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Sang Tan  /  AP
Passengers queue outside Terminal 4 of London's Heathrow airport on Friday, Dec. 22, 2006.
By TODAY Travel Editor
updated 3/14/2007 12:46:41 PM ET 2007-03-14T16:46:41
COMMENTARY

Perhaps you've seen the news that the European Union is moving toward liberalizing air travel across the North Atlantic by agreeing to open air routes to Heathrow Airport from the United States. The new “open skies” agreement should mean changes in routes and airlines starting this coming October, and many are predicting that air fares from London to New York could be slashed. (Currently, only American, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic dominate the London-New York routes from Heathrow).

It sounds like good news, with more U.S. airlines having access to Heathrow. But is it?

First, Heathrow is already overcrowded. It is not surprising that a growing number of flights are delayed arriving into or departing from the airport. Congestion is another word to describe Heathrow.

But that's just for starters.

If the true definition of a great travel experience is one where you get to keep your options, then you might want to avoid flying through Heathrow. And, at the same time, you might also want to avoid flying British Airways.

Why? Consider these recent events.

First, there were all the new security rules enacted last Aug. 10. The British Airports Authority first prohibited passengers from bringing ANYTHING on their flights. Just one clear plastic bag with your passport. Nothing else. Everything had to be checked. Then the rules were “relaxed” in order to let passengers bring their laptops. But now, it's gotten worse. And it applies to all British airports.

The rule: you are allowed to bring on only one carry-on bag. Period. And this has created confusion, frustration and downright anger among U.S. passengers flying through Heathrow en route to connecting flights in Europe and other destinations.

Last week, I was connecting through London en route to St. Petersburg, Russia. My originating flight was American Airlines. I boarded the flight with my briefcase, containing my laptop, and a second carry-on bag — an open canvas tote bag with mail and magazines. I had no  problem boarding the American flight from Los Angeles to New York, and then, the American flight that would bring me to London.

Everything was fine, until I left the plane at Heathrow and transferred from Terminal 3 to my British Airways flight to Russia, leaving from Terminal 1. I had to go through security at the next terminal, and that's when I was stopped. I was denied entry into the terminal because of the second carry on bag. There are no exceptions. And the most absurd part of this: No one at the security checkpoints could tell me a valid security reason for the no second carry-on bag rule.

My only solution: I had to officially enter Britain, clear customs and immigration, and then go back to departures, check in for the British Airways flight (for which I already had a boarding pass). And what to do with the open canvas tote bag? A British Airways check in clerk had a large plastic zippered bag for me. I could check that in for the flight (which meant I now had three bags checked on the flight). I then went through customs and immigration again, cleared security (with one bag) and flew to Russia.

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I was lucky. I had enough time between flights to go through those motions. But when another passenger, Wendy Murdock, the chief product officer for Mastercard worldwide, who was also flying to St. Petersburg to attend the same travel conference, was also denied entrance to the terminal (she was connecting on another flight from New York, and her “second” bag was a garment bag containing her formal dress), she missed her flight. So she simply gave up, turned around, and flew back to New York. I don't think the Mastercard folks would describe that moment as “priceless.”

Then there was my return flight from Russia to London and then on to New York. For my return flight (where I would be overnighting in London), I packed the third plastic bag inside one of my checked bags. And the next morning, when I was flying to New York, I showed up at Heathrow with my two checked bags and my one carry on bag, confident I wasn't violating the one carry-on bag rule. So far so good. Not really. American Airlines then declared that my two checked bags were now overweight (because of the carry on bag packed inside the checked bag) and wanted to charge me $186! I negotiated the price down to 26 pounds (about $52). Uggh!

To compound matters, came the British Airways announcement that, effective immediately, coach passengers can only check one bag on BA flights. Just one bag on flights that are, by definition long haul! If that's not absurd, then there's the real insult: If you want to check a second bag, the airline can charge you as much as 232 pounds. That's right…pounds! That's $464! Turning the airline experience into draconian a la carte nickel and diming may generate some short term revenue, but it will engender long term ill-will, and the market could shift.

I later found out that many of my fellow passengers actually rebooked their return U.S.  flights through Frankfurt and Paris just to avoid the baggage rules and Heathrow.

For the moment — and thankfully — no other European airport has enacted the one carry on bag rule. And no other intercontinental airline has imposed the one checked bag rule. And so, for the moment, I am invoking the let's not be stupid rule: I am avoiding both Heathrow and British Airways until  the airport — and the airline — embrace some common sense and service approaches. A la carte is definitely NOT a la smart.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY's travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com.

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