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Passengers livid after air traffic control glitch piles up Heathrow traffic

By Florence Davey-Attlee and Chuck Thompson, CNN
updated 4:54 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Air traffic delays create long lines of angry passengers at Heathrow Airport
  • One stranded passenger calls the effort to rebook flights "disorganized"
  • A Heathrow official says the airport can't predict how long delays will last

(CNN) -- Though the air traffic control system for London airspace has been restored after a technical failure, angry passengers forced to deal with long delays and other hassles reported scenes of disorganization and "disaster" as a result of interruptions to their travel plans.

In Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5, which handles mostly British Airways flights and from which many of the airport's canceled flights were scheduled to take off, stranded passengers still stood in huge queues Friday night. Others sat in postures of dejection, some anxiously eyeing crowded power outlets as charges on their mobile phones began to fade.

People queue in the luggage hall of Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in London, Friday, Dec. 12, 2014.
People queue in the luggage hall of Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in London, Friday, Dec. 12, 2014.

Few airport or airline employees seemed to be offering information as would-be fliers waited for baggage drop, check-in and -- for those who had missed their flights or whose flights were canceled -- hotel rooms provided by British Airways.

Lionel Leclercq, who arrived at the airport at 4 p.m. for a 6:20 p.m. flight to Brussels, said because the airline had stopped taking baggage, he wasn't able to board his flight because he had a suitcase.

"They are so disorganized. ... I had to sit and watch my flight take off just because there was no one available to take my luggage," Leclercq told CNN. "Now I have no way to get out tonight because the queues are so long."

Passengers needing to rebook flights were being asked to call a hotline, but several passengers told CNN they had to wait for extended periods on hold with little success.

At Terminal 5 baggage claim -- hundreds of unclaimed bags sitting beside carousels -- a baggage handler told CNN that people have been leaving the airport without collecting their bags.

"Those people expect their bags to be delivered to their homes," said the baggage handler.

Such had been the lengthy wait for checked luggage that many people seemed to have given up waiting.

"It's pot luck, you can wait five minutes to get your bag or five hours," said baggage handler.

Uncharacteristically, several arriving flights were not immediately assigned carousels.

Information bottleneck

A woman who asked to be called only "angry British Airways passenger" was kept waiting in Paris for more than an hour and half to take off for London.

As a result, she missed her connection to Washington, D.C., and was livid because she paid $7,500 dollars for a business-class seat and "now I'm being asked to queue in line with everyone else for a hotel."

"It's a mess, it's a disaster," said the woman, adding that passengers were given little information. "The worst thing is, no one's helping."

The reason for that, according to Angela Gittens, director-general of Montreal-based Airports Council International, may be because Heathrow officials might not know much more than the passengers themselves.

"This is not an air traffic problem that originated at Heathrow, but in the en route environment, which makes it much more difficult to find out what's happening," Gittens told CNN.

How long will those mobile batteries last?
How long will those mobile batteries last?

"Although it's happening to (Heathrow) and they're dealing with it, it's not their situation to fix, so the airport may not have that much information in terms of how long the situation is going to last, which is what passengers want to know.

"They just deal with accepting (the information) and aircraft that are sent their way."

Meanwhile, intercom announcements repeated at Heathrow stating that the "system is completely restored and we are working with all airlines to minimize the delays" were doing little to soothe frayed nerves of many passengers, with reports of flight delays of as long as six and a half hours.

A Heathrow spokeswoman told CNN the airport couldn't predict how long delays would last or what the impact into Saturday might be.

"At the moment, we're trying to get as many people away (Friday night) as we can," the spokeswoman said.

CNN's Nic Robertson also contributed to this report.

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