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Published: Sunday, 1/5/2003

Emergency meant braving holiday travel chaos

It was the week before Christmas. And in London, Heathrow Airport's Terminal Four was in a state of total chaos. Just 9 a.m., and already the inmates had taken over the asylum!

Thousands upon thousands of wannabe travelers to New York, Chicago, Detroit, Sydney, Tel Aviv, and such staggered, struggled, and snaked around the vast departure hall, looking in vain for the right line to join. Any line. Moving mountains of Samsonite. And anxiously monitoring the TVs as their flight times edged agonizingly closer.

British Airways ground staff and airport personnel in bright yellow vests stalked the crowd like so many sheep dogs, barking out instructions on destinations that were ready to accept passengers for processing, and telling the rest of us, who had arrived early to avoid just such confusion, to stay on the periphery until our counter number came up.

Generally, we adhere to a rule that says never to travel at peak holiday periods. Not in the height of summer. Not at Thanksgiving. And certainly not over Christmas. But a family medical emergency had forced a last-minute trip to London.

The BA staff in Detroit had worked a minor miracle in getting me on a flight at a day's notice and waiving the usual late fees. A return reservation four days later was the best they could arrange, under the circumstances. But I would cross that bridge when I came to it.

Check-in at the Detroit BA desk these days is oh-so-easy, as most other airlines have already departed for the bright new McNamara Terminal. The ensuing two-hour wait in an almost empty lounge and the 7 hour, 20 minute transatlantic flight passed quickly enough, chatting to an ex-pat Brit who does design work for General Motors and was going home for the first time in many years.

British Airways, like other airlines running on empty, has pretty well chintzed down the in-flight food services. No more printed menus. Or fanciful French descriptions of the food and the wines. Now it's just “chicken” or “beef,” “red” or “white.”

But a Scottish lass named Claire with a soft Glaswegian burr and cheerful demeanor did her best to make it a happy meal, while my seatmate and I chatted on through the night.

Sunrise Sunday morning at Heathrow. And with nothing but a carry-on bag for company, I was through Customs and on the Underground bound for central London in a matter of minutes.

But this was Britain 2002, where most of the public services are broken and/or broke. So it came as no surprise when an announcement was made - to carriages filled with a confusion of foreigners - that there was a problem at the very next station and that this particular Underground train was going nowhere. We should therefore all look for other ways of getting to central London. By express train, bus, cab, whatever.

I opted for speed and the Heathrow Express, and 15 minutes later - and $20 lighter - I was at Paddington Station, en route to a north London hospital.

The next three days were spent in a fog of emotions, deep in the clutches of Britain's health care system, which, sad to say, is Third World at best. Plagued by too many patients chasing too little money. And too few care-givers. I'd seen better in communist Budapest in the late '80s. It was simply appalling.

Some respite came from trolling the area bookstores between hospital ward visits. Walking the hilly streets of Hampstead. And a wonderfully relaxed “rescue evening” at the 17th-century farmhouse home of an old school friend who served up some great Welsh tales ... along with excellent roast duck and vintage wines.

Then it was time for a last hug, lots of tears, and some whispered hopes of a future visit, before heading off to Heathrow - by mini-cab this time.

Back to that chaos. Those snarled lines. The passenger frustrations. The pent-up anger, waiting only to be lifted out of this demeaning obscenity called 21st century air travel.

With fewer than 45 minutes to scheduled takeoff, Detroit-bound passengers were finally permitted into the check-in line for a flight so severely overbooked that airline personnel were already working the crowd with promises of cash or coupons for anyone who would take the next day's flight. (And go through all that again? No way!)

Reaching the departure gate with only minutes to spare, there was no time for last-minute shopping. No grazing. No coffee. Nothing.

And then ... one of life's sweeter moments. As I handed in my boarding pass, it dawned on me that an ultra-low seat number meant an upgrade to Business Class. Yippee!

Whether it was serendipity, or sympathy, or overbooking, who knows? Whatever the reason, the next few hours passed in unexpected luxury, with space to relax, read the British Sunday papers, listen to restful CDs, chat with a charming former tax lawyer, now living in Oslo. And select my food and beverages from an actual printed menu. In French.

Oh, it was heaven ... if only for a few short hours. But maybe, just maybe, somebody thought it might help a bit. And it did.

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