The group of young travellers lay neatly slotted together like spoons, an intimacy at least in part forced on them by the single blanket shielding them from the sunshine beaming in through the west-facing panoramic windows.
Asked if they had been affected by the British Airways check-in fiasco, one girl peered up and nodded. “I’ve had one hour’s sleep and we’ve been here 24 hours,” she croaked.
By early afternoon a large proportion of the crowds of frustrated passengers waiting to check in at Heathrow terminal five had gone. But most were not on their way to their destinations. BA had asked them to clear off and promised to reimburse any out-of-pocket expenses. However, for some that was not an option.
Rosie Wilson and Alison McCall, both 16, were trying to make their way home to Glasgow from the south of France when they were caught in the human logjam. They had arrived at Gatwick that morning to find their connecting flight cancelled. Wilson’s father had booked them a replacement from Heathrow. But after a lengthy shuttle bus ride across London’s south-west suburbs, they found that flight was cancelled too.
They had been in transit since 3am. Now they were hoping for a flight at 5.20pm. But the adventure was not over. That plane would only get them as far as Edinburgh. Two teenagers, with no cash, they were reliant on the largesse of the airport for refreshments. Purple-shirted staff handed out fun-size 330ml bottles of water.
Robert Faucett, 80, from San Diego, California, was in a similar bind. He, his daughter, 50, and his granddaughter, 17, had finished their stay in London and had been due to travel to Dublin on a 10.45am flight that was cancelled. They had just spent £1,200 on fresh one-way tickets with Aer Lingus, due to depart at 5pm, he groaned. “They gave us a brochure that says it will be reimbursed, and if you have to stay in a hotel that would be reimbursed. But that’s a pain in the neck.
“We lost a day of our vacation, a day in Dublin, because we are only going to be there a few days anyway. It’s going to take us just as long to get to Dublin from London as it took us to get to London from San Diego.
“We have hotel reservations and all that, hopefully we’ll still get them.”
Others could not even buy their way out of the situation. Tony Ambles and Olga Gridina, a couple from London, had been due to fly to St Petersburg. They had already checked in and handed over their bags when the cancellations were announced. “Now we are here with no luggage, no flight, nothing at all,” said Ambles, 43. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, because they don’t even know, I think. We thought about cancelling and going somewhere else, but now we don’t have our luggage we can’t.”
The next available BA flight to St Petersburg was on Friday, they had been told. They had already booked their hotel at a cost of £600 and handed over £100 in visa fees for their 10-day stay. “We probably might cancel everything,” Gridina, 44, said. “What can we do?”
Most dejected of all were a German family – mother, father and two young children – sitting on the floor with their backs against a temporary partition wall. “We’re totally damaged,” Mike Reiter said. They had travelled to the UK only the day before, hoping to stay three days in a London hostel while seeing the sights of the capital. But they had arrived late, the result of bad weather, could not reach the manager to check in to their rooms, and had been forced to wait out the entire night in a McDonald’s. Rather than try to rescue their trip, they decided to retreat home, only to find themselves stuck, waiting again, at Heathrow.
Before they could reveal any more details of their city-break nightmare, a purple-shirted Heathrow worker strode over to intervene. “Are you a journalist? I’m sorry, we don’t allow vox pops inside the terminal,” she told the Guardian. “We like our passengers to be able to wait in peace.”