uber to head back to the airport and enjoyed chatting with the Kurdistan driver about US politics.

At the airport, we were amused by the Heathrow employees telling stories about how the previous day the BA employees had hidden like Sean Spicer in the bushes while they did all the work with the public.

Our new flight was delayed an hour, but once we were finally on I watched two movies then fell asleep and woke up in Cape Town.

Here is what I can tell you about cancelled BA flights: If your flight gets canceled and the airline didn’t give you at least 14 days’ notice, they may be required to compensate you, according to EC 261. EU passengers are entitled to as much as €600 for canceled flights, but there are a number of factors that determine both eligibility and compensation amount.

John and I were entitled for compensation, which rendered our round trip tickets to South Africa free.