Monday, October 11, 2021

Amid luggage system glitches, London’s Heathrow airport is close to gridlock

LONDON — On Thursday, dozens of people were strolling through London’s Heathrow Airport, three and four at a time, taking advantage of its relatively empty terminals and bustling arrival desks.

Ahead of the launch of the airport’s airfare alert app, allowing travelers to “plan ahead and avoid frustrating delays at the airport,” the millions of square feet of open space were bustling with the bustle of passengers.

It was, perhaps, a surreal sight. And not so glamorous when one considers that the arrivals area remained cut off, from the passengers waiting to board their planes, by a makeshift walkway and barred windows, and flights had once again been canceled.

The issue arose after the outage, lasting for several hours, threw Heathrow into chaos as passengers were either forced to seek shelter elsewhere on the airport property or worried about missing their flight or finding a hotel after the shutdown — two things the outage appeared to have not prevented.

“It’s nothing to do with Heathrow,” Heathrow said in a statement. “A number of our airlines have experienced network disruptions that have impacted passengers traveling between Heathrow and other airports. We are working with our airlines and the government’s department for transport to clear these issues.”

The company later apologized for the outage, initially calling it a “power issue,” but by early Thursday afternoon the disruption had vanished.

With the outage, frustrated passengers said the luggage system on one of the terminal’s main floors, which shares power with a food preparation area, went into default mode and so could not be used. Passengers had to gather their belongings from baggage carousels and retrieve them by hand.

It appeared the problem had largely been fixed early Friday morning, although a handful of people who had been kicked off flights at the airport Thursday evening complained that they had not yet been allowed to board, and that their luggage had not been deposited.

Airlines such as Virgin Atlantic, easyJet and British Airways reported delays and cancellations, as did baggage company BWR.

After taking power in the June, 2017, snap election, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party narrowly kept its majority. But the call to leave the European Union has led to a number of policy reversals in her government, including the decision to remain a member of the customs union. Meanwhile, the British public appears divided about the impending split.

With barely a day’s notice, the airport said it had sent a team of engineers to check on the power. But in light of its previous “unusual” outages this year, Heathrow said it was “closely examining our power supply practices and networks, as well as power across the country.”

While the March and May power failures brought on weeks of chaos and scurrying, Thursday’s failure came with no notice. Heathrow’s administration announced on the Twitter account for its main destination at Heathrow — @HeathrowHQ, accompanied by a graphic announcing the power shutdown at 12:45 p.m. — and on its local website, Heathrow Media & Communication.

In total, eight flights were canceled, the airport said, and the airport added that they would operate as much as possible with the help of emergency food provisions.

“The airport is open and running as normal, although Heathrow is experiencing longer delays to flights,” it said. “Customers are advised to check with their airline before coming to the airport.”

Jamie Harrison, a leisure jet captain who was sitting next to me in a row of rows of first-class seats next to an emergency exit at Terminal 5, couldn’t have been happier to see how everything had returned to normal just a few minutes after his partner’s plane had departed for Dusseldorf, Germany.

“The situation here is just like something out of a nightmare,” he said, quickly remembering an airplane crash just across the road from Heathrow airport a decade ago that killed dozens.

The security system at Heathrow also went out Thursday morning, causing a wall-to-wall lockdown of the airport. Transport officials said that testing later showed that there was no terrorist activity linked to the situation.

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