Sunday, October 25, 2009

An Epic Journey Through the World's Most Insane Airport

At long last, I’ve returned to blogging after my week in Edinburgh. And I hope over the next week or so to tell all my remaining readers about it. But really, the most epic part of my voyage was the first part. It’s a story so harrowing, so chilling, so fraught with suspense and danger that it could be fatal to the faint of heart. I am speaking, of course, of having to transfer flights in Heathrow airport.

I arrived just over three hours early for my flight from Toronto airport. I spent those three hours figuring out where the international check-in and terminal was, drinking Starbucks coffee for lunch, writing an outline for my doctoral thesis, and wandering around the duty free shop. After a ludicrously long lineup for boarding, we finally got in the air only twenty minutes late. Because we were travelling five hours into the future, my six and a half hour flight would last almost twelve hours.

One thing I certainly learned about myself going through those long airport terminal corridors was that I can’t get on a moving pedway without starting to sing Feist’s “My Moon My Man,” and sometimes even dance too if it isn’t too crowded.

I noticed that my flight included a large tour group on their way to Israel to visit various Christian shrines. Thankfully, they kept their religiosity to themselves, as I find it very irritating after being awake for long hours. The multimedia entertainment systems in the backs of our seats were quite impressive, though. As well as being able to listen to Bob Dylan’s new album (still nothing as good as Time Out of Mind), they had quite a selection of movies, even a few independent ones. Though I mostly concentrated on trying to sleep, and quieting my digestive tract after ordering the beef dinner, much to my regret.

The major problem with the film selection was what my immediate seat neighbour, an elderly woman who was part of the Christian tour group, had herself selected. The Sandra Bullock / Ryan Reynolds vehicle The Proposal. Even though she had her headphones in and I couldn’t hear any of the atrocious dialogue, I could still watch the moronic set pieces and humiliating performances. This piece of celluloid vomit was like a particularly awful car crash: I couldn’t look away, and the bodies were already beginning to rot, the smell being especially disgusting. By the smell, I mean Bullock and Betty White butchering an Alaskan First Nations tribal dance. Why this happened, I have no idea. Perhaps because their god hates me.

But the real adventure began when I got to Heathrow. I had just less than two hours before my connection took off on the original schedule. The twenty minute delay at Toronto was no help, plus the Captain informed us that “We have a situation on board and some people will be getting on the plane before you get off.” I was concerned and confused at this, until I saw five uniformed London Metropolitan police officers striding down the airplane corridors and disappearing into the back section of the plane. I could only hope that their suspect had an aisle seat so they could grab him quickly. They apparently vanished out a back entrance, because we were given permission to leave just a couple of minutes later. I had ninety minutes to reach my connection.

I followed the signs that said flight connection, and stood in line for an interminable time waiting to go through security, removing my jacket and belt, and taking my computer from my briefcase. After moving through security, I found myself back in an international check-in terminal. Upon asking someone at a rental car stand, I was told that I was still in Terminal Three, and had gone through security unnecessarily, thinking that I was going to Terminal One to connect to my British Midlands (bmi) flight to Edinburgh.

Cursing my confusion, I got permission to duck back through a gate in the Terminal Three security (because you always get permission in an airport if you want things to go smoothly), and was given directions to the bus to Terminal One. I arrived at the bottom of Terminal Three at the bus stop just in time to get on board. The bus itself played a catchy piece of mild British techno reminiscent of a theme from BBC News while it drove us to the domestic terminal. I got off with just under an hour to spare and rushed along to the customs desk.

After many long corridors, I at last reached a long accordion-folded line for UK entry. Thankfully, there weren’t too many people in line, and there were almost a dozen customs officers at the check-in kiosks. However, after standing in line for almost ten minutes, I saw a sign that the ‘UK entry’ sign had obscured as I had approached down the corridor: it was for the line to connecting UK domestic flights. I was standing in the line for people getting off in London.

Ducking back through the polymer ropes, I stood in a much shorter line for foreigners connecting to flights going elsewhere in the UK. However, there were only three kiosks serving this line, so we were moving even more slowly than the larger UK entry line. When I eventually reached the front, I had only a few minutes until my flight to Edinburgh began boarding. I took the kiosk number, 37, as a good omen because of the Clerks reference, but I was to be denied. The flight attendants on my plane from Toronto had neglected to give me a UK customs card, so I had to fill one out on a bench next to the kiosks, nervous from the ticking clock and sleep deprivation.

Thankfully, it allowed me to forget my stomach still rumbling from that awful airplane beef dinner. Unfortunately, it also allowed me to forget the address of my friends Ray and Erin, who I was staying with, and which the customs card demanded I write in all caps. I don’t know why customs agents want us to scream at them on their cards, but I imagine that by the time my generation takes over this bureaucracy, we’ll get rid of that silly rule, as all caps are becoming increasingly rude.

Anyway, I handed my customs card in at kiosk 36, and was then asked a series of questions about what the hell I was doing in this country. After giving a very confused summary of my conference paper on the stifling affect orthodoxy has on creativity in academic peer review systems, my passport was stamped and I was told to proceed to biometrics. I stood in another line, waiting to be scanned by a set of small round black cameras, which I thought was some kind of molecular scan like on Torchwood. But after waiting for a further five minutes, I simply had my photo taken by a webcam. The image would then be sent to the security gate for Terminal One, which would be used to verify that I was still me. I was quite underwhelmed, as I was expecting some kind of eight dimensional quantum scanning device. Perhaps in the future.

After standing in another line and removing my belt, jacket, and computer again, I was informed that I may proceed to my gate. I asked one of the security officers how to get to Gate Eight from here, and she told me that I just had to turn left leaving security, and it was just down the hall. I think working at Heathrow eventually skews one’s sense of distance, because what she called ‘just down the hall’ was five hundred metres through a full shopping centre which included two duty free shops, three Starbucks, a clothing store, and three giveaway contest for giant gas guzzling cars that won’t even sell in America anymore.

With barely fifteen minutes to takeoff, I finally reached Gate Eight, but saw that it was subdivided in to gates 8a-e. Fortunately, I saw a small line of people boarding a flight, asked one of them if they were bmi flight 052 to Edinburgh, and when she said yes, I asked if I could cut in line. She acquiesced gladly, and I was on the plane within minutes, ordering £1.60 worth of ginger ale to calm my stomach, which was on the verge of rupture after that terrifying beef dinner on the overseas flight.

Overall, it had taken me 75 minutes to get through Heathrow airport. If I ever have grandchildren, I’m going to tell them this story, and they won’t believe me. When I touched down in Edinburgh airport, I stopped at the duty free shop to ask about what the rules were for scotch purchases, and the first music I heard was one of my favourite Stone Roses songs being played as background music in the shop. I felt like I was in paradise.

Actual Edinburgh stories later this week.

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