As borders were closing around the world, a couple of Canadians in Portugal became desperate to return home to Toronto before things got too crazy and flights were potentially canceled. On March 22nd, Toronto Travel Manager, Shannon Kelly, had the challenge of getting two of her clients on the first flight out of Madeira (they were there on a personal trip). If you don’t know Madeira, it’s a small island belonging to Portugal that is located off the West coast of Morocco and famous for the Christiano Ronaldo airport which is literally on the coastline.
Shannon’s clients were young at heart but at least one of them was carrying a passport that showed the birth year of 1946, equating him to 73 or 74 years old. An ideal flight would have been direct from Madeira to Toronto but that wasn’t an option. The second choice was a comfortable transfer through a European city but, unfortunately, either nothing was available, or the connections were too lengthy (meaning it would have required the travellers to overnight in a country that was experiencing rapid growth in COVID-19 cases every day). The only option available that left immediately to Canada was through London, with one catch! Shannon had to book the travellers on two separate tickets – one from Madeira to Gatwick flying British Airways and then one from Heathrow to Toronto on Air Canada.....with only three hours to connect and change airports!
How easy is it to transfer Gatwick to Heathrow?
If you’ve never been to London, it’s important to note that the distance between Gatwick and Heathrow is 45 miles (72 kms). So, that’s about an hour on a good day with zero traffic. But there is always traffic in London – even amidst a pandemic. Plus, you also need to factor in UK immigration when landing.
Looking back on the situation, Shannon wasn’t even positive that the clients would make it. “I was totally nervous for them, but I didn’t want it to show. I called our Airfare Experts in house to get their opinion on whether it was possible for anyone to make that connection and we discussed it in detail. In the end, it came down to two things. The first was that there were simply no other options available, and the second was that I asked myself whether I would want my own grandparents to risk a trip like this. I decided that I did. The safest option was to get these guys home, ASAP!”
So, the travellers went for it!
Shannon advised them of some key options to improve their chances of making the connection. Firstly, she arranged wheelchair service for them to be ready at the gate so that they would be whisked through Gatwick terminal quickly and also bypass any long immigration lines, then she also requested that their luggage be tagged as priority so that they wouldn’t have to wait for their bags to be delayed on the carousel. Finally, she advised the travellers to make it crystal clear to the flight crew that they’d need to deplane first. The airline crew were excellent and requested all other travellers to delay deplaning so that these two travellers could get out quickly. Often other travellers ignore these requests, but this time it appeared as though there was unanimous support for these two.
The clients made it through immigration and Shannon had arranged a premium car service with the driver instructed to wait inside the terminal with clear directions that needed to be followed. The driver had to find the two travellers with a well-marked sign with their names, have the car parked close to the exit and assist with bags.
This was all happening in Europe during mid-morning, so it was very early morning in Toronto and Shannon was up watching the flight times online to make sure that all flights were leaving and arriving at their scheduled times. She didn’t want to add additional stress to the travellers by asking them to check in with her but assumed that no news was good news. However, just to be sure, she'd been working on hotel options near Heathrow and looking into backup flights.
Did they make their connection?
Once off the plane, the travellers were able to locate their driver who got them and their luggage into the car and whisked them safely over to Heathrow with minutes to spare. After a quick check-in, they cleared security, got transported to their gate and were able to board their flight home to Toronto.
All in all, it was an emotional and stressful experience for the travellers but also for Shannon who had been working at all hours throughout the COVID crisis handling these passengers but also countless others. When the clients finally touched down in Canada and were home safely, Shannon was able to connect with them to make sure they were ok. She was delighted to hear that they were safe, home and able to rest after a whirlwind trip.
One final thought from Shannon: “When I got the email from Heathrow, saying that they had made it in time, it was the best feeling! I was quite worried about these travellers, just like I would worry about my own family members desperate to get home. The stress that comes from situations like this can be over-bearing and I was just so relieved that we'd been able to help them get home."