Considering the number of flights I take – and have taken over the last 19 years or so – I’ve had relatively few big problems. Leaving aside small delays, which are a fairly regular occurrence no matter which airline or route you fly, I can think of only two late cancellations, one missed connection and two unexpected diversions. That’s not bad out of well over a thousand booked flights, both within Europe and intercontinental. Of the problem flights, every one was unique – there is no common thread of inefficiency or incompetence, so this piece is not in any way a stick to beat the airlines with. Indeed, three were down to the weather, acts of God, over which no airline (indeed no person alive) can have any control.
I had one missed connection by courtesy of the UAE Royal family. I had spent a pleasant couple of weeks in Abu Dhabi and was returning via Paris. For a pleasant change I even had a business class seat, and had settled down with my welcome drink, a good book and the music library on my phone awaiting take off. Departure time came and went with no sign of the engines being started or the doors closed. There was no announcement from the flight deck, so we were completely oblivious to what the problem might be. Nearly an hour passed, and I was getting a bit concerned, given my transfer time in Charles de Gaulle (not the most passenger friendly airport in Europe) was under two hours, and I knew I had a terminal change to make. I asked a flight attendant what was happening, and explained my concern. She was very apologetic, and explained that there was a late passenger arrival. I suggested politely it was a little unreasonable to hold the flight this long for a single passenger….. She merely smiled and said it was “a very special passenger”.
He arrived ten minutes later, sweeping on board in his flowing robes and accompanied by his personal assistant and probably two wives, turning left into the First Class cabin. And off we went. We made up some time en route and arrived in Paris fifteen minutes before my connection to Warsaw was due to take off. I had spoken again to the flight attendant, who promised me I would be met by an airline rep at the gate and hurried through – but first of course we had to wait for the Prince and his entourage to leave, and he was in no hurry. Then it was my turn: the crew held everyone else back and escorted me off the plane, where I was indeed greeted by the rep. He was very helpful in getting me through the security and off to the other terminal, then through a second security check, but it was all to no avail. As I ran, sweating, to the gate I could see my flight taxiing out. The airline (this leg was Air France) were very good, and re-booked me on another flight leaving in three hours and gave me a food voucher, so apart from arriving home much later than planned it was actually quite a pleasant journey.
Both late cancellations were weather related and involved pre-Christmas flights, one from Rome to Warsaw on a Friday evening. It had been another cool but sunny day in the Eternal City and I was looking forward to getting home for the Christmas break. I got to the gate in good time and found every other passenger was either a priest or a nun. Again, flight time came and went, this time with no sign of the plane. Then the gate agent started making an announcement, in Polish. Within one sentence she was besieged by a horde of angry and shouting clerics waving boarding passes and all yelling at once (as is the Polish way). I left them to it, having guessed I would not be flying that night.
Eventually, they all left, grumbling in a most un-Christian manner, and I approached the gate agent, who by this time looked stressed and exhausted. I politely asked what was happening. Tearfully, the poor girl explained the inbound flight from Warsaw had failed to materialise because the city was in the grip of a blizzard and there was nothing she could do. I smiled and said no problem, what about checked bags? She directed me to the baggage hall, wished me a Happy Christmas and bolted. So I ambled off to get my bag, and while doing so called my company travel people and explained the problem. Within 10 minutes they called me back with a room at the airport hotel and a flight booking via Munich for 7:30 the next morning. By the time I got to the hotel desk, the e-mailed flight booking was waiting for me. Painless.
I had a good meal and an early night, and caught my flight the next morning. It left on time, but Munich was snowy and windy, so we had to amble around over the city for 20 minutes – and my tight connection time was rapidly disappearing. But Lufthansa excelled themselves. We parked out on the apron, so faced a bus ride to the terminal, but at the foot of the stairs stood a rep with my name on a card. He led me to a minibus, and escorted me to the terminal entrance, where we were met by a security team, who jumped in the back of the bus, checked my passport, wished me Happy Christmas, left, and then the bus sped off to my waiting flight to Warsaw. I was the last passenger to board – and we left on time. Service with a smile. And I still have no idea what happened to the angry clerics.
The other late cancellation also featured Warsaw, a blizzard and a pre-Christmas flight. It happened a few years before the Roman one, before Warsaw joined the EU so security was much tighter at Okęcie airport than it is now. It was also only a few months after 9/11….. I had been living in the country for over a year, and had a very pleasant apartment in town (paid for by the bank where I worked). On the Friday I was not working, but was booked on the late afternoon flight back to Heathrow, the last of the day, along with perhaps a dozen work colleagues. The snow had started the night before, but was very light and no big deal. I took the Metro out to the apartment I had recently moved from to return the keys to the owner, then returned to my new flat for my bags. While I was underground, the snow strengthened to a full-scale blizzard and the taxi ride out to the airport took much longer than expected.
By the time I got there, the crowd around the check-in was chaotic – it turned out half the people were waiting for the preceding flight that had still not left. No-one seemed to know what was going on, so I joined my colleagues at the front of the queue and started chatting. Then, without warning, the destination screen showing the BA flight details went blank, and then replaced by another flight with another airline. We asked what was happening, and were told that check-in was suspended, we needed to go away and wait until it re-opened and then come back. We pointed out that this would mean losing our places in the queue, and the gate agent merely shrugged her shoulders and made to walk off.
One of my colleagues suggested they took our names and queue positions, so that we could be prioritised – this was before the advent of on-line check-in and seat selection – as we all had BA Executive Club cards of various colours (mostly Gold) and business class seats (those were the days!), but again the girl had no interest in helping us.
“Go,” she said, brusquely and in fractured English. “Is not my problem.”
It was like waving a red rag to a bull – cue much shouting and anger. By this time, passengers for the other flight were arriving and demanding attention, as well as our two BA flights-worth of passengers, all desperate to get home for Christmas Eve tomorrow. So we all sat down on the floor, and refused to move until we had been guaranteed our places in the queue. The ground staff were going crazy, yelling and threatening all kinds of sanctions, but we stayed put. Then a couple of security gorillas in full body armour and toting machine guns strolled over, demanding to know what was going on. Amid much arm waving, the ground staff explained – presumably calling us trouble-makers, Communists, terrorists and every other epithet available in the Polish language. We remained sitting on the floor, encouraging each other.
“They won’t shoot us, don’t worry.” At least, we hoped that was the case.
“It’s the airline’s fault!” Which it patently wasn’t.
“We’re not making any fuss, just protecting our rights.” Ummmm – let me think about that.
And so on.
The guards looked at us, big smiles on their faces, shrugged their shoulders, said something else to the gate agents, then walked off, clearly completely disinterested. The gate agent picked up the phone, dialled a number, and had a heated and unintelligible conversation with someone. She sat down again, arms crossed, glaring at us. The screen flickered, and the flight disappeared. Pause a minute. Back came the earlier BA flight. We all stood up again, as the announcement was made.
“Flight BA351 to Heathrow at 12:50 now open for check-in.” It was now almost 3:00. “Flight BA 354 to Heathrow at 4:50...” (our flight) “….cancelled. Have four seats available, please contact…..”
Cue more chaos as a dozen Exec Club members leapt forward to claim those four seats. I was pushed to one side, and missed out. Gold Card or not, I was not on that flight. In the event all four seats went to lower graded Blue Card members who had sharper elbows. I got to the desk next, and asked what was going to happen to all of us who were left. The girl shrugged her shoulders – clearly she wasn’t bothered.
“Tell you what, I said. “I have an apartment in town. If you can check me in to the first flight out tomorrow, with a decent window seat, right now, I’ll go back home and sleep there. One less passenger for you to worry about.” She hesitated. “Please,” I said. “It’s Christmas.”
She shook her head, but held her hand out. “Passport”.
Done. I got a cab back to my flat, through a blizzard showing no signs of letting up, and relaxed, boarding card for the 7:50 flight next morning in my pocket. I slept well, had a pizza and a beer from the fridge, and next morning headed back to the airport. Blue sky, no snow but bitterly cold. The flight left on time and I was at Heathrow by 9:30. As I walked through the Baggage Hall my mobile rang – it was one of my colleagues.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“Heathrow. And you?”
He was not happy. It turned out the delayed 12:50 flight had taxied out to the end of the runway and sat there, engines running, for an hour waiting for the snow to stop and the runway to be cleared. Neither happened. The plane returned to the terminal and everyone was re-booked on flights later today, then bussed off to hotels for the night. It all took until about 9:00. No-one had been on the morning flight, and most of them on the 4:50. So Christmas Eve was basically cancelled. I did laugh.
And a postscript to that affair. It turned out to be the last Christmas I spent in England. When I flew back to Warsaw on New Years Eve (I was going to a ball with some friends) I found to my surprise that my girlfriend of two months had moved her stuff into my apartment. 16 years later, we are still together, married and still very much in love, with two beautiful children. Funny how things turn out sometimes….
And my diversions?
The first was a couple of years ago. It was the day’s last KLM flight from Amsterdam to Warsaw, due to land about 10 in the evening. The flight was uneventful, until we started circling somewhere close to Warsaw. It turned out the entire city was blanketed in a fog so thick the airport had been closed – even instrument landings were forbidden. So we turned around and flew back to Poznan. There we waited on the plane for another half an hour or so before it was decided the fog wasn’t going to lift, and we were de-planed and taken to the terminal. The airport is a small regional one, and evidently not used to having an Airbus A-320’s entire passenger complement (maybe 170 of us, plus crew) descend on them at this time of day. All the cafes and bars (three of them) were closed, and there were no more than a dozen people in the building, most of them cleaners.
There followed the usual Polish chaos, with one poor young guy who worked there being badgered by a hundred plus angry Poles. It was like Rome all over again, but this time the conflict took place on the pavement outside the terminal and there was not a priest or nun in sight. Eventually we were told buses were beings arranged to take us to Warsaw, but they were having to drive some distance to get to the airport so there would be a delay. Well, yes – over two hours. They eventually arrived at about 2:30 a.m. - and both vehicles carried Warsaw number plates. It turned out there were no local coaches available at short notice and in the middle of the night, so these two had been summoned from the capital just under 200 miles away.
Boarding was, of course, a free for all, with everyone pushing and shoving to get on first and bag the best seats. Bags were left on the pavement while our friendly neighbourhood airport worker tried to load them with no idea whose bag was whose. I would not be in the least surprised if some were left behind or given to the wrong people at the end of the drive. I was travelling with hand baggage only (I had left most of my stuff in an apartment I was using in Amsterdam) so had no problem. The drive to Warsaw took another three hours or so down an increasingly foggy motorway, and we were eventually dropped at the airport at 6:30 in the morning. I had phoned ahead and my wife was waiting for me – in bed and asleep by 7.
And my second diversion was this week – and it got me thinking along the lines that have led to this little set of traveller’s tales. This time the route was Warsaw to Luxembourg, the morning flight on LOT. With departure at 7:40 this always means a brutal 5:15 alarm call, so I try to sleep on the flight – I don’t usually manage it, but this week I was lucky and was out like a light within a minute or two of take off.
A pilot’s announcement woke me two hours later, advising us that Luxembourg airport was closed due to bad weather so we were diverting to Dusseldorf, some 250 km from our destination. We would be given more information when we were there. We landed in brilliant sunshine, a lovely late winter morning, not a cloud in the sky. I called the office to let them know I was running late, and was told by a surprised boss that it was a lovely sunny morning in Luxembourg…...all most odd. I later found out from a mate who lives a mile or so from the airport that there had been a blizzard at 8 that morning, and lacking much in the way of cold-weather gear there had been no option but to temporarily shut the shop.
Anyway, after half an hour’s inactivity, the captain made another announcement – we were returning to Warsaw. We were all invited to remain on the plane and when we got home would be booked on the next available flight back to Luxembourg, but with no guarantees we would not encounter the same problem. Alternatively, we were welcome to leave there and then and make our own way to Luxembourg, but in this case as it was personal choice, the airline basically washed its hands of us. I asked the senior flight attendant if we would be reimbursed our additional travel costs (i.e. train fares) if we decided to make our own way, and she was indifferent – we could try but it was probably not possible.
My view was that since every flight on this route, no matter the day or departure time, was invariably full – typically no more than a handful of empty seats, if any – it might take all week to get re-booked. So I decided to leave, catch a train and send the bill to LOT. I would argue about it later on. With a distance to travel of only a couple of hundred kilometres, it shouldn’t take that long. I got that wrong..
We bussed into the terminal (perhaps a dozen people made the same call), and hopped on the monorail to the main terminal where there was a Deutsche Bundesbahn station. I bought a first class ticket (figuring I had more chance of a seat that way) on a train departing in 10 minutes, with a single change in Koblenz. Simple. At work not much after lunchtime.
My geography was way off. Koblenz was a two hour train ride, that wound its way south easterly along the Rhine valley and stopped at Cologne and Bonn on the way. Then a half hour wait for a connection that headed pretty much south-westerly, much of it alongside the Moselle river and through some rather beautiful hills that were covered along one side of the valley by mile after mile of vineyards. It stopped at a further 13 stations – an express train it was not! The journey was probably closer to 350 kilometres than 250, and took over 4 ½ hours. But, I have to say, it was one of the more pleasant train journeys I’ve had over the years.
DB are, as you would expect, highly efficient and their trains run strictly to timetable. My train pulled out of Dusseldorf airport precisely on time, and kept its schedule to the second all the way to Koblenz. My seat was comfortable, and I enjoyed watching the views outside my window unfold. I couldn’t help but think that much of this area had been devastated by the combined might of the RAF and USAF during the closing months of the War, as the Allies sought to destroy the Nazi industrial machine located along the Rhine and Ruhr rivers. Dusseldorf itself had been badly damaged, Cologne virtually wiped from the map, and Koblenz too suffered huge damage. And yet within a couple of decades the cities had been largely rebuilt, the network of roads and railway lines that served the industrial zones and municipalities relaid, and factories restored to full productivity. The Rhine valley remains an industrial heartland, and on both sides of the main line there was a constant parade of chimneys and industrial zones in view.
From Koblenz I was on a regional train with double decker carriages, so settled into an upstairs seat – the view is better. The first half of the journey took us through scenery that reminded me very much of a favourite route of mine, between Zurich and Geneva. There is a section on that trip where you emerge from a high tunnel and see the whole of Lake Geneva stretching away on the left, and high banked vineyards on the hillsides to the right as the line runs down to Lausanne. Between Koblenz and Bullay, the country was very much like that, except that the Moselle river was to the left instead. We passed through a number of small villages nestling between the river and the vineyards, all with narrow winding streets and small half-timbered houses. There was hardly any traffic on the roads there, and few people, but the villages looked prosperous and well-kept. Each had a big wooden gasthaus (that’s guest house) with outside terraces or gardens. I thought that I could happily lose myself in this neglected corner of Germany and lead a nice peaceful life with my books and my writing and beautiful countryside for exercise….
Beyond Bullay to the Luxembourg border just beyond Trier the land changed and steep hills gave way a greener and more rolling countryside that reminded me of the North Downs in Kent, around Sevenoaks and down through my home town of Edenbridge to the Sussex borders – well ordered green fields cut through by narrow winding lanes and lots of woodland – and this remained the view for the rest of the ride to the outskirts of Luxembourg city. I had seen it described as a Tolkienian landscape, the Shire in middle Europe as opposed to Middle Earth – that’s not too far from the mark. I could settle happily there, too – although I would guess, given the affluence of both Germany and Luxembourg compared to that of Yours Truly, that is highly unlikely. Worth planning a week of touring there in better, warmer weather though…..
And that was it. We pulled into Luxembourg Central station, bang on time at 15:35, and there was hardly any snow. It was very cold, though, and on the final few kilometres between Sandweiler and the city, quite close to the airport, lay the deepest snow I had seen all day. But it was still no more than a dusting, so I still have no idea why the airport had been closed just a few hours earlier. From what I understand from work colleagues, it must have re-opened while we were sitting on the tarmac at Dusseldorf…...a 10 minute delay leaving Warsaw would have avoided the whole affair.
Which would have been a shame.
So is there any point to the foregoing 3700 odd words?
Well, nothing Earth-shattering, to be honest. It’s a collection of reminiscences from my Travelling Life that demonstrate that, when things do go wrong and your travel plans are disrupted by reasons beyond your control, there is always some kind of compensation if you just go with it.
There is no point in getting angry and yelling at the unfortunate groundstaff when you are hit by a cancellation – it’s not their fault. For all their anger and abuse, I would wager that I was back in Warsaw long before that planeful of priests and nuns from Rome. I know I was home in England well before my queue jumping colleagues that snowy Christmas, and my holiday plans for Christmas Eve were unaffected – and I had the added bonus of sleeping well in my own flat and listening to my own choice of music, rather than tossing and turning in a hotel bed watching badly dubbed cable tv. At other times, I was helped and looked after well by airline staff and had the bonus of a meal on them.
Put simply, no matter how meticulous your planning, no matter how early you arrive at the airport, no matter how much you pay for your tickets, sometimes things will go wrong. Getting angry at innocent people, finger pointing and laying blame on airline staff who are only doing their job, and screaming abuse at all and sundry does nothing to change that – it only increases your stress levels and is therefore unhealthy (as well as unbalanced).
Relax. Have a coffee. Or a beer. Call the wife to let her know you’re ok and see how she and kids are. Take your time to decide what to do – whether re-book to the next flight, catch a train or get a hotel room (or a combination thereof) – and then do it. If doing that takes you somewhere new and unexpected, embrace it and enjoy the experience.
Life is too short to get upset by such small irritations!