U.S. travelers are suffering on miserably crowded and late planes this summer, with record delays for domestic flights. Just be grateful you...

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U.S. travelers are suffering on miserably crowded and late planes this summer, with record delays for domestic flights.

Just be grateful you aren’t flying through London’s Heathrow Airport, where it’s far worse, with passengers enduring monstrous lineups, mounds of lost luggage, and late or canceled flights.

This summer has been a perfect storm of security scares, bad weather, creaky infrastructure and understaffing problems at Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports.

Conditions have become so poor that British political and business leaders in recent days have strongly criticized the airport, which is run by the privately-owned British Airports Authority and was designed to serve about 45 million passengers a year but now handles almost 70 million.

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London Mayor Ken Livingstone told British media that poor service and infrastructure at Heathrow “shamed” the city.

Britain’s economic minister, Kitty Ussher, has warned that the airport’s delays and crowding threaten London’s role as a financial center. (Some international business travelers, and vacationers, already avoid connecting flights at Heathrow, flying instead through Amsterdam or Paris.)

British Airways’ chief executive, Willie Walsh, has called conditions at Heathrow unacceptable, telling the London newspaper The Independent that a luggage conveyor belt had broken down nine times over an 11-day period in June.

British Airways, the dominant airline at Heathrow, currently has the worst record among major European airlines for lost luggage, and suffers extensive flight delays. Lost luggage is piled in airport corridors and sometimes outside at Heathrow, and online forums bristle with comments from angry passengers whose suitcases have gone missing.

According to the Association of European Airlines, British Airways lost approximately 24 bags for each 1,000 passengers in the first quarter of 2007, compared to Air France’s 14 and KLM’s 17. (Overall, 85 percent of bags were eventually delivered to their owners.)

This summer, the delays and lost luggage have mounted at Heathrow — and Seattleite Neal Friedman has first-hand knowledge of the problems.

The Seattle attorney, his wife and two teenage sons flew on British Airways via Heathrow from Seattle to Switzerland, and from Rome back to Seattle. Four of their five flights were canceled during their three-week trip, adding days of stressful delays and expense to their vacation.

Friedman has flown British Airways several times before and praises the in-flight staff, but said this summer’s trip was a nightmare. He estimates he spent an extra $3,500 on substitute flights, train tickets, car rental and hotel rooms because of the canceled flights.

Marooned at Heathrow after one of the cancellations — which were variously caused by a security scare that prompted an airport terminal evacuation and weather-related problems — Friedman said “There was no information, inadequate staffing, lines so long that one could not determine what one was standing in line for, and no hope for getting service for many, many hours, if at all.”

Giving up on the massive airport lineups for rebooking flights, Friedman desperately phoned his travel agent in Seattle in the middle of the night; she was able to book them on a British Airways flight the next morning to Switzerland.

After spending a night at a London hotel — at their own expense — the family returned to Heathrow Airport only to find that flight canceled (in the chaotic fallout of the security scare) and more massive lines of frustrated travelers. Advised by a British Airways staffer that it could be days before they could get a Geneva flight, Friedman frantically devised a new plan to get to Switzerland to meet up with their third son; take the Chunnel train to Paris, rent a car and drive all night to Geneva — again, at their expense.

Although the family arrived in Switzerland days late and exhausted, the rest of their vacation was “fabulous,” said Friedman — until it was time to fly home to Seattle from Rome, changing planes at Heathrow. Both British Airways flights were canceled (a freak summer storm had upended Heathrow schedules).

Managing to get a substitute flight from Rome to London, the family plunged into the Heathrow chaos. “In a repeat of our arrival, we were shepherded downstairs with thousands of other stranded travelers to go through customs and pick up our luggage … and then to wait in a ridiculous line for hours in the bleak hope that when you got to the front the sales rep would be able to take care of us,” said Friedman.

Finally snagging a sympathetic British Airways staffer who was doing crowd control, they were booked onto a flight to Los Angeles the next day — which meant another night in London (the airline provided a hotel voucher) and paying for a flight from L.A. to Seattle.

Frustrated by all the delays and extra expenses, Friedman hopes British Airways will reimburse him. And despite all the cancellations and changes, there was an unexpectedly happy ending; none of their luggage was lost.

For Heathrow, there’s hope for the future: The airport will open its vast new Terminal 5 in March 2008 where British Airways will be based. It will be able to handle about 30 million passengers a year — hopefully cutting the chaos and congestion at Heathrow’s current four terminals.

Kristin Jackson: kjackson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2271

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