Glasgow: Rick’s Departure

As posted by Rick to the Irish Linux User’s Group social mailing list. Note for Americans: as of the time of this incident, 1 (UK) £ = $1.90.

I got a close look at yet another effect of the Bush Junta’s idiocy, this past few days over on that neighbouring island to your east.

My wife and I were visiting Glasgow for Interaction, the 63rd annual World Science Fiction Convention and 2005 Eurocon, and had an absolutely lovely time — as expected — right up to my ghastly realisation on Friday that my USA passport was suddenly missing.

I’ve been a frequent traveller for mumbledy-mumble decades since the age of 5, and have never lost a passport. I take the matter extremely seriously, expecially (but not solely) since stolen ones can be used to commit some rather horrific crimes. So, the very first thing I did was report the loss to the Strathclyde police, such that the passport would no longer be regarded as valid. For the same reason, I also attempted to telephone the closest USA consulate, in Edinburgh. Three times I called; three times I was dropped into voice-tree hell, and told “The operator is not available. Good bye.”

As the US Department of State Web site for that consulate (misleadingly) claims (http://www.usembassy.org.uk/scotland/) that the Edinburgh consulate can handle passport matters, my wife and I took the train to that town. I marched across town to a photographer who can meet the Department of State’s bizarre and exacting standards for passport photos, paid him ten quid for an instant set, marched back to rejoin my wife, and walked with her up to 3 Regent Terrace.

It was fortified like a bunker with concrete barriers closing off the (otherwise picturesque) street to vehicular traffic. Sufficient comment about Bush Junta policies, right there, I think.

We knocked on the door; Alan, a local employed at the consulate, answered, and said the consulate could not help us at all. We persisted, pointing out that the Web site claimed otherwise, that the office could not seem to bother answering its telephone, and that something needed to be done prior to our booked international travel home to near San Francisco, leaving 11:05 AM Monday from Glasgow International Airport. Alan left us for a moment, and checked with a consular official within. Time at this point was about 2 PM.

Soon, Alan beckoned us inside, had us run our bags through an X-ray machine, and then showed us to a waiting room fronting onto a bulletproof-glass wall separating us from the consular official, who in due course showed up there to talk with us. (I didn’t catch her name, but she was a young Yank, possibly in her 30s, with not a lot of international experience.)

The official apologised for the telephone troubles, which she said had been reported locally to the telephone utility but not yet fixed. She provided paperwork forms for passport replacement, but disclosed that the new passport could be issued only by the offices in Belfast or London, which alone have the required machinery. I pointed out that she could issue a letter of transit, permitting me to get home. She said that consulates were no longer permitted to issue those, and that airlines would no longer permit anyone on a US-bound flight without a passport. (The latter was obviously disingenuous: It’s very obvious that the airlines have implemented that requirement at USA insistence only, so attempting to pass the buck to them was somewhat dishonest.)

I pointed out that it was not possible to reach either the Belfast or London offices before their Friday closings. Passport service was not available on weekends, so the next opportunity would be Monday, 8:30 AM. And it would be wildly unlikely for me to complete that errand and then return to Glasgow in time for an 11:05 AM departure.

She said that I’d simply have to reschedule my flight. I pointed out that the booking was non-changeable, by its contract terms — but that airlines will generally waive that restriction if telephoned by a consular official and informed that the passenger needs to reschedule because of a passport replacement. She said she would immediately telephone the airlines and also e-mail the London embassy to tell them to expect my visit.

On Sunday, we telephoned British Airways to reschedule my flight, only to be told that they had _no_ record of any call from the consulate, and could help me only upon my paying an additional £900 or so for a new, one-way ticket: The consular official had evidently not bothered to call as promised. In some shock but no huge surprise, we declined the new-sale offer. Attempts to call Edinburgh again achieved no more success than before.

At 3 AM Monday morning, my wife and I rose and went to Glasgow International, so that I could get the very first flight (cost: £187) to Heathrow. I landed at 7:15, then ran for the Piccadilly Line Underground station, took that to Hyde Park Corner station (much unplanned delays), then ran for the embassy at Grosvenor Square, arriving around 8:45.

The London embassy was even more of a concrete-barracaded fortress than the Edinburgh one: They have a constant police patrol in addition to street closures, metal fencing, and the security checkpoint for visitors is out at the sidewalk, away from the building in a small trailer. After the security check, I walked in and faced a larger version of Edinburgh’s bulletproof-glass waiting room. I presented my paperwork and photos, paid US $97 for the application fees, and stressed to the (British-national) clerk that I still needed to have a consular official telephone British Airways.

He asserted that the embassy could not perform that service, which I knew to be untrue. I persisted; he admitted that he spoke only for what the passport-replacement staff could do, and said he’d ring someone up from Consular Services to talk to me. They had no record of any e-mail from Edinburgh.

Around 9:30 AM, a young woman arrived to talk with me through a different bulletproof glass window, and I explained that the call would be vital to not only my travel but also my wife Deirdre’s, as she was attempting to follow our original travel plans while I attempted to split mine off on a separate Passenger Number Record (PNR): If the matter were not handled correctly, Deirdre might find her connecting flight reservation cancelled because I (but not she) had failed to show up for the first leg.

The official was willing to call BA, and did so… only to be put into a voice waiting queue without any indication of projected wait time. Fully 40 minutes later — well past 10 AM — a British Airways reservations clerk finally came on. The official made the plea, which BA accepted, and passed the telephone over to me to arrange details.

BA were unwilling to change my routing, so I would have to return to Glasgow. Moreover, I would be unable to travel until the next 11:05 AM daily flight, Tuesday. However, BA waived all change fees, for which I was quite grateful. They were unable to reserve a seat for the second leg of my travel (Chicago to San Francisco) on American Airways, as it was booked full, but told me I could attempt a standby reservation upon arrival in Chicago, and meanwhile booked me on an available, similar flight four hours later.

The BA clerk admitted that she had inadvertantly deleted my wife’s reservations information despite my plea that she carefully avoid doing that and please, please split the PNR. However, she claimed that she’d fixed this problem by the time our call was done at around 10:40. (This turned out to be incorrect: Deirdre found out in Chicago that they’d cancelled her reservation and claimed they couldn’t fix their problem: She insisted, and they eventually did.)

I thanked the BA clerk and Consular Services official, walked up to Marble Arch, and hiked about 8km along Oxford Street, Holborn, Holborn Viaduct, etc. out to Liverpool Street Station, where I took the Stansted Express train to Stansted Airport, then took EasyJet (cost: £ 90) back to Glasgow International, took the bus back into town, helped Interaction pack out everything and then helped finish those troublesome supplies of Real Ale at the closing parties, then took the airport bus back at nearly midnight, slept (fitfully) on the chairs, and read Iain [M.] Banks novels and tourist brochures until 11:05. Chicago O’Hare airport lived up to my low expectations: Amercian Airlines could not fit me on any planes in the first few hours because they had oversold all their flights (as usual). At around 20:10 Tuesday, I was finally allowed to board the delayed 19:20 flight I was booked on, and (finally) fell asleep in my seat.

Some minutes later, the pilot announced that the plane seemed to have hydraulics problems, and that everyone would need to debark and march to the other end of O’Hare’s domestic-flights terminal, to await a replacement plane. Half an hour later, the pilot announced that that plane had a suspicious smell of burnt electrical components in the back, and we’d have to wait some more. Another 30 minutes, and he said they’d given up on fixing that plane, and we’d have to walk to a third gate. An hour later, we were finally able to board. Further delays followed, and I reached San Francisco International around 1:30 AM Wednesday — having been up almost all of two days straight.

Despite all this brouhaha, we had on balance a wonderful time in Glasgow, and look forward to returning — perhaps for the 2006 Eastercon in April (the 57th British National Science Fiction Convention). ILUGgers might consider doing likewise, for a change of pace.