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Heathrow becoming a hub for flier woes

Airport handles more travelers than intended. Horror stories abound.

August 25, 2007|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

london -- Misrouted bags. Missed flights. Mystifying security rules.

Welcome to your air travel nightmare: London's Heathrow Airport.

For visitors passing through Europe's biggest airline hub, the summer of 2007 has been one big meltdown -- and it's not over yet.

This weekend will bring Heathrow's most recent in a series of challenges as crowds take off for Britain's August bank holiday and Americans head home from vacation before Labor Day, the unofficial end of the season.

By most accounts, Heathrow reached its apex of misery in July, when stormy weather caused marquee carrier British Airways to misroute a reported 20,000 pieces of luggage, which piled up for days.

"The level of service hasn't been acceptable," British Airways spokesman Patrick Spink said. "We are actively working to improve that."

Spink said the airline was recruiting about 660 new employees to work in baggage handling and passenger services at Heathrow. What remains unchanged is that the airport wasn't built to accommodate anywhere near as many people as it does.

Heathrow every year handles more than 67 million passengers, almost 50% more than it was designed to serve. And since a security crackdown last year, when Britain began limiting carry-ons to one per person, passengers have been checking 25% more bags.

"We are operating within a very difficult climate," said a spokeswoman for BAA, the company that runs the airport. Like several people interviewed for this story, she declined to provide her name.

Said a staffer at an airport information desk, "People come here in tears."

A bit of relief may come in March, when a fifth terminal, which costs $8.6 billion and is double the size of British Airways' main facility, is scheduled to open.

Until then, expect long lines, plus a labyrinth of poorly marked elevators, stairs and twisted corridors worthy of an M.C. Escher drawing. Passengers often have to race between the airport's four terminals -- British Airways is now spread out across two of them -- to make connections. Many have been left at the gate.

Debbie Grote of Denver was on a group tour of Europe that included flying from New York to Heathrow and on to Germany.

"It was so arduous," she said. "It was like going through a maze. Every time you turned a corner, there was another line. I was shocked they weren't more streamlined for international passengers."

In some cases, depending on the airlines involved, those with connecting flights must get their luggage on arrival, schlep their bags to another terminal and again go through security. Just hopping between Terminal 1 and 4, which requires taking a train, can eat up 35 or more minutes.

Beyond that, there is a dizzying variety of limits that Heathrow's dozens of worldwide carriers impose on carry-on and checked baggage. The unwary traveler can be found near check-in desks, frantically shifting items from bag to bag.

Betty and Terry Cummings of Costa Mesa and their daughter, Carissa, 18, arrived at Heathrow from Los Angeles International Airport and had a four-hour layover before flying to Rome for a Mediterranean cruise.

At LAX, Virgin Atlantic had rejected their 25-pound carry-ons as too heavy, which meant they had to repack.

"We've traveled around the world without our bags being weighed," Betty said.

They paid $120 in excess baggage fees. Worried about more hassles, they repacked and left three of their nine bags with an airport concessionaire to store and then ship to Scotland, where Carissa will attend college. The tab: about $300.

At the Alitalia desk in London, they had more trouble: Carissa said each of them was allowed to check 55 pounds total (not per bag, as they had thought) free. The Cummingses shelled out $272 more in excess baggage fees.

Part of the extra weight consisted of items they had removed from carry-ons to meet what they thought were Alitalia's weight limits. But at the desk Alitalia didn't even ask them about carry-ons, Betty said.

She was also surprised, as many travelers are, to learn that one carry-on means just that these days when flying out of British airports: no purse or laptop unless it fits into your one allotted bag.

The Cummingses made their flight to Rome, but barely.

Horror stories about checked bags are legion. Passengers are nearly four times as likely to lose their luggage on British Airways as on an average U.S. carrier, according to figures from the Assn. of European Airlines. That pencils out to more than eight misrouted bags on a typical transatlantic flight.

Jill and Gus Chiarello of Alexandria, Va., touring England with three children, said two of their three bags were missing when they arrived in Manchester, England, after connecting through Heathrow. Their bags caught up with them eight hours later on the Isle of Man.

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