There is a long-standing joke that I am a curse to trains. Whenever I board a train on another line it is almost inevitable that there will quickly be service updates about severe delays on that line. It is only on my own line that things run smoothly, anywhere else and we’ll all be grinding to a halt. I am even sometimes accused of disrupting lines I wasn’t even on with friends texting to ask why I’m holding up their journey home. This situation appears to have escalated somewhat.
In a miracle of timing, shifts, rest days and annual leave I have managed to score FIVE whole days off this Christmas. Traindrivers’ leave is allocated on a rota with the only guaranteed day off each year being Christmas Day. Every seven years or so we are allocated two weeks of leave over the Christmas period but every other year it’s a case of scrambling round, begging to swap rest days, trying to slot in one of our odd leave days and generally hoping that we will get time at either Christmas or New Year. So I was hugely pleased to see how much time I’d get to spend with my family in Snowy Parts – usually I fly on the 24th and return on the 26th which leaves a fairly miserly portion of time with them. But this year I was minted with leave and made my travel plans with a cheery heart. Tickets to Edinburgh were duly booked and from there I could continue on to Snowy Parts by road.
Then came the threat of strike action by British Airways. This news was very disheartening as the first day of the proposed strikes was on the very day I was due to travel. Even if the strike petered out it seemed likely that everyone would at least not turn up for the first day. And with it being so close to Christmas it would be expensive to make alternative arrangements even assuming there were seats anywhere. Fortunately I managed to get a seat on a train for Christmas Eve. It left at ridiculous o’ clock but at least nobody was striking on that route. And then BA somehow managed to overturn the strike through dubious legal means and my flights were back on. Then it started snowing and everything looked wobbly again. Those of you who know me know how careful I am to always have a back-up plan. I decided to go for the flight but keep the train ticket as an emergency with poggs being given the secret codes to cancel it as soon as I contacted him from Snowy Parts (on the grounds that the train company could then resell it to some other poor sod).
OK, that’s the preramble. This bit is the story. Before you begin, go and get a cup of tea. It’s a long one…
When I got to the airport I was a little concerned as it had been closed at 1900 on the 21st due to the weather and my flight was supposed to leave at 1930. But everything looked to be running smoothly when I arrived other than the people who built Terminal 5 at Heathrow forgot to put adequate signage up. Seriously, I agree that it’s a beautiful, stunningly impressive bit of architechture but don’t just suddenly stop putting signs up for departures. You need to put them up all the way to departures otherwise people are just left bumbling around two floors below where they need to be.
After a bit of meandering I finally found where I was supposed to go and was checked in by the lovely staff and directed to the bag-drop queue which was two hours long. This bit actually went reasonably well because I only waited about twenty minutes before I got to an hour before my flight left and I was hoiked out of the queue and fast-tracked. I must note this for the future! Don’t arrive too early! I was whizzed through the usual procedures and eventually made it through to the vast departure area. Then things got a bit tricky as my flight was not assigned to a gate. I guessed it would be leaving from the same gate as the previous flight which was running over an hour late. So far not too alarming as these things are to be expected given the weather and the time of year.
My guess proved right and about ten minutes after take-off time we were bussed out to the plane. Yay. About half an hour went by and the captain piped up explaining that there was ice on the wings and we needed to get them defrosted before we could safely fly. He’d had a bit of a whinge to the airport authorities but it seems that Heathrow don’t have sufficient de-icing trucks so we’d just have to wait. At that point we were 16th in the queue. I settled down to read my book.
After around forty minutes the captain spoke up again. He was very apologetic and seemed genuinely frustrated at the length of the delay. He explained again that we were waiting for the de-icing trucks to clear the wings and that we were currently number 10 in the queue but that we would definitely be flying to Edinburgh. After some hasty calculating I worked out that it was taking around 7 minutes to de-ice a plane so logically it would be around 70 minutes before we could hope to see a de-icing truck. I phoned my family and advised my father not to leave Snowy Parts for the airport as we had at least two hours before I got there. Then I went back to my book with occasional worried glances outside. Not only was it still very cold and icy but there was intermittent rain and a freezing fog seemed to be setting in. None of which were good conditions for take-off.
In a freak break with tradition my arithmetic proved correct and an hour and ten minutes later the captain bing-bonged us again. This time he didn’t know quite where the de-icing truck was and he didn’t give us our number in the queue but did assure us we would be flying as soon as we were de-iced and that he hoped this would be soon. I felt for him at this point as I know how hard it is to try to communicate with passengers when nobody in charge will give you any information. But he did his best, was very apologetic and arranged for us to get a drink. Apparently there are some complex rules around this which involved him having to ask UK Customs for permission to give away drinks on the ground. Unfortunately all they were giving away were tiny cans of soda so I declined as I was feeling cold and I’d rather have hot coffee once we took off. This proved to be a poor decision on my part.
After another half hour or so the captain spoke to us again. He had no news for us but he was offering tours of the cockpit. As there was an amazingly well-behaved school group on board the cockpit soon became inundated with teenagers but it left me in peace to read and text friends. Anything to beat the boredom as time ticked by. (I’m not really sure what was going on with that school party as one of the older cabin crew seemed to take against them and was constantly snapping at them in a way she wouldn’t have dared to do to an adult and over non-issues. To their credit the kids were nothing but polite to her in return and were no trouble whatsoever to other passengers.) This proved a useful entertainment and through texting, friends were able to update this blog and a forum I use with the events so far. It also meant I had the ability to order pizza for 200 as I hadn’t eaten since a late lunch at 3pm and it was now approaching midnight and all that BA had offered were small cans of soda. 😦
Just to set the scene a little, the airport seemed to be shutting down around us. The last time I saw an aircraft was about 10pm and that was landing. There were rumours that a plane had taken off sometime after 8pm but no confirmation of that. About the only thing moving were the airport shuttle buses and the cars. There were any number of those whizzing around the place and the area just over from my plane seemed to be a sort of turning area with lots of vehicles whizzing in, turning nifty circles and zooming away again. All mildly entertaining to watch in the absence of anything else to do. The plane had quietened down a lot when cabin crew had dimmed the lights around 11pm and asked us to be as quiet as possible so the little children could sleep.
Just about the time I was trying to work out a viable delivery address for the pizza the de-icing truck loomed out of the fog causing great excitement on board. Have you ever seen the film ‘Short Circuit’? Remember Johnny Number Five? The de-icing truck looked like an enormous version of Johnny Five. It comes in two parts, a truck with a tanker of de-icing fluid and then a cherry-picker type of lifting apparatus. This had a small cabin for another person to operate the de-icing spray and the big lamp. Although I could clearly see the human at the controls it did seem very robotic as it worked. The wings were thoroughly doused in de-icing fluid and the truck moved off. It came back after a short while and went over some parts which apparently hadn’t been treated well enough. After about half an hour we seemed good to go and the captain made another announcement to tell us to get our seatbelts on as a tug had been sent to drag us to the runway. OK it’s nearly five hours late but who cares, we’re on the way.
Everybody settled down to wait, the TV screens for the safety announcements were lowered and the cabin crew bustled around. Then there was a small incident outside the plane to my left. As you’ll recall, I’d spent some time watching all the airport vehicles whizzing around but now I was disconcerted to see two of them collide nearby. Well, I say ‘nearby’ but what I really mean is right next to us. Well actually…I say ‘right next to us’ but what I REALLY mean is into us. Yes, my stationary plane was involved in a collision by some muppet who wasn’t looking where he was going. And which muppet was it? Why it was the muppet in the cabin of the de-icing truck. Yes, the de-icing truck which had taken five hours to arrive had walloped the tailfin as it left. This was…disconcerting.
The captain was a bit puzzled too. He let everyone else know what had happened and said that it was just the arm of the cherry-picker bit which had clipped the tailfin and the plane should be fine. We were now just waiting for an engineer to come along, inpect things and give us the OK to fly. What then transpired was a farce of the greatest proportions. The captain gave us regular updates on what was going on. The next announcement he made was again very apologetic and told us that they were going to use the de-icing truck to inspect the tailfin as it had not only a lifting device but a whopping great light on it. The next one was made in a very small voice and he whispered that the de-icing truck couldn’t get close enough to the aircraft to see the damage. Yes, the same de-icing truck that had just run into the plane couldn’t get close enough to it. It seems there was to be no happy medium on this. Oh look, there’s the fire brigade.
This new turn of events seemed to startle the captain and he confessed he hadn’t a clue why they had turned up but that he didn’t think we were on fire. Not hugely reassuring and even less so when he said he was going to leave the aircraft for a bit. Luckily he only went outside to have a chat and came back to tell us that it was normal procedure for the fire brigade to turn up after any vehicle collision at an airport. Why a flight captain for British Airways wouldn’t automatically know this I don’t know but perhaps he’s never had his plane run over by a truck before and let’s face it, he was having a long night.
As I looked outside I counted vehicles to pass the time. We had no less than six fire engines, two police land rovers, seven or eight airport cars, a bus that happened to be passing and was now stuck in the mass, the tug to take us out to the runway, a bespoke cherry-picker type vehicle which could get close enough to the plane to allow inspections but not so close that more damage would be caused and the ubiquitious de-icing truck. Much to-ing and fro-ing was underway and in a surprisingly short time the captain came back to tell us that the engineer thought the plane was ok to fly and that we should be underway soon. Definitely. Absolutely. Apart from this one teeny tiny problem. There were now so many vehicles surrounding the plane that we couldn’t get out and would have to wait for it all to clear.
So another half hour ticked by and then the fire brigade came back with an even bigger truck than they’d had last time. Apparently somebody somewhere wasn’t entirely happy with the previous inspection and wanted a proper one done. So the cabin crew FINALLY clued up and gave us more than tiny cans of coke. Yay for a little packet of sesame seeds after five hours on a plane. Food has never tasted so good! As I ate I watched two firemen get into what looked like climbing gear and board the cherry-picker part of their big truck. Futher inspections commenced and the captain again went out for a chat. Meanwhile we were advised by cabin crew to move around the aircraft to prevent blood clots forming. I’m not making this up, I promise.
At this point something of a transformation occurred in our captain. Previously he had been a good-natured, excessively polite home counties sort. Now he turned into Mr T and could be observed storming back onto the plane loudly insisting ‘I don’t care if they say it’s safe! I ain’t flyin’ on this plane!’ We began putting our coats on. Not that this meant the evening was at an end. Oh no, there were plenty more cock-ups to come.
We got kicked off the plane at around 1am. The captain kindly informed us that a concession had been made and we could depart through the airport and didn’t have to wait for shuttle buses. This was probably a canny move as it meant nobody had to round up buses and drivers for 200 people. What they hadn’t factored in when making this decision was that the route back through the airport now involved passing via the Border Control Agency. For those of us who were purely flying from London to Edinburgh this proved problematic as we had no passports. Yet more time ticked by as I alternately queued and argued with immigration staff over whether a London Underground Staff Pass was acceptable ID to re-enter the airport. The debated raged long and hard over whether a journey from London to London had crossed an international border. Technically we all had because we weren’t on the shuttle bus. Eventually a manager came out, took one look at the exhausted queue and told them to wave me through. So off I trotted to the baggage reclaim area and was directed by BA staff to wait by one of the belts. This was about the only information we could get out of the BA staff as they didn’t know if we were being booked on alternative flights or how hotel accomodation was going to be arranged for the remainder of the night or even what the phone number for the BA desk at Edinburgh airport was so that those of us who had relatives still waiting at 2am could pass a message to them to go home. All they could say was wait for your luggage *there* and then go to Area G to get things sorted. Oh and they weren’t sure where Area G was other than ‘upstairs’. Sheesh.
After another long wait one of the baggage handlers came up to inspect the empty luggage belt. Numerous phone calls followed and he told us that they’d cocked up yet again. The baggage handlers (being sensible sorts) had taken the baggage from this domestic flight that didn’t go and unloaded it in the domestic baggage reclaim area. But the BA staff had sent us to wait in the international area. So we all had to get out ID again to pass back through the airport to the correct side. In amid a sea of polite-yet-uselsess BA staff this baggage handler was the only one who actively tried to fix problems. He was the only one pro-actively directing people, making arrangements and answering questions while dozens of other staff stood around watching the chaos.
Once we’d got our bags back we were sent to the elusive Area G. By dint of wandering round and following one another we discovered that this meant the departure area where we’d started almost seven hours before. Here was another queue to get a hotel booked – nobody would book us on alternative flights and all we got was a phone number. For those who could afford to hang on in the phone queue this went through to a call centre in the USA where flights were offered for the following day. As I had already wasted too much credit throughout the evening I couldn’t afford to hang on indefinitely so just waited, slept standing and thought about my train ticket. It seemed a much more attractive option. After a while I noticed that someone had left a crate of water lying near the check-in desk so I grabbed a few bottles to pass back down the queue. Staff looked surly but didn’t dare reprimand us. We were so hungry, tired and thirsty that we’d probably have eaten them had they dared.
I got my ticket for the hotel. Bed and breakfast but nothing else. No food whatsoever! And we had to check out by midday by the latest and it was now 0230. I again asked if BA could phone their desk at Edinburgh Airport and have them put out an announcement to tell relatives waiting there to go home but they refused. The excuse was that they didn’t have the phone number and had no means to get it but that if I wanted to talk to anyone about Edinburgh Airport I should contact BAA. And where were BAA to be found? Well BA didn’t know but it was ‘downstairs somewhere’. As I was on about the fourth level of the airport I gave up on the idea of trying to find them. I was incensed though. The weather in Edinburgh and the surrounding areas hadn’t been that bad in about 20 years and BA staff didn’t think that it would be a good idea to tell waiting relatives to go home. So presumably people waited and eventually gave up and had to risk poorer driver conditions as the night wore on.
I trudged back to the other end of the airport to get on the coach they’d provided with only a couple of wrong turns. Heathrow? Seriously, you need better signage at T5 (and BA, you need better staff who can help customers through this). I flopped on the coach and waited for more people to turn up. After half an hour someone walked outside and shouted at the staff to tell them to get the bus moving but it transpired that they’d temporarily lost the driver and could do nothing. He turned up eventually and took us to the hotel. In a move of stunning irony the hotel was the Ibis (absolutely lovely place) near Earl’s Court where I’ve spent the week trying to work out how to get to Kensington Olympia. As we went enquiries were made about how we got back to the airport for flights the following day. The driver didn’t know and said he reckoned that we’d have to pay for a taxi or take the tube. Which would be fine for me as the tube is free but I felt sorry for all the other passengers who had to fork out more because of British Airways. I tried a few times to get through to BA to rebook a flight but still couldn’t get through to a human. 😦
As we got near the hotel it was almost 4am. And it was only then that the weirdest event of the night took place. As we came off one of the motorways I saw a dot-matrix sign suddenly flash on with a message. It was on and off so fast that I almost missed it and it was so pertinent that I wasn’t sure if I was just dreaming. Because as I sat at the front of the coach, gazing down the totally empty road I read SEVERE DELAYS USE ALTERNATIVE ROUTE.
This, it seems is the best bit of advice I could get. I gave up on the idea of flying and resigned myself to going by train. And it seemed I was right to do so as Edinburgh airport has been closed for much of the day and I suspect the people who rebooked flights didn’t go. And I expect they are all currently struggling with the perfectly-pleasant-yet-useless-and-uninformative BA staff. I’ve never
flown with bought a ticket from British Airways before. I probably won’t in the future. I’m sure when things are going well they are a pleasure to deal with. But when things are going wrong they are beyond clueless. It might be marginally more expensive but I’m going back to BMI.
So tomorrow I will get a train north and hopefully it will arrive with no mishaps. And however you are getting home I hope you have a safe journey and a Merry Christmas.