Air travel anguish
Now I’m sure you would be the first to admit that travelling by air is not always plain sailing (?!) However, when I look back on the past 20 years and all the flights I’ve been forced to take for one reason or another, it occurs to me that 90% of those flights were trouble-free if not downright boring. However, it’s the other 10% that are upsetting and just serve to bring about further reluctance to travel. No, the plane didn’t crash and I didn’t have to jump out with full HALO kit at 30,000ft, but it was nevertheless upsetting at the time. Leaving aside the numerous flights where I’ve had kids kicking the back of my seat – and even slapping me on the head! – and the occasional incident of Delhi-belly when the toilet was occupied, there are some incidents that stay with me for better or worse.
Picture the scene. It’s early morning in the UK, 3a.m. to be exact, when I spring out of my warm bed into the cold, dark morning and begin my preparations for travel to a foreign country where I will work for the week before returning home late the following Friday only to repeat the process the following week. The house is cold, because the central heating doesn’t switch on until 5a.m., so my bathroom time is brief. I throw on some business-type clothes and pack the last few items for my trip. After creeping downstairs so as not to wake the family, I exit the house like a thief in the night, bracing against the stormy weather, deposit my suitcase in the boot of my car, take a quick look around for vampires or werewolves and then at the quiet house, wishing I was still sleeping in it. I heave a big sigh before manoeuvring my car out of the drive and onto the motorway bound for the airport. I arrive at the airport 1.5 hrs later and make my way to Departures where I take my place in line behind 5 Eastern European families bound for God-knows-where. They’re taking forever to process their luggage, which annoys all in the queue behind them. I felt certain that I can hear a duck or chicken in one of the suitcases. Thankfully though, the check-in proceeds according to plan and soon I’m browsing the useless duty-free shops through bloodshot and bleary eyes.
OK, pretty straightforward up to this point, apart from some sleep deprivation. Then comes the call to go to the departure gate. The actual airline will remain nameless, although their real name stars with ‘Ryan’ and ends with ‘air’. They are known as a ‘cheap’ airline, which means you get nothing beyond the flight. I have often thought that a good slogan for this airline would be: ‘Ryanair – we’ll get you there….and that’s all’. One of their ex staff members let slip that the cabin staff refer to the passengers as ‘cargo’. Whether that’s true or not is not particularly relevant, although they certainly treat the passengers as such. The airline prides itself on ‘on-time departures’ and apparently imposes fines on the ground staff at the airport if the passengers aren’t ready to load on command. The ground staff, terrified of being penalised, shepherd the bleating passengers onto the runway whether the plane is ready to load or not. On this particular morning the passengers comprised families with young children, elderly travellers and businessmen. All of us were herded out into the open regardless of the storm and there we stood, battered by the wind and rain wondering what we had done to deserve such treatment. The cover overhead afforded little protection from the rain and wind that were driving in sideways. I reflected that this was probably akin to some of the milder indignities suffered by prisoner of war camp inmates, but even they would have huts to shelter in during a storm.
Once the staff on board the plane deigned to allow us refuge, sans apology, the flight proceeded without incident. This was just one such early morning flight. There has been the odd occasion when I’ve had to catch a connecting flight to reach my destination. That always heightens the anxiety. The halfway airport, in this instance, was Schiphol in Amsterdam. As far as I was concerned, I’d left myself enough time between flights to get from the arrival gate of one flight to the departure gate of the other. What I hadn’t counted on was the convergence on the immigration control of the passengers from 3 FLIGHTS simultaneously!! Schiphol airport is laid out in the shape of a star, so if you arrive at the end of one of the ‘legs’ of the star, you have to walk all the way to the centre, go through immigration control, and then walk all the way down another leg of the star to get to the next flight. I watched helplessly as the immigration officials processed passports with laborious effort. I wasn’t the only passenger panicking and noticed others accosting officials who merely shrugged their shoulders while pointing to the heaving mass of people.
By the time I got though immigration control, my name was being announced across the airport as the one who was holding up the flight to Billund. I sprinted as I have never sprinted in my life before. And this wearing a suit and dragging a small suitcase. You never really know what the body can do until you try. But you also don’t know how the body will fail until you’re in a particular situation. Any trace of saliva left my mouth, leaving my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. As I neared the departure gate, I was sure I was going to have a heart attack and could no longer swallow because there was nothing to swallow. Somehow I managed to make myself known to the two disinterested flight attendants manning the door, but they merely showed me the closed door and told me that the flight had left without me. To add insult to injury, they then proceeded to admonish me for keeping the flight waiting, as if it was my fault and I had spoiled their entire day through my thoughtless actions! I flopped down onto a bench, trying to get my tongue working again and watched the flight attendants sauntering off, leaving me to my own devices. I guessed that any explanation in my defence would have fallen on stony ground.
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