...or how I briefly became the Mehran Karimi Nasseri of Heathrow
I’ve been in Aberdeen for a conference on trust in the digital economy.
Funny enough I nearly didn’t make it and by the time I got there was very tempted to change my talk to outline why.
It all started with the booking of a BA/Bmi flight to Aberdeen via the internet.
Everything was fine with the booking. The confirmation email came through. I printed the itinerary and ignored the small print since I’ve done this so many times before. That was my first mistake.
Before logging off I did a quick check with the neat little “Which terminal” search gadget on the Heathrow website.
That was my second mistake.
You see I trusted the answer I got.
Heathrow flights to Aberdeen, it said, go from Terminal 1. (Though, interestingly enough I just did the search again and it says BA flights to Aberdeen go from terminals 1 and 5 and Bmi flights go from terminal 1). A glimpse at the final page of the confirmation email confirms the flight back from Aberdeen on the Thursday lands at terminal 1. My misplaced trust is re-inforced.
Ok off I go to the Heathrow parking site and book my parking for the 36 hours or so I’ll be away. Extortionate. But will I pay the extra £6 to park in the business class carpark and get back to my car 15 to 20 minutes earlier upon return. Hang it, it’s £6, so yes. Been working long hours and the extra 20 minutes at home won’t do me any harm. All done.
24 hours before departure I get the email that tells me I can now check in online. I click the link, go through the steps and print the boarding pass. No need to check that. I’ve seen too many of them. Mistake number 3.
Morning of departure I hear on the radio that there’s been a vehicular collision between junctions 4 and 3 of the M4. Balderdash that’s Heathrow. I’ll have to set out earlier than I intended. Luckily by the time I decided I have to set out the accident and the road have cleared so I get an extra hour’s grace.
Finding the car park at Heathrow is the usual exercise in multiple road junctions and signage overload but I make it without incident. And things are looking up – the bus driver is just on his way out of the car park when he spots me, stops at the exit and hails me over. What a decent chap. Fortunately I was to encounter a number of decent and caring people in the next few hours.
Off the bus and into terminal which has changed since I was last here and I head straight for security with my boarding card. Just as I reach security I realise I’ve left my passport at home. That was mistake number 4. Ridiculously it is a good idea to always have your passport with you even on domestic flights. Anyway I explain to the security guy I’m only going to Aberdeen and wonder if it will be ok if I don’t have my passport.
“Dinnaw may. We’s just sehcurihy. Check wi the BA desk”
No problem. Sensible suggestion. So I head for the nearest BA desk where a helpful chap assures me I don’t need a passport to fly from Heathrow to Aberdeen. Back I go to departures initial security check desks where my first encounter is busily checking someone’s boarding card so I go to his colleague. She scans my home printed boarding card and gets the ok from the system and waves me through.
Head for the x-ray machines. Laptop out. Jacket off. Belt and watch. They also want my kindle out of the bag, so out it comes. Hang onto trousers since I’ve lost a couple of inches round the waist with the help of the bike. No beep from the scanner as I walk through so I get away without a pat down.
Belt back on, I can stop hanging onto my trousers. Get all the gear back in the bag and I’m set for the waiting lounge. Check the screens for my flight. That’s strange. It’s not there. There is a BA flight at 14.30 but not 14.10. Need the gents then I’ll consult security.
Back to the vicinity of the x-ray machines and there is a group of security people here chatting. I explain my flight isn’t on the board and I’m puzzled. None of them are too concerned as they assure me Aberdeen flights go from terminal 1. Then star number 1 of the show appears. She’s called into the conversation and genuinely takes me under her wing. “Don’t worry. It’s really confusing. BA and Bmi have been changing the numbers of their flights and the same flight changes sometimes on the screens. Let’s go and look and I’ll show you.”
No one has any doubt but that I’m at the correct terminal. We get back to the screens, spot the 14.30 BA flight again and my guardian angel of terminal 1 explains I need to watch flight details they will change back and forth between the number on the screen and my flight number.
We wait. No change. She’s puzzled. Never mind it’s just a system problem. All the Aberdeen flights go from gate 8 so just head down there when the time comes. Thanks a lot for your help. I’m partly but not entirely re-assured. At this point I decide to check my flight itinerary. Sure enough in the small print near the end it says I’m flying out of terminal 5. Terminal 5! How the heck do I get there from here in time?
Back to x-ray machine area where guardian angel has not wandered too far and explain my itinerary and my boarding pass (which I now decided to glance at too) both say terminal 5. Uh oh. Guardian angel says don’t worry. Let’s go see the suited security guys and get a definitive answer off the system.
“Can you check this flight number for me? The gentleman is flying to Aberdeen but his boarding pass says terminal 5. Couple of phone calls. Check the system. Yup I’m going out from terminal 5. Now what? Can I make it on time?
Guardian angel: “ don’t worry you have plenty of time. Just head down towards the gates and follow the flight connections signs which will lead you to a bus that will take you straight to terminal 5. You’ll be there in 10 minutes.” From start to finish this lady was terrific. She saw a passenger with a non-standard problem and helpfully took it upon herself to sort it out. Kudos to her.
I make my way via the air side bus to terminal 5. Here’s where the problems really begin. I get directed through a BA desk but beyond that is Border Control. Now I know there are difficulties ahead.
I explain to the very kind BA desk staffer that I haven’t got my passport, erroneously started out at terminal 1 and got sent over here via the bus. The very agreeable woman scans my boarding pass, says she doesn’t need my passport and I should be ok as long as “they”, gesturing to Border Control let me though; but by the way they have changed my seat number from 32A to 22D. She doesn’t know why. Possibly because the Airbus 319 only has 22 rows of seats. So I’m a little unsure why I might have been put in row 32 in the first place. She prints me a new boarding pass, wishes me a pleasant flight and waves me through.
I know this isn’t going to work. The queues are long. The border staff are under pressure. I get to the head of the queue and explain to my border control guard that I haven’t got my passport for reasons outlined earlier.
“Sir how did you even get here? You shouldn’t be airside at all.” I explain again. He’s very courteous but explains he cannot let me through border control without a passport. He’s thinking on his feet though about how to help. “Sir what nationality are you?” Though I can tell he’s already pegged my accent, I explain I’m Irish. “I’m sorry sir. If you’d have been British and held a British passport I could have called your details up on the computer in a few minutes and checked you out.” He’ll have to consult his boss, the chief immigration officer. But for the moment I’ll have to wait until the queues clear.
I wait. The queues are shortening. They clear. My border guard (there were 4 on duty) goes off to talk to management. He walks with the aid of a stick so I feel doubly guilty for making his life difficult.
I do get the opportunity while waiting to watch border control in action. They are efficient and courteous. I don’t like the quizzing of ethnic minority small children to check the woman they are with is their mother. Don’t get me wrong. It’s done in a friendly way. Big smile. “Hello what’s your name? Where’s your mum?” And checking to see if the chid indicates the woman. They are doing their job.
My guard gets back and says he cannot process me though border control without officially approved identification documents. I have credit cards but the only photo ID I have is an Oxford University library card. He might be able to do something with a driving licence but even that is not officially approved. “But the chief immigration officer will arrange to have a security person escort you to your flight though a different route. The chief immigration officer is arranging that for you now sir. “
Thanks. I really appreciate your help. I still don’t fully appreciate, yet, the Mehran Karimi Nasseri (or Tom Hanks in 'The Terminal') nature of my situation. But everyone is being as helpful as they can given the circumstances and even if I don’t get to fly (my flight time is creeping up fast) I’ll at least get a blog post on airport security out of this. How did a passenger get to border control for a domestic flight and what went wrong to get him there?
I tell the officer that ironically I’m going to Aberdeen to give a talk about trust. Not a flicker of amusement. Border control is a serious business.
Guardian angel number 2, a security lady called Kat, appears. She’s is just brilliant. The border control man who I’ve also got to like a lot by now explains my predicament to Kat. He also notes I’m a security, airline and port authority problem not a border control problem. Kat thinks and says no worries she has an idea of how to get me to the right gate for the flight. Off we go following thanks to my professional border man.
Cognisant of the imminent scheduled departure of my flight Kat moves quickly and talks to a colleague (boss?) on her walkie talkie. She explains my situation and how she is going to deal with it. She just needs his (it is a male, I can hear his responses) ok to pass through a security gate.
He says no. No way. Not a chance. I’m border control’s problem. Get them to let me through.
Right. We stop. U-turn.
Back to my friend at Border Control. Fortunately the queues aren’t too bad and we indicate we’ll wait to the lady who is free until my friend deals with his last current passenger. He gives us a weary glance. And explains again I’m not getting through there. But he’s not giving up on me.
He and my wonderful security Kat agree I’m a security failure in terminal 1. He also points out again that though he’s not letting me through I’m an airline and port authority problem and if both agree I can get on my flight then they should be able to get me physically there via a different route to border control. Let’s go consult the airline.
We go to the BA desks just ahead of border control. The woman who had printed my new boarding pass is no longer there. The one member of BA staff who is there is actively disinterested, glances repeatedly at me as though I might be something nasty she just stepped in and makes it abundantly clear she doesn’t want to get involved. The first unhelpful person I’ve encountered today. Remarkable how I could have achieved such pariah status in the eyes of someone I have barely met properly or even spoken to.
So Kat, Border man and I head for the BA desks behind which are offices in which the duty officer resides. We explain my story to the man at the desk and though he’s not sure what to do he’s helpful and quickly summons the duty officer, another star of the day.
My flight departure time has by now come and gone. The duty officer is great. Guardian Kat and Border man explain the situation and border man explains the rules. The duty officer grins cheerily and tells me I’m a first. Nice to know I’ve brightened someone’s day and regained membership of humanity after the unfortunate attitude of the previous BA woman. The duty officer has a think and meanwhile the border man explains (he has noted it a couple of times before) that I really am a Tom Hanks. No documents, so I can’t get through Border Control either to get on my flight or get out of the airport. An undocumented alien who should not be where I am right now.
“I really am Tom Hanks!” I’m still thinking this is going to make a great story.
He also notes the titles of a couple of border control statutes which might be applied under one of which exists a power to search me for drugs. But since he’s getting to know me now, he almost smiles and says he’s not going to search me for drugs, as he has absolutely no reason to be suspicious on that account. I risk “I think I need a couple of paracetamol for a headache.”
Duty officer has a solution. Pretty much the solution that guardian Kat has previously come up with. Border man says cheerio and good luck and shakes my hand. I thank him sincerely and say goodbye to another star.
Luckily for me, though my flight has long since gone, I believe, duty manager discovers it’s been delayed and I still have a shot at making it. Though they’ll book me on a later flight if not. Guardian Kat, duty manager and I take off again. We get to a BA desk near – to the side of border control. The lady there wants to check my documents etc. Duty star sorts that out and waves me and Guardian Kat on our way. My final encounter with star number 3.
Kat and I are moving quickly again. Dodging crowds and queues we get to another set of security and X-ray machines. Kat gets me and my bag to the front of the queue and she and I traverse security again. She has to put her walkie talkie etc through the machine too. We take off again at an increased pace once I’m belted up and repacked again. Kat and duty manager have let the airline and port staff at the gate know I’m on the way and we learn that the flight is just boarding.
I make it in time to be the penultimate passenger on the plane. I thank Kat yet again for all her help. She’s been an absolute diamond and deserves a commendation for going above and beyond the call of duty.
And that’s the bottom line. When we make mistakes and there are system failures we need caring dedicated people to fix things.
If everyone had taken the attitude that they were just following the rules, or worse the attitude of the BA woman who apparently found me to be unforgivably distasteful, then I might still be stuck at Heathrow. As it was I encountered 4 stars – security guardian at terminal 1, professional border man at terminal 5, my guardian security Kat and the BA duty officer, who all cared enough and actively made it their business to help out a traveler with problems.The decent car park bus driver must also get an honorary mention along with this band of heroes - he didn't have to stop for me on his way out of the car park but he did. He put me in a good mood and that undoubtedly helped with the perils ahead. It might have been him that made all the difference.
I realised in the final dash for the plane that I didn’t know any of their names and that’s when I asked and discovered my guardian angel was called Kat. So thank you again bus driver, security Kat, Ms Terminal 1, border man and BA duty officer. Apologies for not getting to know your names but thanks for your care, your energy and your unfailing courteousness in getting me to my planned destination and for making what could have been a difficult experience extraordinarily stress free.
I hadn’t planned, on getting up on that Wednesday morning to make anyone's lives difficult and certainly not the lives of such helpful people.
The return leg from Aberdeen was a little smoother. Roll up to the airport on the bus. Check in at the self service check in. Print my boarding pass there. Through security to the departure lounge. The 54 seat Embraer aircraft I flew back on is a neat little machine and London is spectacular from the air at night.
I got a brief but beautiful bird's eye view of the Olympic stadium at just about the time Jonnie Peacock was winning the T43/T43 100m final at the Paralympics. The bonus was also that my flight landed at Terminal 1. No complicated Heathrow business this time. Straight out onto the car park bus and I'm on my way home. I had to do a 25 mile detour due to a road closure and an idiot in a BMW who tried to kill me, him and everyone around us on the M4. But that's a story for another day.