On my way home from Armenia
last month I stopped in London
and there a few noders were kind enough to meet me and escort me around their fair and hyper-expensive city. I got to meet several people I have corresponded with electronically over the years. And indeed, each of them was a beer drinking person, flesh and blood, with lives lived and futures to be had.
Each of my hosts was different. One wore a business shirt, jacket, and tie. One wore magenta stockings and a blazing orange coat. Two wore t-shirts and jeans. But as always I was left with the impression that noders are a uniquely definitive sliver of society. That I could tell them apart in a crowd of hundreds of tube riders. That there was an interest in the form and substance of life experienced from an obtuse inverted angle.
That they all required higher-bandwidth network access.
I tried to buy an inexpensive dinner of pizza and beer for my hosts, (after all, I was on expense account), but as it was about to run me a month's rent in a decent apartment, I accepted their chipping in. Twenty quid is a week's worth of sushi lunches for me back in the states, and besides, a twenty sitting in my sock drawer till my next trip to London inevitably nets me several percentage on the arbitrage due to the ever sinking U.S. dollar.
After leaving the fine London noder community, I moved immediately into the apparently necessary horror of Heathrow's terminal five.
By now most people have heard of T5 as it has become an icon of failure. British newspapers have called it a "national disgrace." One presumes London as a unit would distance itself from T5 the way one would like to distance himself from a ruptured appendix. But like an errant vestigial body part, Londoners must face this painful conflagration daily until it is excised or repaired. For this, and for the fact that from now on people will measure the degree of all operational failures relative to T5 ("Space shuttle crashed into a twelve-story orphanage? Well, at least it's not T5,") I am truly sorry.
"I take full responsibility," said soon-to-be-former president of BA, Willy Walsh. If he means what he says and could possibly get his way responsibility-wise one would have to question his sanity. A conservative estimate would place in the six-figure range the number of people who would like to see Willy tarred, feathered, and run naked through the streets of London in front of an angry mob with torches and pitchforks. And I suggest the employees of British Airways would be at the front of the mob.
When the conveyor belts at the security x-ray screening broke down in front of me, one of the BAA employees said to me, "Well, at least people are happy today," as she savaged the conveyer belt with a shoe, repeatedly and maniacally as if trying to flay the rubber from its steel bands, spittle and hair flying from her head, whacking and beating until the thing sputtered back to movement.
She stopped in near exhaustion and wiped her brow with the back of her hand. To my surprised look she replied, "German made. That's all I'll say."
But really, my own T5 experience is trivial compared to the mayhem and abuse put up with by many other BA customers. For instance, one reads that a dead man's luggage is still circulating in the bowels of Heathrow's baggage system, or perhaps it has been opened and sold by gypsies in Milan, which is where many pieces of luggage were sent when BA realized it was incapable of sorting them. As luggage sorting would have to be a core competency for any airport, the depth of the decay is in evidence.
Though, once inside T5 one can experience a literal bazaar of duty free items for sale. Rolex watches. Designer clothes. Custom mixed alcoholic beverages. Coffees from all over the world, and the latest electronic gadgets are all available to the holder of a Visa card. The shopping at T5 rivals the world's greatest malls, and the availability of flights follows the same pattern. It is easier to catch a plane from the men's clothing department at Nordstrom's in downtown Seattle than from a gate at T5, though it is just as easy to find a fine wool Italian suit.
To the dismay of the T5 vendors who solicited my interest in everything from weird mineral samples to women's cologne I was not in the terminal to shop but rather to board an aircraft.
"Surely you jest," one said to me in reply to my comment that I did not have time to consider his Danish designer kitchenware because my plane was boarding.
Apparently he was right.
After a two hour delay we were informed that our plane contained a four-ton shipping crate that could not be moved for lack of a forklift. It seems there were at that time no devices capable of unloading such a crate from a Boeing 747, even though the crew in Nairobi (the origin of the plane and crate) were able to load it, one presumes with elephants and giraffes, or perhaps trained Bonobo apes.
However it was done in deepest Africa, the infrastructure in the most expensive city on earth was not equal to the task. And I assume they were considering emptying the London Zoo of its elephants when someone managed to drive a liftruck from the other pieces of Heathrow airport (conveniently located some 20 minutes drive away at high speed), to T5, and save our flight from cancellation. Most of T5 would not be so fortunate that day, as nearly a hundred flights were cancelled, after baggage had been checked by the unfortunate travelers.
This will be an important point in determining the full measure of responsibility that should be taken by Mr. Walsh.
While the four-ton box was being removed from the plane, announcements were made over the general PA system in T5. Most of these were the usual every-15-minute babble about not losing control of one's personal belongings and not taking candy from strangers. But deep in air-delay-induced ennui, I became aware of one announcement being made at ten or twenty minute intervals.
And that announcement was: "British Airways regrets to inform its customers that check-ins are hereby suspended."
This is the first announcement I heard that day, that in all my 30+ years of air travel I had never heard before. And I allowed myself to imagine the full scope of the chaos happening at the front of the terminal where erstwhile travelers suddenly learned of the airline's decision to terminate their holidays, business trips, and visits to grandma. Because there is no other airline flying out of T5, and suspension of BA check-ins meant nobody was going anywhere from T5 anymore.
While I believe no one was killed, we have evidence that the dead man's luggage is still unreturned by BA. Though he perished on a BA aircraft, (pure speculation: he died of heart arrhythmias induced by T5 employees driven to insanity by system breakdowns) somehow only his physical person was returned to his family, but neither his hand carry or checked luggage can be located, even with the help of MI6. Presumably the return of his belongings is a lower priority to the return of the luggage of the living with which BA continues to struggle, these weeks after collecting them.
The second announcement I heard that day that I had never heard uttered before in air transit was this one: "We have damaged the plane removing the four-ton box, and so we will not be able to load your luggage. You can get on the plane and go to San Francisco, but your baggage will have to be put on another flight."
The third announcement I heard that day, that I had previously never witnessed was said after 9 hours in the air, one hour before our landing in San Francisco. The flight's purser came on the plane's PA system and said, "All passengers are advised to save receipts."
This caused a flock of mental question marks to rise from the heads of every traveler and pool on the aircraft ceiling forming a quagmire of confusion impossible to ignore.
The purser then clarified in the halting tones of one about to be murdered, "We regret to inform our passengers that we cannot locate your baggage, and we can confirm no delivery date."
Until that moment I had never been in an aircraft in which the passengers had been informed their luggage was gone, never to be returned, and that they should go to the store upon arrival at their destination and buy replacement items, refundable to a maximum amount of 100 British Pounds.
At which point conversion to terrorism was seriously considered by all 250 inhabitants of the plane, and a lynch mob formed with the expressed desire to shove the flight attendants into the microwave ovens, storm the cockpit, and reroute the plane Bermuda where fruity drinks could be had by all.
As I had been traveling with only hand carry bags, I was immune to the intense display of failure and incompetence. And I felt deeply empathetic to the poor British Airways employees who had to "take one for their sniveling ineffective team." I suppose after the whole "WMDs in Iraq" affair we in the west are accustomed to bald-faced lying by people who control our fates, and it was a weak attempt by BA to try to monopolize on that effect while tossing their employees to the wolves. Because in truth, as we had just learned, exactly zero pieces of luggage had been loaded onto the plane, not because the plane's cargo hold had been damaged, but rather, because the luggage checked in to the T5 system had been systemically and purposefully lost -- as we now know -- tossed into a pile in a warehouse, the growth of which served the pitiful amusement of news watchers all over the world. This includes, especially, those people who checked their bags and were then informed they could not board a flight due to cancellation.
One wonders what BA is doing with everyone's underwear. Perhaps the true purpose for shipping the luggage mountain to Milan was not so much for purposes of sorting and redistributing, but to calculate the full measure of income that could be derived from the sale of so many personal goods outside the boundaries of the UK, where innocence-via-ignorance could be claimed.
We landed in San Francisco three hours behind schedule, and I left behind me in customs a crowd of bewildered, jet-lagged civilians, each now deep in calculation of the magnitude of personal loss and necessary rescheduling.