Planes, Trains And Automobiles (Part 1)
I arrived at Buenos Aires in the middle of a horrendous electrical storm. It was 8am local time and as black as night. Thunder and lightning were exploding all around us and I have never experienced turbulence like it in a big plane like that (an Air France Airbus). After 3 aborted landing attempts we were made to circle for an hour until the storm moved away from the airport, and, presumably, to waste a little fuel in case of a failed landing attempt. Which is known as “crashing” in non-aviator circles!. It was quite a relief to get down in the end.
The journey by taxi into the city from the airport was also quite interesting. Much of the motorway and many of the main roads on the journey were flooded and in some places quite badly…….I got my feet wet as the water was above the level of the taxi’s wheels in certain parts. At least it was warm rain…………………
Then it was work, work, work. Early starts, long days and late finishes. In fact I did not step outside of the hotel until 21.00 on the Wednesday evening – for a dinner at a nearby restaurant – and I left on the Thursday.
The 13 hour trip from Buenos Aires to Paris dragged quite a bit. This was mainly due to the fact that there was an Argentinean woman sitting two rows behind me who was travelling with two kids. One, a babe in arms, would wake up every two hours and scream the place down. The other, a toddler around two years old, would run away from his mom and chase around the business class section, climbing all over peoples’ seats. Including my seat. Which I was sat in. It was like sitting in a busy cinema while the people behind you performed Riverdance on the back of your chair.
I was forced to watch the Lord of the Rings dubbed in French (it is not quite the same – it makes Aragorn seem a little effeminate) on the in-flight movie channel, otherwise I would have gone completely mad and killed the little ba*tard.
So, I was feeling quite relieved, if not refreshed, when we arrived at Paris Roissy (the French deliberately like to confuse the international traveller by having 2 names for Charles de Gaulle airport) an hour ahead of schedule on the Friday morning, at 10am. My flight to Manchester was at 13.30 so I settled into the business lounge, had yet another glass of champagne to celebrate Birmingham City’s triumphant rise to the Premiership, and went to the gate at 12.45 as requested to do so by the flashing green banner on the display monitors. At the gate, there was a new message: “Delayed! Delayed! Delayed!” But no other bloody information to tell you why or for how long. And no bloody staff to help either.
So, I returned to the Business Lounge of Air France where there was a growing crowd of increasingly irate Brits. Apparently, the brand-new Air Traffic control systems recently installed in the UK (by EDS of course!) had completely failed and all flights to and from the UK were cancelled until the next morning, earliest. All hotels at the airport were already full. Aaargghh! The prospect of spending the night with a bottle of champagne and SKY Business News in the business lounge was not an attractive one. The homing instinct is strong in this one and so I determined to find an alternative route home.
To make things worse, they could not find my baggage either. Of course, it had been checked straight through from Argentina to Manchester. So, I was forced to abandon it at the airport. I grabbed a taxi and crawled (it was the start of a bank holiday weekend in France) across the city to the Gare Du Nord and joined the long ticket queue for the Eurostar to London. Because of redevelopment in the station, there was no lounge at the Gare Du Nord, so I was forced to lean against a wall for an hour or so before boarding the train. I must have begun to smell pretty badly by now, so at least my personal space was preserved.
The train was absolutely packed ……and late. They had been flooded with stranded would-be plane travellers desperate to get back to the UK. It took 45 minutes to get everyone on board instead of the usual 15 minutes.
This journey was also “interesting” due to the fact that I found myself sat across from an obsessive compulsive with a drinking problem. He was probably thinking the same about me. Whenever a member of staff passed by he insisted on getting another drink of champagne. He would then go through this very, very strange ritual as part of the drinking process. This involved ensuring that the glass was dead in the centre of the table; turning it anti-clockwise 12 times (I counted); drinking it two-handed in 7 swallows ( I counted); cleaning the inside of the glass with his tongue; and, then turning the glass upside down and peering into it for 5 minutes (I timed it), turning it around 4 times, clockwise, to make sure that it was empty. I joke not. He was either obsessive compulsive or the couple of aspirin I had taken earlier to prevent the onset of deep vein thrombosis on the flight from Argentina were beginning to mix with my champagne and fatigue with some very strange side effects.
And so I arrived in Waterloo in London…..took a tube to Euston……..stood around for a while before getting a train to Crewe…..where I arrived, on time, at 22.30 and so home……………to bed. Total travelling time 27 hours 30 minutes. My baggage travelled for an additional 36 hours, finally arriving Sunday evening!
Possibly my worst trip, however, was to the Isle of Bute in Scotland. We had arranged to spend a long weekend there, at a Landmark Trust property, with friends from London. They were flying up to Glasgow on the Friday and picking up a hire car for the short journey by road and ferry to Bute. We, however, were planning to drive up on the Friday from our home in Cheshire – an 8 hour drive. And, as we had arranged the trip we were keen to be first at the property to check it out and make it warm and welcoming for our friends. This meant that we would have to be on the road by something like 8am.
I was a little miffed (to say the least), therefore, when my boss “summoned” me to a 2 hour meeting in Rotterdam on the Thursday afternoon. This was in the days when direct flights between Manchester and Rotterdam had ceased so the journey consisted of a flight to Amsterdam and a 45 minute train journey to Rotterdam, and the same in reverse. If my meeting finished on time I was to fly out of Schiphol around 7pm and be home for 8pm UK time Thursday night.
It was not to be. I remember complaining to my driver on the way to the airport – one of my privileges of rank is that I get an executive car service between home and the airport – moaning about my summons and the fact that I would have a long drive ahead of me on the Friday morning.
My flight out was, unusually, on time. My connection with the train (they run every 30 minutes) was also on time, as was the train itself. They are very efficient these Dutchies. (Mussolini would have been proud of them). And so, I arrived in the office around 11.30 local time. I then kicked my heels for a couple of hours and tried to look busy until my meeting at 2pm.
At 2pm I went into the meeting room and greeted my colleagues. “Not flying out tonight are you?” asked one of my teammates. “Yes”, I replied. “I have a day off tomorrow and am going to Scotland.” “Not flying from Schiphol I hope?” he replied. “Yes. Why?”. “Because there has been a fire at Schiphol and the airport is closed.”
At this point I left the meeting. I left the meeting that I had not wanted to attend before it had begun. I told my boss that I had to sort my travel arrangements as I had to be back home this evening otherwise all plans for the weekend would have been ruined and my wife would be, well, less than happy.
I phoned our travel department and asked them if they could transfer me to flights leaving from Rotterdam with a connection in City Airport, London. “All flights from Rotterdam are booked, Sir. There has been a fire at Schiphol!”. I explained that I knew about the fire and that I really needed to get home that evening. I enquired how likely it was that the airport would be open by the time my flight was due to leave. “It is unlikely, Sir. It was a very serious fire.” Apparently the Burger King in the main concourse had set alight. If you have ever experienced Dutch cuisine you would understand what a terrible calamity this indeed was. So, I enquired of my other travel options…..
My way home that day involved getting from the office to Rotterdam Central train station. I accomplished this by tram with no difficulty. I then had to get the international train from Rotterdam to Brussels, being the capital of Belgium, being the neighbouring bloody country. I accomplished this with no difficulty.
At Brussels airport the nice people at British Airways took pity on me and upgraded me to business class. This meant I had access to the business lounge, free alcohol, a British newspaper, and, free snacks – sandwiches, olives, peanuts, cherry tomatoes, processed cheese, popcorn and the like. This was great as I had been booked on the 8pm flight from Brussels (which meant I should be home at 9pm UK time – just one hour later than planned) to Manchester and I had 3 hours to kill.
I used part of this time to leave voicemail messages for C, my wife, who was out at work. The messages were along the lines of “You’ll never guess what has happened but don’t worry I’ll be back tonight”. I read a paper, did the crossword (this was in the days before Soduko), sipped my drinks, nibbled my nuts (!) and sent a few emails before sauntering to the gate at the prescribed time.
At the gate I found my fellow would-be passengers………and no staff. This is never a good sign. Nor did I see good signs on looking out of the window (the BA Lounge at Brussels airport has no windows). It was foggy. It was very foggy. It was so foggy that you could not see further than the windows themselves. We waited a while. As we waited the departure board began to flash “cancelled” alongside various flights with all too alarming a frequency. Eventually, a member of BA staff came to the gate and explained that the fog was set to stay and that it was likely that the airport would close. Our flight, however, had not yet been cancelled so we were not in a position to transfer to other flights with spaces that were expected to leave, nor did we qualify for free overnight stays in an airport hotel, nor could they guarantee a first flight out in the morning. Sh*t!. I felt my weekend and my marriage disappearing……
I didn’t care about money – the Company would pay. I just had to get home. So, I went to try to book an alternative flight. There were none. There were no flights going anywhere. The airport was closed. The first available flight out in the morning was not before 09.30 which meant that I would not be in time to make it to drive to Bute so my only alternative would be for C to drive herself, and for me to fly to Glasgow. C would not be happy. I was not bloody happy. Especially as all the airport hotels were already full! Passengers were beginning to jostle for space on benches……..
And then a glimmer of hope…….apparently our incoming flight was still circling. Apparently, our flight had a Manchester-based crew on board and they too were keen to get home tonight. They were circling in the hope that the weather would improve to enable them to land and whisk us back home to hearth and loved ones.
By 11pm the weather had not improved, the airport was closed and our plane had been diverted to Ostende. Fortunately, our plane was full of businessmen desperate to get home and sporting BA Gold Cards. I, being a KLM frequenter merely had a BA Blue Card which was next to useless. These Gold Card types were complaining vociferously and threatening all kinds of things as only pompous, self-important British businessmen can. Eventually, it was decided to send us to Ostende. Within the hour a couple of coaches were found and we began the hour or so journey by road to Ostende. I spent most of the journey making calming calls to C and checking out alternatives such as the Ostende ferry….just in case.
We cleared the fog. We arrived at the airport. We could see the plane on the tarmac. We left the coaches. The coaches left. We entered the airport. The airport was empty. There was not a soul to be found. The Gold Card Customer Service desk again suffered verbal abuse until they actually made radio contact with the Captain of the plane. The Captain of the plane managed to locate some airport staff and we eventually found ourselves on board. Eventually they found someone to de-ice the plane’s wings and we were able to take off. I spent most of the journey worrying whether taxis still operated from Manchester airport at that time in the morning or would I be stranded or, worse, have to call the wife out…..as I was sure that my exec car would have been cancelled.
We landed at Manchester at 2.30 am. The airport should have been closed at this time so I hate to think what fines BA had incurred to bring us home. As I walked through the gates into arrivals I was more than a little thrilled to see Ian, my exec car driver standing there, waiting for me. I was not so thrilled to see he was chuckling, none too quietly, to himself. I mentioned nightmare journeys, airport fires, wiping grins off faces and other such expletives. He apologised and explained. What I didn’t know was that within an hour of my call to the travel department, Schiphol airport in Amsterdam had reopened. Yes, there was a backlog of flights but my original flight home only suffered an hour delay. If I had just ignored the travel department’s advice and proceeded as planned, I would have landed five and a half hours earlier !! Ian had known of my weekend away and taken pity on me. He took me home.
And so, just one tram, one train, one coach, one plane, one car and three different countries later I crawled into my bed. Just six hours later we hit the road. We got to Bute on time. Our friends were late and grumbling about the one hour delay they had suffered on route – Easyjet. Travel virgins!. We had a great time! Thanks Ian.
Entry filed under: business travel, Cautionary Tales, flying, poor service, rant, travel. Tags: air france, airport, automobiles, Belgium, brussells, buenos aires, business lounge, business travel, bute, cancelled flight, corporate travel, crash, deep vein thrombosis, dvt, eurostar, eurotunnell, failed landing, fire, flying, fog, frequent flyer, Landmark Trust, lightning, obsessive compulsive, planes, rant, Rotterdam, schiphol, scotland, taxi, thuder, trains, travel.