I flew home from London to San Francisco from Heathrow's new Terminal 5, inhabited solely by British Airways. I flew on March 27, the day it opened. As the world now knows, this was a day of epic British humiliation. For weeks the British newspapers and television channels had been vaunting the marvels of T5: miles of baggage conveyors rushing luggage swiftly from check-in point through entrails of steel to airplane hold, the gospel of efficiency bodied forth in this new temple of modernism.
The trouble is that the British just aren't very good at this kind of thing. Year after year, Q used to hand James Bond his attache case of handy devices: a flame thrower in a hand spray, a book that fired bullets out of its spine. There was the Aston DB5 with ejector seat and saw blades in the wheel hubs. The cycle of Bond films began just when the Labor prime minister Harold Wilson was urging the nation to cast aside the archaic vestments of the past and bathe itself in the "white heat of technology." Things worked in Bond movies, but they didn't work in Britain, and as Kingsley Amis once sadly remarked, if Bond had really had to use his mini-submarine in combat conditions, it would have surely taken him straight to the bottom. In 1983, just when Q gave Bond a staggering number of gadgets in "Octopussy," Britain became for the first time in its history a net importer of industrial goods.
I got to T5 at around 11 a.m., having traveled out on the Piccadilly line. Architecturally, there's nothing particularly memorable about T5's three main buildings, all essentially aircraft hangers in basic contour. I smugly presented my preprinted boarding pass, checked two bags, wandered about for a minute and then went off to have an early lunch.
We now know that by then, T5's systems had already collapsed. In the case of the Titanic, there was this same lag between the fatal incision of the iceberg into the hull, with consequent alarums deep in the bowels of the mighty liner and the dignity and repose of the first class lounge. In the case of T5, the planners had forgotten to create parking spaces for the baggage handlers. When the handlers finally got to the doors of T5, their security passes didn't work. The few that managed to get through didn't know where their workstations were. The baggage handling software had already failed. My two bags I had complacently supposed were being whirled at tremendous speed to the Boeing 747 at Gate 38 in Terminal B had in fact joined a vast logjam in the center of the baggage maze. Everything came to a standstill.
But upstairs chaos was not yet apparent. BA's greeters, soon to be the objects of vilification and physical threat, smiled sweetly. Since T5's policy is not to have strident loudspeakers, there were no quacks of warning or alarm from the loudspeakers. It was 11:35 a.m. A nice young woman next to me at the marble bar in the dining room turned out to hail from Youghal, in county Cork, just like me. As we chatted along, she kept peering at the monitor. Her flight was 15 minutes away, yet no boarding gate was advertised. Off she went, just like a passenger on the Titanic going to check the bulletin board at the purser's office. I never saw her again, and I'm fairly sure she never saw her flight. She did have an overnight bag on wheels. An hour later, BA was telling passengers to send their suitcases home, stuff their essentials into their pockets and bunk down for the long wait.
I went off to Terminal B on a little railway, the sort that was cutting edge at SeaTac in the 1970s when optimists were writing about impending conversion of the war economy to the "social industrial complex." There was almost no one in Terminal B. At Gate 38 I was the only person. No other travelers, no BA staff, just the quiet bulk of a 747 at the boarding port. Gradually the passengers mustered. In a movie, this is where we would meet our characters: the noisy fellow who would panic and elbow the old lady, the lovers holding hands as they plummeted through the depressurized door, the unassuming California-based journalist, co-editor of a radical Web site and newsletter who in the end takes control of the 747 and brings it safely down.
Our flight was scheduled for 1:45. At 1:50 we were told there was a change of plan. Our plane was at A18. We had to go back, in a building designed to deal with people only going forward into their plane. By now, word was filtering to the outside world. The stock price of the Spanish company that owns Heathrow was dropping. The chairman of British Airways was sketching out his speech refusing to resign. Passengers were punching each other in the check-in lines.
We knew little of this at A18. By 4 p.m. we were boarded, wedged into seats so tightly crammed that when I dropped my book, there was no way to maneuver my body to get a hand under the seat. There was the familiar wait for the tractor to haul the plane out to the runway, the familiar inaudible drone from the captain. By 6 p.m., were in the air. We flew over southern Greenland. I was disappointed to see no signs of farming amid newly benign conditions. We flew over Hudson's Bay. There seemed to be plenty of ice. We flew over Tahoe. We were four hours late. No bags for most of us, of course.
Moral: Just don't travel BA, and don't go through Heathrow. It's not worth the hassle. With T5, it's all worse. Go to Paris or Frankfurt or Amsterdam, and head on to your destination by plane or rail from there. And don't travel Ryanair, either. The tickets look cheap, but by the time you pay overweight and a thousand other outrageous imposts, it's cheaper to go on a regular airline. In a properly functional hell, Michael O'Leary, Ryanair's boss, will fly endlessly between Stansted and the Arctic Circle. He will be told that every article of clothing he wears will require a charge of 1 million euros.
Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.