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Post details: Deathrow at Heathrow

Deathrow at Heathrow

If your flight has two legs, make sure the airlines in question form an alliance or you may end up in a transportational twilight zone.

When I flew from Washington to London to Prague, I missed my London-Prague connection with the Czech Airlines, and had to use a different carrier. The Czech Airlines system, seeing my seat unfilled, promptly placed a "no show" label on my record and canceled my return reservation. All that by itself and without me having the faintest idea about it. When I arrived at the Prague airport for my return trip, not suspecting anything wrong, I learned that I was to their reservations database what a vampire was to a mirror. Just a column of thin air.

A young lady in the Czech Airlines office told me that the flight to London was overbooked by 14 people and that they would have to rebook me for the evening or the next day. When I asked her whether she could change my United reservation from London to Washington, she said she couldn't and she also couldn't call them, send them fax, email, telegram or telex. It was obvious that the only way of communicating with the United Airlines office in London was through smoke signals best effected by setting her office on fire. She recommended that I go and talk to Lufthansa people, but they couldn't get into the United system either and I was starting to become reconciled with the possibility that I would return to Washington with a significant delay.

When I returned to the Czech Airlines office, however, it transpired that the plane that was supposed to fly to Heathrow got stuck somehow (it must have taxied onto a tossed blob of a chewing gum) and they had to replace it with one that was actually slightly bigger. Through inexplicable machinations of fate, I was allotted one of the extra seats. The flight was an hour late, but when I made it to London (without a boarding pass for my next leg), I still had 80 minutes to spare. Eighty minutes, all forty eight hundred seconds of them, soon to be squandered on an unexpected hurdle - the Deathrow at Heathrow.

I understand that airport security has to be tight and that it is important for the screening personnel to ascertain whether I ironed the socks myself and whether my grandma approved of my grandpa's job at a dynamite factory. But at most airports, once you are a transfer passenger (i.e. already checked), the additional examination is light and swift. Not so at Heathrow. All the incoming travelers have to endure a 40-50 minutes line at the end of which a sleepy orderly instructs you how to empty your pockets and how to rearrange the contents of your baggage so they would be in full compliance with the FAA regulations (judging by the speed of the line, some advice on rearranging one's emotional baggage must have been gratuitously dispensed, too).

Many of my fellow travelers had just a few minutes to spare and for them the sultry and poorly ventilated serpentine dock became the true Death Row. It was pretty clear that the chances of them catching their next flight had just received the capital punishment. So they listlessly waited in their cell and prayed for a miracle that didn't happen. Tens of human minitragedies squished between the ropes like a pack of sardines.

Thanks to my 80 minutes cushion, I got out of the death row with 25 minutes to spare, but still without the boarding pass (the unallied airlines problem). The United transfer desk behind the security area was adorned with a sizable looking queue, so I decided to play a little Russian roulette and proceeded directly to the terminal to see if I can get the pass there.

The Sun of Luck had just peeked through the clouds - I could see from a distance that there was no one at the United Airlines counter there. Now back into the clouds: the agent whose job description must have involved serving customers once upon a time looked like he'd rather be unconscious and at first merely yawned that the gate was closed. Only when he noticed that I had 2 carry-ons and no checked baggage, he took mercy and moved to initiate the procedures that were supposed to lead to the issuance of the coveted Boarding Pass. So far so good.

Well, not quite... Plenty of Murphy's Laws still waiting to happen. At first it turned out that the boarding pass machine needed to be reloaded and that blank boarding passes were in some other and - as it turned out - completely non-adjacent office. Then the agent noticed that he had lost his stapler and ambled away to borrow one, completely oblivious to the concept of quick pacing. It was at this point that I understood that all deathrows in the world have only one exit: into the hands of an executioner.

When he returned, I was seething with impatience. That, however, did not prevent him from attempting the most meticulous and premeditated act of stapling ever, although it must have been apparent to him that I would have happily taken the travel documents into my possession in an unstapled form. I was looking at the sacred scrolls like a cat whose line of sight fell upon a freshly gutted salmon. Finally the agent started to open all sorts of drawers, vigorously searching for something. I figured that he was looking for a Royal Seal which, when properly attached to my ticket, would allow my to fly over Her Majesty's territory. But I was wrong. He was merely looking for a United Airlines wrapper into which he deftly inserted my ticket and my waterboarding pass, both neatly stapled together. He remarked that I should really run now and released me into wilderness.

When I glimpsed at the departure board and noticed the ominous "last call" sign next to my flight, I realized that the Grand Finale was near and that I was about to enjoy my very favorite Olympic event: running through an airport with two carry-ons and not a second to spare. I probably didn't make the Olympic record, but I did catch my flight, and, at some point over the North Atlantic, even my breath.

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