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Originally published August 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 10, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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Turmoil besets London's Heathrow

U.S. travelers are suffering on miserably crowded and late planes this summer, with record delays for domestic flights. Just be grateful you...

Seattle Times travel staff

Be prepared

While Heathrow has myriad problems, flight cancellations and lost baggage can occur at any airport. Here are some tips on how to safeguard yourself — and your luggage.

Cancellations: If your flight is canceled and the lines at the airport counters for rebooking are long, phone the airline (be sure to carry the number with you) or go online to get another flight. If you bought your ticket through a travel agent, he or she can help; be sure to have the travel agency phone numbers, including an after-hours contact. For overseas travel, having a cellphone that works internationally can be a godsend.

Lost luggage: Label your checked baggage well in case it goes missing; attach two separate labels to the exterior that include your name and phone number(s) where you can be easily reached. Also put your contact information on a big sheet of paper inside the suitcase in case exterior tags get ripped off during baggage handling.

Pack defensively: Carry valuables, medications and documents in your carry-on bag in case your checked suitcase goes missing. The best defense against lost luggage is to travel with only a carry-on bag; just be sure to check the airline regulations on carry-on luggage. Also pack some extra clothes in your carry-on in case your checked bag goes missing.

Money, money: Travel with extra cash and a credit card with a healthy limit in case of unexpected expenses because of flight delays/cancellations.

Be polite: Do not scream at airline staff when trying to rebook or find a lost bag; it's not their fault. Politeness will get you further.

Kristin Jackson / Seattle Times

Britain's confusing carry-on rules

Passengers on flights from the U.S. to Britain who are ending their journey there, can travel with one carry-on bag plus a laptop or briefcase. But if you're transferring to another flight, for a destination within Britain or internationally, you are restricted to only one carry-on bag that's a maximum size of approximately 22 inches by 17.5 inches by 9.8 inches. No separate laptop cases or purses are allowed (a purse can be placed within the carry-on luggage).

• This one-bag security requirement, a British government rule, has tripped up many international travelers who are transferring at London's Heathrow Airport; they may be required to check an additional bag for a connecting flight. It's also greatly increased the volume of checked luggage — and baggage-handling problems — at Heathrow.

• Take note: The one carry-on bag rule also applies to passengers departing on all flights from Britain, including those to the U.S.

Get the details on carry-on regulations at the British Airways Web site and the Heathrow Airport site, www.heathrowairport.com/

The liquids rule Like the U.S., British and other European airports restrict the amount of liquids that can be taken in carry-on luggage (enforced after the foiled terror plot last year to blow up transatlantic planes with liquid explosives). Liquids in carry-on luggage must be packed in one small, clear, resealable plastic bag (such as a quart-sized bag like those used in U.S. air travel) per traveler. Containers cannot exceed 100 milliliters (about 3.3 ounces). Get British rules on liquids at the government's Department for Transport site

Kristin Jackson

U.S. travelers are suffering on miserably crowded and late planes this summer, with record delays for domestic flights.

Just be grateful you aren't flying through London's Heathrow Airport, where it's far worse, with passengers enduring monstrous lineups, mounds of lost luggage, and late or canceled flights.

This summer has been a perfect storm of security scares, bad weather, creaky infrastructure and understaffing problems at Heathrow, one of the world's busiest airports.

Conditions have become so poor that British political and business leaders in recent days have strongly criticized the airport, which is run by the privately-owned British Airports Authority and was designed to serve about 45 million passengers a year but now handles almost 70 million.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone told British media that poor service and infrastructure at Heathrow "shamed" the city.

Britain's economic minister, Kitty Ussher, has warned that the airport's delays and crowding threaten London's role as a financial center. (Some international business travelers, and vacationers, already avoid connecting flights at Heathrow, flying instead through Amsterdam or Paris.)

British Airways' chief executive, Willie Walsh, has called conditions at Heathrow unacceptable, telling the London newspaper The Independent that a luggage conveyor belt had broken down nine times over an 11-day period in June.

British Airways, the dominant airline at Heathrow, currently has the worst record among major European airlines for lost luggage, and suffers extensive flight delays. Lost luggage is piled in airport corridors and sometimes outside at Heathrow, and online forums bristle with comments from angry passengers whose suitcases have gone missing.

According to the Association of European Airlines, British Airways lost approximately 24 bags for each 1,000 passengers in the first quarter of 2007, compared to Air France's 14 and KLM's 17. (Overall, 85 percent of bags were eventually delivered to their owners.)

This summer, the delays and lost luggage have mounted at Heathrow — and Seattleite Neal Friedman has first-hand knowledge of the problems.

The Seattle attorney, his wife and two teenage sons flew on British Airways via Heathrow from Seattle to Switzerland, and from Rome back to Seattle. Four of their five flights were canceled during their three-week trip, adding days of stressful delays and expense to their vacation.

Friedman has flown British Airways several times before and praises the in-flight staff, but said this summer's trip was a nightmare. He estimates he spent an extra $3,500 on substitute flights, train tickets, car rental and hotel rooms because of the canceled flights.

Marooned at Heathrow after one of the cancellations — which were variously caused by a security scare that prompted an airport terminal evacuation and weather-related problems — Friedman said "There was no information, inadequate staffing, lines so long that one could not determine what one was standing in line for, and no hope for getting service for many, many hours, if at all."

Giving up on the massive airport lineups for rebooking flights, Friedman desperately phoned his travel agent in Seattle in the middle of the night; she was able to book them on a British Airways flight the next morning to Switzerland.

After spending a night at a London hotel — at their own expense — the family returned to Heathrow Airport only to find that flight canceled (in the chaotic fallout of the security scare) and more massive lines of frustrated travelers. Advised by a British Airways staffer that it could be days before they could get a Geneva flight, Friedman frantically devised a new plan to get to Switzerland to meet up with their third son; take the Chunnel train to Paris, rent a car and drive all night to Geneva — again, at their expense.

Although the family arrived in Switzerland days late and exhausted, the rest of their vacation was "fabulous," said Friedman — until it was time to fly home to Seattle from Rome, changing planes at Heathrow. Both British Airways flights were canceled (a freak summer storm had upended Heathrow schedules).

Managing to get a substitute flight from Rome to London, the family plunged into the Heathrow chaos. "In a repeat of our arrival, we were shepherded downstairs with thousands of other stranded travelers to go through customs and pick up our luggage ... and then to wait in a ridiculous line for hours in the bleak hope that when you got to the front the sales rep would be able to take care of us," said Friedman.

Finally snagging a sympathetic British Airways staffer who was doing crowd control, they were booked onto a flight to Los Angeles the next day — which meant another night in London (the airline provided a hotel voucher) and paying for a flight from L.A. to Seattle.

Frustrated by all the delays and extra expenses, Friedman hopes British Airways will reimburse him. And despite all the cancellations and changes, there was an unexpectedly happy ending; none of their luggage was lost.

For Heathrow, there's hope for the future: The airport will open its vast new Terminal 5 in March 2008 where British Airways will be based. It will be able to handle about 30 million passengers a year — hopefully cutting the chaos and congestion at Heathrow's current four terminals.

Kristin Jackson: kjackson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2271

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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