Heathrow snowed in; staying informed

This item appears on page 26 of the October 2011 issue.

My travel partner and I were scheduled to return from London’s Heathrow Airport to Cleveland, Ohio, by way of Chicago on Dec. 17, 2010. Upon our arrival at the airport, we were handed a notice that our United Airlines flight to Chicago had been canceled because of the nonarrival of an aircraft from the US. The United desk rebooked us on another United flight (operated by Continental Airlines) to Newark the next day.

The agent gave us a phone number for Room Solutions (0203 004 8948), which offers discounted accommodation, enabling us to book a room at a steeply reduced rate at the airport Holiday Inn M4 J4. This was a local London number and, therefore, accessible for 60 pence (about $1) at a pay phone.

In theory, the British Hotel Reservation Centre (phone 0800 389 8211, e-mail customer.services@bhrc.co.uk) also offers help in finding accommodation, but we had no occasion to try that locally toll-free number.

In addition to £60 (about $97) for the taxi ride from our downtown hotel to the airport, which we would have had to pay in any event, the day cost £8 for a shuttle to the Holiday Inn and £40 for a room that regularly ran £185, plus the costs of dinner and the next day’s breakfast.

So far, we considered ourselves not too badly off.

On Dec. 18, while we boarded the aircraft for our 10:30 a.m. flight and waited for what the pilot said was “a last bit of cargo,” snow began to fall lightly at Heathrow. As we started taxiing to the runway after 11 a.m., the pilot announced that the airfield had been closed.

We disembarked around noon and were given food vouchers, a phone card worth £3 and a sheet listing passengers’ rights.

Rumors flew all afternoon as we waited in the gate area. No information was forthcoming from Continental until 6 p.m., when the staff announced that we would be taking off shortly. But just as first- and business-class passengers disappeared down the jetway, the flight was canceled.

First- and business-class passengers were told to go to Gate 8. The rest of us were dumped in the gate area with a phone number, e-mail address and website. Continental staff announced that the airport buildings would be closing and that we all had to leave the terminal. The agents just walked away.

The temperature outside was below freezing. Hundreds of people, including a woman in a wheelchair and couples with small children, had nowhere to go and no help from Continental.

With help from Heathrow Airport staff I found the on-site hotel reservation service, where we stood in line for 2½ hours to get an extremely expensive hotel room back in central London, which was all that remained at such a late hour. Let me add that at age 68 (my traveling companion was 79), sleeping on a hard floor was not an option.

After standing outside in a long taxi line, we left the airport at around midnight and arrived at our hotel at 1 a.m. the morning of the 19th. The taxi to the Marriott Maida Vale cost £70 and the hotel bill for two nights came to £550, which included a 101-pound, hour-long telephone call to United Airlines (about 45 minutes of that on hold) to rebook. Why doesn’t United have the equivalent of an 800 number?

Because of the spoonful of snow, the British Airport Authority kept one runway closed for almost two days, increasing the backup of flights. I was told that the first flight out would be on Christmas Day, which necessitated another five days’ hotel stay. Using the hotel referral line I’d first gotten from United, we returned to Holiday Inn M4 J4 for the five nights at £60 per night plus £9.95 daily for breakfast. (The only place to eat near the hotel was a restaurant-pub, which was quite expensive.)

Our total outlay, which was only what was necessary (we ate a lot of cheese sandwiches to economize), was $2,135 for eight days. This included taxis between the Marriott and the airport, transportation by shuttle, Internet cards, food (mainly breakfast), phone calls and taxes.

We finally boarded our United flight to Washington, DC, on Christmas Day. Because of a mechanical problem, we took off about an hour late.

If two inches of snow can cripple the busiest airport in Europe for several days, I have no doubt that such crises will continue to occur. To deal with such a situation, there are some things I would recommend travelers consider and investigate.

I found that, for some reason, I could not access my e-mail at my ISP, Windstream. Though it had worked fine earlier in my trip while I was on board the Queen Elizabeth, it worked neither at the Marriott nor at the Holiday Inn. I recommend that anyone traveling set up a second e-mail address at Gmail.com, Yahoo.com or Hotmail.com to avoid the trouble I had.

I eventually accessed e-mail using my travel partner’s service, Cox.net. (I have, since, called Windstream and complained about the lack of service and they “white papered” me, whatever that means, so that now, theoretically, I have Internet service anywhere.)

Beyond this, there are several possibilities for maximizing information and saving expense, time and grief. One of the worst aspects of my eight-day experience was the feeling of being helpless. Public computer terminals and phones may help alleviate that, but they are extremely limited at Heathrow and at hotels, so it’s best to have an alternative.

The first and least expensive alternative is a smartphone that can be used worldwide, such as an iPhone, Google Nexus S or BlackBerry. It also needs to use the GSM protocol used in the vast majority of countries.

In the United States there are two cellular technologies used by national carriers: GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). In the US, AT&T and T-Mobile are the GSM carriers, and, with a little more than half the market, Sprint and Verizon are the CDMA carriers.

If you use your own GSM phone in Europe, however, you could be liable for hugely expensive roaming charges, possibly as high as $1,000 for three weeks, as one of my friends found out. The least expensive thing to do to avoid roaming charges is purchase a short-term, low-cost SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card at your destination and use it in your GSM phone.

European or country-specific SIM cards can be purchased at a phone store or at the airport, among other places, including on the Internet. The advantage of buying it on site is that you will be able to test the card before you leave the store. A 30-day card with unlimited calling and Internet access should run about $40.

Phones can also be rented at the airport (Heathrow’s hotel-referral desk had them) and at some hotels. If you plan to rent a phone at your destination, you can check locations and prices online ahead of time.

A smartphone can give you both telephone and Internet access, though, of course, the screen is very small, and typing on the pop-up keyboard is a bit taxing. However, a smartphone is light and compact, and there is no risk that the US Transportation Security Administration might seize it. (The TSA has authorization to seize computers, if necessary.)

The second and most expensive option is to invest in a tablet computer, such as an iPad ($499-$829) or Samsung Galaxy Tab ($200-$550). International data plans for these devices on AT&T are available for $24.99 per month for 20MB of data to $199.99 per month for 200MB of data. Two types of iPads and Galaxy Tabs are available: 1) advanced, with WiFi and cellular Internet capability (usually requiring a service plan, which can be expensive), and 2) basic, with WiFi compatibility only.

Given that I spent over $2,100 in added expenses for hotels, food, landline telephone calls and transportation over the eight days I was trapped, something under $1,000 doesn’t seem all that expensive.

In addition, a man ahead of me in the hotel-referral line had an iPad and was speaking to his wife in the States. (He may have had Skype software to make phone calls.) Long before he reached the desk, she had found him a flight and a room for the night and conveyed the information to him. He left the line for greener pastures.

Again, iPads can access cellular data only on AT&T or Verizon networks in the US; with WiFi, they can connect to the Internet wherever there is a WiFi network. They have the advantage of a much larger screen than that of a smartphone.

The third and, to my mind, best solution for communication troubles is a netbook, a small laptop (10-inch screen) that is fairly inexpensive (about $300) and light enough to tote in a carry-on bag or a large purse.

WiFi networks proliferate everywhere now, from coffee shops to airports and hotels, making Internet access easy. Netbooks usually have a keyboard nearly the size of that of a full-sized computer, with a screen much easier to read than that of a smartphone. Even though it does not give phone service without the use of software like Skype over WiFi, the netbook may be the ideal weapon in the airline/airport information wars.

Like most technophobic seniors, I don’t travel with electronic gadgets, and my bare-bones cell phone has no service outside the US. Given my recent experience, however, I might change my tune.

Hudson, OH


ITN sent copies of Ms. Remly’s letter to the British Airport Authority (Heathrow Airport, Ltd., The Compass Centre, Nelson Road, Hounslow, Middlesex TW6 2GW, U.K.) … to United Airlines (Box 66100, Chicago, IL 60666) … and to Continental Airlines (Box 5607, Houston, TX 77210-4607). The following are, respectively, BAA’s March 2 reply to ITN and Ms. Remly’s rendition of responses that she received from each airline.


When a flight is cancelled, it is the airline’s responsibility to rebook passengers onto a later flight or refund the airfare. Airlines are also responsible for providing accommodation, food and up-to-date flight information for passengers who are at the airport until they are able to continue to their scheduled destination.

That week, many passengers were affected by disruption caused by extreme weather at Heathrow. Our snow-clearing team worked nonstop, day and night, to clear tens of thousands of tonnes of snow and ice from the airfield, taxiways and the 200 aircraft parking stands. In addition, airlines were faced with the difficult task of clearing snow and de-icing their aircraft ready for operation.

In the terminals our airlines worked hard to communicate, accommodate and rebook passengers as quickly as they could. BAA also helped, and every member of staff was asked to volunteer in the terminals to talk to passengers, offering accommodation, supplies and food. However, we acknowledge that more could have been done and this assistance for passengers could have been provided quicker.

Many passengers affected by the disruption have questions about what compensation they are entitled to and how they can make a claim. We ask that passengers speak directly with their airline and their travel or insurance companies to pursue this.

Since December, we have invested a further £10 million in snow-clearing equipment and have been working hard to improve our winter resilience plans.

KATE MOLINEAUX, Passenger Communications Advisor, Heathrow


Ms. Remly wrote to ITN, “On Feb. 23, a United ‘Customer Care’ representative, Faith Liedberg, wrote expressing again her deep sorrow at my inconvenience. In the e-mail, she said, ‘My manager has advised me to reiterate that we do not assume responsibility for costs or inconveniences related to weather situations. Neither do we refund the cost of tickets for which transportation has been provided, albeit delayed.’

“She also wrote, ‘You will also find noted in our Contract of Carriage that our flights and schedules are always subject to change without notice. For this reason, we do not compensate customers who are involved in flight irregularities and do not arrive at their flight destination as scheduled.’

“United offered me a princely 125-dollar certificate for travel on a future flight. I have no plans to use it.”

On March 28, Ms. Remly wrote to ITN, “Someone from Continental contacted me last week saying they are terribly sorry about my treatment at Heathrow, etc. They are willing to reimburse me and my travel partner a few hundred dollars each, which is rather less than the $2,000-plus it cost us to stay the extra week at Heathrow.

“I had written only to United, since they were responsible for booking the flight; I doubt if I would have heard anything from Continental if ITN hadn’t contacted them.”

Ms. Remly later wrote, “In late April I received a check for $630 from Continental, which I split with my traveling companion, so we each received $315.”