Having returned from Suffolk on Friday, my UK tour turned into an international one on Tuesday as I left the house early in the morning to drive to Heathrow airport, where I was due to board an 11.30am flight to Frankfurt. I had been booked to appear on a German TV show which was to be recorded on Wednesday evening, so Tuesday would be a lovely relaxing day, arriving in Baden-Baden during the afternoon, checking into a rather elegant looking hotel, and having the rest of the day to myself to explore the town, maybe take a little swim and session in a sauna at the spa for which the town is so famous. Then I would have a dinner with a finely chilled glass of Rhein Wein, or maybe a Moselle. The only shadow over the day was that Liz wouldn’t be there to share it with me.
My drive to Heathrow was easy, for the roads were clear and fast moving. I drew into the car park just before 9 o’clock, and having made a note or the section and aisle were my Kadgar would rest, I walked to the shuttle bus stop where a van pulled up as I arrived. 10 minutes later I was walking into the departure lounge of Terminal 2. It was only 9.15 and I had promised myself a slap-up breakfast before ambling to the gate at 11. That was the plan.
Terminal 2 was a seething mass of humanity.
The news has been filled during the past week with stories of gridlocks at various ports (Dover being particularly hard hit), and this is due to many factors. Firstly the effect of Covid on the travel industry – naturally many workers lost their jobs, and now that restrictions have been lifted and people are travelling in numbers, the ports are woefully understaffed. Monday 31 May was also the start of a holiday week so a lot of families were travelling therefore putting extra stress on an underprepared system. And there is the ‘B’ word: Brexit. Although the official changes to the freedom of travel within Europe came into force over a year ago, the extra time and manpower of extra immigration and security checks and were hidden by the periods of lockdown and restricted travel. Suddenly in 2022 everyone is seemingly on the move again and quite simply the ports (most especially in my case Heathrow Terminal 2) cannot cope with the perfect storm that brought so many to one place.
I had checked in at home, but I still had to join the queue to drop my bag…….An hour. Now it was 10.15. As I stood in the line an official had passed by saying ‘Frankfurt, 10.30, anyone for Frankfurt 10.30 flight please come with me’. I wasnt really concentrating, but heard the word ‘Frankfurt’, so asked if that was the 11.30 flight, ‘no sir, 10.30’. The man behind me in the line laughed that I should have just gone without questioning the time, covering up the flight details with my thumb on the boarding card. Oh, how I wish I had! I edged and shuffled further forward, until at last I had a bag tag and could send my suitcase into the trusted hands of Lufthansa.
And now I joined the line for the pleasure of getting through security.
At the first look this didn’t seem to be so bad, for the entry to security was just behind the baggage drop, but I was soo disabused of any notion that I could swan through, for I was directed back on myself to join a queue that wound around the terminal, even at one point taking us out of the doors and into the open air, as if hundreds of people were creating a giant conga line – without the happy smiles and laughter.
The woefully inadequate staff were doing their best to contain the large number of people without causing any crushes or dangerous surges. At one point I asked if I could get to the front, as my flight was due to leave at 11.30 and instantly others joined in ‘Mine too’, ‘I am at 11.20.’, ‘I have to be at the gate at 11’, and so the problem was laid bare for all to see – no one was going anywhere fast. It was at 11.05 that I finally stood at the little electronic security gate which would allow me into the security area proper, and even then I was told to wait until the crowd in front had dispersed a little. At last the very patient lady who was controlling the line waved me forward with a smile. I scanned my boarding pass and was rewarded with a message on the screen: ‘Cannot process. Go to your airline for further assistance’ Now what? Well, apparently it was too late to be let through this particular gate – they don’t allow any access after a predetermined time before a flight is due to depart. I asked the lady what I could do, and she suggested that I go to the FastTrack line – that sounded good, so I left the gate, the gate that would allow me in, and found the FastTrack line….or at least found the end of the queue for the FastTrack line, which was as long and as static as the one I had minutes before reached the front of! More pleading with more operatives and I was sent to the ‘extra assistance’ line which is there to help large families with buggies and infirm folk in wheelchairs. Another period queuing, and the clock ticked on past my boarding time and up to departure time. As I continued to shuffle I passed a notice placed on behalf of the ITV television company which seemed to mock me with its words: ‘Raw TV are currently filming Heathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport’ I bit my lip and did not give in to the tirade of foul language which was welling up inside.
I had a brief glimmer of hope when I received a text saying that my flight had been delayed, but it was only by 15 minutes. The inevitable came to pass and the plane left without me.
When I finally cleared security, the strangest sight met my eyes for Terminal 2 was deserted! Everyone must have burst through the human dam and ran to their gates as fast as they could, without stopping at restaurants, shops or seating. I took a moment to catch my breath and called the television company in Germany to update them on the situation and then tried to work out what to do next.
The Lufthansa help desk was my next port of call, and naturally there was nobody there – every other airline had clerks, sometimes two and in the case of EgyptAir even 3, helping their customers, but from Lufthansa there was nobody to be seen. After waiting for about 20 minutes someone appeared and without making any eye contact or smiling or acknowledging that I even existed, she spent an inordinately long period of time carefully wiping down the desk and keyboard and telephone handset. Having sanitized everything she then realised that the boarding card printer needed refilling with blanks, and disappeared for a while before returning with a handful of cardboard rectangles which she loaded…apparently the wrong way round for she took them out again and had another try. I tried to catch her eye and ask for help, but she wasn’t going to acknowledge me until she was quite ready. Even then there was no hint of a smile, or an apology, or any emotion whatever – I began to wonder if she was perhaps a (an?) holographic avatar of some kind.
When she finally switched on her engagement mode I explained what had happened and passed over my boarding card, and then without a word she disappeared into the back office. To be fair when she re-emerged she bore good tidings, informing me that I would be on the 6.30 pm flight to Frankfurt, which would arrive at 9pm My case, she assured me, would meet up with me there. And so I had a further 6 hours to wait in Terminal 2.
My delicious breakfast, which I had so been looking forward to, had now become a lunch and I sat in one of the restaurants writing this blog post, people watching and just letting time drift by. Having eaten I then went to the book shop and bought ‘A Short History of England’ which may help me in my new-found interest in the Magna Carta, then I found a seat and wrote a little more, read the start of the book and people-watched some more. 2pm became 3 and 3 ticked round to 4, at which point I glanced at the departures board and noticed that my new flight was slowly climbing the second page. I decided to add some excitement to my afternoon by waiting until it clicked onto page one, and then treat myself to a coffee and cake, which I duly did.
Through the afternoon I had noticed that all of the Frankfurt flights had departed from gate A23, so I took a wild gamble and went to sit there – I was alone, but sure enough at 5.45 the announcement flashed up that my flight would indeed depart from A23 and I supressed a smug smile – my first little success of the day.
Much to my delight I was in a priority boarding group so when the flight was ready to board I was able to saunter down the ramp and enjoy an almost deserted aeroplane for a few minutes, my day was definitely improving. The other passengers piled in and then we all sat in our seats as our departure time came and, of course, went. An announcement came from the captain that due to a shortage of baggage handlers the incoming passenger’s bags had yet to be unloaded, let alone ours stored, so another wait was in store. The clock ticked to 7. Eventually the captain came back on to announce that the hold doors were shut and he was confident that we would be able to depart very soon. A further wait. The Captain came back over the PA to inform us that they needed a ‘Headset Man’ to be present to control the start up of the engines and the push back from the gate. I have never heard of a Headset Man before, but apparently he is the aviation equivalent of a sea pilot. So, still we waited.
It wasn’t until 7.30pm, a full eight hours after I should have left Heathrow, that our Airbus began to roll. We took to the air quickly and were soon across the English Channel and over mainland Europe heading South. The flight was a short one and it seemed no time at all before the cabin pressure changed and we began our descent. We flew past Frankfurt’s high rise skyline made a great loop and gently descended to the runway where we touched down. As we taxied lots of passengers stood and gathered their bags, as they had connections to make. Despite the continued pleas of the purser and cabin crew they surged forward, as if that would speed the plane up, and by the time we finally stopped at the gate the aisle was full. I had no such need to hurry (I had become rather accustomed to waiting), so remained in my seat and waited until the initial rush and crush had subsided.
It was quiet in the terminal and I was quickly granted permission to enter the country for the purposes of appearing on a TV show, and made my way into the baggage reclaim hall where, you may be surprised to read, there was a delay. I assume that the same labour shortage is prevalent in Germany as has blighted Britain, but announcements informed us that our baggage would be delayed. For another hour did we wait! At one point the belt started and we all leapt to our feet and watched three bags come out, at which point everything felt silent again. The same happened again 2o minutes later and a few more passengers excitedly picked up the belongings and left, leaving five of us behind staring at a once more stationary conveyor belt. Finally, at 11.10pm the last bags came through, including (to my great surprise) mine! I say the last bags, but that is not quite true for one gentleman in a rather racy checked tweed jacket was left forlornly standing alone as the rest of us left.
Outside stood Ivan. My driver, with a little ipad saying ‘G Dickens’ I could have hugged him. He was due to meet me at 9.05 and now it was 11.15. He led me to his car – a lovely black, sleek Mercedes Benz and I took my seat in the back. Baden-Baden was a drive of about 90 minutes but we skimmed along the Autobahn at a constant speed of around 100 mph which at first was exciting and exhilarating, but which soon became routine and ordinary. Occasionally another car would WHOOSH past us as if we had been trundling along at 20, meaning they must have been touching 150 or more. It is fortunate that the Germans are careful and skilful drivers for the consequences of a collision caused by inattentiveness at those speeds are unthinkable.
At a little after 12.30 we pulled up outside the elegant Maison Messer, an extremely beautiful building redolent of the architecture in Monaco (the scene of the latest F1 Grand Prix the weekend before). I said my thanks to Ivan and in the exquisite lobby was checked in. In no time I was in my room, at last.
My plans for an afternoon at the spa were long gone, as were my dreams of an exquisite dinner, but I dined on a packet of cashew nuts from the mini bar and then fell into my bed , oh the bed – it was so good to be there and sleep came extremely quickly!