Some basic airline and airport initiatives could turn chaos into order

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The news of more cancellations at Heathrow is the latest blow in the run-up to what seems almost certain to be a chaotic summer for travellers. None of us can do anything to prevent our flight from being cancelled, but my experience at Athens airport the other day suggests that much could be done to improve the situation for passengers caught up in the chaos.

In this case it was that the time has come, the man has come. “Anyone registering for BA623, queue up in this line; anyone on the BA633 late last night, please queue here,” boomed a loud voice in the check-in hall. There was a wave of applause from the 250 passengers who had already queued for over an hour and were getting nowhere. Stress levels were skyrocketing and passenger lines were in chaos as a woefully inadequate team of three employees struggled to check in for two flights at the same time.

But it was not an airport employee who intervened, nor a BA representative. He was a passenger driven to despair and desperate to impose some order. And he managed to inject a semblance of organization, so that eventually, after maybe two hours, I got to the front of the line.

“Okay, you didn’t need to queue,” the receptionist said with a sigh almost as tired as mine. “You can use your existing boarding pass.”

One of the reasons for the chaos was that my flight, BA633 to Heathrow, was delayed the night before and rescheduled for noon the following day. After a long wait in the departure hall, we were escorted back to the arrival hall and told to book a hotel for the night. Before leaving the airport I had asked the officer escorting us if we could use the same boarding pass for the rescheduled flight. “No,” he said, “you must check in again in the morning.” It proved impossible to do it online and an email from BA about rescheduling made no mention of boarding passes. Hence my two hours wasted in line the next morning.

My response was more resignation than exasperation. This is what happens when there is no leadership. Communication breaks down, problems escalate, and the situation worsens. If someone at the airport had shown some initiative, brushed the queues, reassured passengers, and been available to answer basic questions, things would have been better for staff and customers alike.

And that’s what happened when, after more unexplained delays at takeoff time, we finally made it to the gate. The BA team walked in and suddenly the atmosphere changed. The pilot himself, let’s call him Captain Fantastic, went to the desk and headed into the living room, the first time I saw this happen. He explained the problems that had plagued the flight and what he was trying to do about it. He and the rest of the crew chatted with any passenger who approached them. Although we finally landed at Heathrow more than 19 hours late, the goodwill between passengers and crew remained intact.

Some things are destined to go wrong. I have flown six times in the last six weeks and all but one were significantly delayed. The planes were delayed by a shortage of personnel to refuel the plane, transport the crew and drive the transfer buses. I waited because there was no driver for the tug and got to the gate after landing only to wait 20 minutes because there was no one to operate the airlift.

At times, the heists have seemed like a comedy script. On an easyJet flight from Gatwick to Palermo, we all waited on board as they searched for an engineer to fix a minor fault. This done, we were about to turn back when the tug towing a plane passing right behind us broke down, trapping us in the doorway. Finally released, we were held on the tarmac for another hour due to air traffic control restrictions. We finally arrived in Palermo almost three hours late.

I sympathize with airlines and airports devastated by the economic fallout from the pandemic, desperately trying to catch up as demand rises and staff shortages are exacerbated by the latest wave of Covid. But what we need, to get through this summer of inevitable interruptions and delays, is some basic initiative and information.

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