Christmas 1997, in the days before online check-in, airport and airline apps, and mobile phones cheap enough for a student to afford. Yes, this is relevant. Bear with me.
I was preparing to spend the holiday with my parents in Toronto. I’d booked a relatively inexpensive flight; I’d learned the best and cheapest way to get to Heathrow from Oxford (the Heathrow Express coach– this has not been a paid advertisement); I’d filled my rucksack with clothes, presents, and library books (I had a degree to get); and had tickets to fly out of Terminal One. I was getting ready to go when one of my flatmates stuck his head around the door.
“Have you heard the news today?”
Well, no. I didn’t have a television or a working radio, and I’d been too busy packing to look on the Internet.
Which was when I discovered that this was the day when a deep-fryer caught light at a Heathrow branch of Burger King, leading to the Great Terminal One Fire. Firefighters had been at it all night, and it was still ongoing.
The BBC was recommending that travellers contact their airlines. I rang up Air Canada, but the lines were busy. I tried again, and again, as the clock ticked closer to the point at which I’d have to leave if I was going to catch the bus. With no mobile phone, in the end I decided to just go to Heathrow and risk it.
Upon arrival, I got a front-row perspective on how aviation authorities handle emergencies.
In the first place, all flights had been redirected to other terminals. All North American and some Middle Eastern flights were now running out of beautiful, brand new Terminal Four, and I couldn’t quite believe my luck in getting to see what was then a huge attraction for anyone who likes airports.
(Yes, that’s me, in case you haven’t guessed. No apologies for that.)
But the queues for check-in were gigantic. And that was just for check-in. I shuddered to think what awaited passengers once they got into Security.
I asked one of the attendants what I should do. “Join the queue,” she told me, so I did.
A few minutes later, I heard a boarding call go through for a flight to New York.
Immediately, the attendants swung into action, running down the queues, shouting, “New York! Anyone travelling [flight redacted] to New York?” If someone indicated this was so, they were immediately yanked out of the queue and hustled to the front, where they were speedily processed and rushed through Security.
So it was all going to be OK then. I relaxed.
Sure enough, when I was about two-thirds of the way up the queue, a call came for my flight. An attendant snagged me, dragged me to the front, and I was processed, stamped, and throwing my bags through the X-ray machine in minutes.
I made the flight with a quarter-hour to spare.
So I did make it home for Christmas after all, thanks to quick thinking and efficient emergency operations. And I got to do it through Terminal Four.
I’m going to be taking a posting break over Christmas, obviously. See you in the New Year!