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I Survived Heathrow's Terminal 5 -- With the Kindness of Strangers

02/11/2013 02:36 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2013

Jan. 18 -- "a date that will live in infamy" -- Terminal Five, the newest addition to London's Heathrow Airport, made real what the 19th-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim depicted as 'anomie' -- a situation where the norms of social behavior and expectations have broken down. In short, chaos.

Feeling jaunty I boarded the BA from Boston that day at 7:15 a.m. Every person I had encountered at each step of the way had been helpful and had smiled, already a shock to the system of this 'frequent flyer.' Having torn the cartilage and the meniscus of both knees, I had requested a wheelchair. The person assigned to me was someone who conveyed the promise of total care, and delivered. The signs pointed to a terrific flight.

New to the Boston-London British Airlines flight, I opted for a section between Business and Economy Class euphemistically called 'World Traveller Plus.' The food came close to being inedible -- an omelet that resembled a battered hockey puck, a white paste identified as potatoes on the menu, accompanied by four pieces of pale watermelon and six grapes plus a dead-white plastic-sealed icy Vienna roll and a putative apple dessert also dead-white. The meal brought back memories of English food in the 1950s: Oxo cubes, Spam, and lard-laden pastries.

This would have been unremarkable had everything not fallen apart as we neared Heathrow. The plane circled for ages because as we were told of the need to de-ice departing aircraft and delayed flights from elsewhere causing massive congestion. During the more than two hours that ensued, the staff was little in evidence. The man sitting next to me said wearily, "I paid ₤2,000 for my ticket, and I'm thirsty." Just as we neared dehydration, a staff member rushed down the aisle with a bottle of water from which he hastily dispensed a glass for each of us. I remembered the days when even a half-hour delay would provide a drink of your choice for everyone on the plane.

When the plane finally landed, we were informed that no gate was available. After an interminable wait, the plane began to move and our spirits lifted. However, the captain announced that we were moving to allow the plane behind us to move in front of us into the newly-opened gate. We would continue to sit on the tarmac. My English seatmate sighed: "You could not make this up."

Two hours later we debarked only to be catapulted into the chaos called Terminal 5. Fortunately at each end of the flight, a different sturdy gentleman would volunteer to put my too-heavy luggage into the overhead compartment. But my mood of appreciation changed suddenly when an unpleasant woman in a yellow vest arrived at the plane and snarled at me to stay there as the wheelchair would not arrive for thirty minutes. Had I believed her, my remains would have been found in my seat a week later. I set off on my own following crew members who were rushing ahead of me, but I can remember only a diabolical architectural maze.

Terminal Five I later learned was opened in 2008, the largest free-standing structure in the UK. Built at the cost of ₤4.36 billion by the distinguished architectural firm of Lord Richard Rogers, its design problems were made more acute by the huge crowds that had been dumped into it that night. I encountered long, long corridors. One escalator descended so steeply to a train that I was certain it was once the entrance to the catacombs of ancient England. I retreated to an elevator knowing I could never balance myself and the luggage trolley without developing vertigo and toppling down the metal stairs. There were two elevators nearby and dozens of frustrated passengers swarming to get into them. The swarms provided a perfect example of Ohms' Law, the only principle of physics I understand, which demonstrates that if hordes of people converge on a narrow opening, resistance ensues. Such was the case as the mass of tired passengers jockeyed to get into two elevators.

At long last we were disgorged into the area that would lead to the arrival desk for customs. My heart sank as my knees swelled; several hundred people from many flights were lined up as far as the eye could see. There was no way I could stand for hours. Instead I followed an empty lane that ran alongside the waiting crowd, one where had the airport been functioning would have been the lane for the motorized carts that transport people between flights.

Hobbling along for some distance I finally spied a cart fully packed with people I later learned were from Bangalore. I did look wretched by then and implored the yellow-vested driver to call for another wagon. There were none said she. What followed was nothing short of a miracle. After she led an exchange in Hindi with the passengers, a man who spoke no English and who looked as forlorn and exhausted as I, got out, gave me his seat and walked slowly behind the wagon until we reached the customs desk. I only wished I had had the strength of character to dissuade him.

I think it was his wife who quickly made room for me and patted my hand reassuringly. I sank into her kindness. Acting quickly the driver took my passport, added it to those of the others and we were whisked through customs. As I was about to get out of the cart with them, she told me to stay put and drove me to the far reaches of the baggage area where only the crew from the flight were assembled. To my amazement, my luggage arrived quickly and once more a non-English speaking passenger insisted on loading my luggage onto a trolley. There were no porters or any other employees of BA or the airport in sight.

As I later learned when reading about the much more serious plight of some 1,500 stranded passengers in Terminal 5, there were virtually no personnel anywhere. Overwhelmed by the chaos they had retreated leaving behind people who were forced to sleep on the floor overnight. Just Google the English newspapers for Jan. 19 and the ensuing days if you want to read about anomie. (One reporter on British radio asked only half-jokingly if BA had charged those forced to sleep on the floor for the blankets and sandwiches that were finally provided.) I would not be surprised to learn that three weeks later many people are still wandering dazed in the largest free-standing building in the UK looking for their luggage. The airport was totally unprepared to deal with the crisis deemed a national disgrace by the media, government, and, of course the victims many of whom had boarded their flights, sat for six hours on the tarmac only to be informed that the flight was canceled. After deplaning they learned that they would not be able to reclaim their luggage for two days. (The airport had invested $10,000 m last year to avoid this exact situation.)

The mini-cab driver I had reserved was still waiting but thanks to one charge or another, the usual cost of the trip into London of some $50 had escalated to $160. It had taken me three hours from the time the plane landed to fight my way out of the soul-searing scene. I was almost pleased to pay the tab.

All of this had been brought about by the accumulation of perhaps one inch of snow, the dizzying design of Terminal 5 and the screaming incompetence of the airport management.

Despite the three horrible hours following eight hours of travel, I was left with spirit-enhancing memories of the kindness of so many people, particularly the capacious Indian woman who without uttering a word had assured me that all would be well.

Durkheim's data suggested that in the time of anomie the rate of suicide increases markedly. In my case, without the kindness of strangers, the impulse would have been murder.