My shiny little online spot to help y'all keep track of me while I galavant around London.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Getting nowhere

I’ve never boarded a plane, spent six hours on it, and then got off it without going anywhere.

There’s a good reason for this: that would be stupid. It would be a dumb waste of a day, dontcha think?

Well. You can see where this is going. I’ve often moaned that British airports (I’m looking at you BAA – the British Airport Authority) are hell, and damn, I was right.

Day One
So I had to fly to Orlando, to attend a conference (storage and networking, whee!). My flight was at 1040am from Gatwick, connecting in Charlotte to go to Florida. As I inexplicably do before heading to the US, I didn’t sleep much (did that before Miami and Vegas – I don’t learn) as the Blackheath Triumvirate decided to have a flat warming party the night before, and I decided to have a few glasses/bottles of wine and night-bus it home after 2am.

Anyway. To get to Gatwick for 8ish, I had to leave my house by 7ish, which meant I had to be up for 6ish, as I hadn’t finished packing yet. So if you do the very simple math (or “maths” as they call them here in Bizarro world) I got about 3 hours of sleep. As I value sleep above personal hygiene, I didn’t bother to shower.

I tell you all that for context, so you fully understand how painful the next day(s) were.

Got to Gatwick, lined up to check in at Zone J, home to US Airways, who I’ve never heard of before (I don’t book my own flights…) but who clearly exist. I got to the front of the line, and the woman yelled at me for not having the address of my hotel – since when is the name of it ever not enough??? – and sent me off to the internets to look it up. Got back, waited in line behind a disorganized family, and finally got my boarding card.

Wound my way through the gauntlet of poking, prodding and scanning that is security, pushed my way through the WH Smiths to buy a few books – Obama’s Audacity of Hope and Nick Hornby’s Juno-like Slam – and water, and ambled up to Gate 23.

It was about ten minutes to boarding, but we clearly were going to be delayed, as it was snowing. Now, I don’t think a bit of flurries should keep any plane grounded, but the British can’t seem to handle it, despite it happening at least a few times a year. That said, this was a proper snow storm, unlike anything I’d seen here yet.

That in mind, I got a coffee, and a sandwich – my first food of the day, and helpful for my wine-filled, rather acidy feeling stomach – and found a spot to read up on Obama.

The airline then announced that the runway was closed, but would reopen for 11am, and we’d be boarded a bit after that. So we loaded up onto the plane, and got comfy. I happened to be sat next to a teenaged missionary, which sounds like hell on its own - a transatlantic flight next to a jesus freak? - but he was actually pretty cool.

Now, we’d been sat for a little while when our pilot announced that we’d have to wait for de-icing, which might take a while, but that he’d update us as soon as he knew.

Fair enough. We all chilled – hey, bad weather, it’s a delay, no biggie.

Then he comes on again, to tell us that we’re seventh in line for the de-icing services… which should take two hours. Right.

Three hours pass, and we’re still sitting there. We boarded at 11am, it’s past two, and all we’ve had to eat so far is pretzels and whatever we brought on the plane, as they can’t feed us our meals, as that would leave nothing for the flight.

The de-icer guy starts working on the plane next to us. Doing ONE FREAKING WING takes him 45 minutes. Then he moves onto the other. Another half hour passes, before he lowers down his cherry-picker, climbs out, has an argument with ground crew – or so it looked – and then walks off. Right.

That plane leaves. We still sit. My row mate takes a nap on his fold-down tray. I get halfway through Obama’s book, not feeling too hopeful myself. Kids are running up and down the aisles, but being pretty good given they’ve been stuck on a plane four hours. The flight crew are jokey and funny, trying to make the best of things and prevent mutiny. Everyone’s still pretty chilled. I pull out my laptop, do some writing. It’s like being on a flight, just without the pesky movement.

It’s when we pass the five hour mark at 4pm that I start to get pissed off. I’m hungry and out of snacks. I’m too antsy to read or work. It’s late enough in the day now that I call my older sister on my mobile, just to chat and kill some time. After filling her in on my awesome day, and hearing the latest Mae update, and gossiping about the other sister’s wedding (she bought a dress! Etc…) I say to Amanda that I’m pretty sure we’re not going anywhere today, as flight crews are limited to how many hours they can work – and there’s no way they’ll be able to do a seven and a half hour flight after sitting on the tarmac for six hours.

I love it when I’m right. Yeah. The pilot comes on to announce that our flight has been cancelled. Nearly six hours after we boarded, we gather out things and deplane… back into Gatwick, which isn’t anywhere near Orlando.

Now, I’ve got people supposedly meeting me on the ground in Florida, so I call and update them, and then go stand near the desk to hopefully overhear some details about when the flight will be rebooked. Not much is forthcoming from the two yellow-vested airport workers. They’re on their radios a lot, and on phones, clearly trying to work things out. Rumours spread thru the crowd that the flight has been rebooked to 4am, that it’s been rescheduled from Charlotte to Philly… but nothing is confirmed.

After nearly an hour of standing at our gate, with people irritable but amazingly not mutinous, they lay out the plan. The flight will go at 9am the next day, but it will indeed go to Philadelphia, and not Charlotte – no biggy for me, as I’m connecting anyway and can just go home overnight. But everyone else is told there is a hotel booked in Brighton – about half an hour on the train – for people to stay at, and a coach to take them there, and food vouchers.

A lot of people would rather stay at the airport, but are told US Airways won’t reimburse them for other hotels, which is really very far from the right thing to say. Others say they’d rather just sleep at the gate, and are told they can’t. Also, not the right thing to say.

So the yellow-vested ones lead us back through departures, out of security backwards, and to the baggage reclaim to, well, reclaim our baggage. We hit the reclaim hall – which is pretty freaking big – and the yellow-vested woman just stops. We all stop around her. We don’t know what to do. We’re sheep. Tired, hungry sheep.

Someone asks her: “Which reclaim belt?” She replies: “How should I know?”

Not the right answer.

It eventually gets announced, and we truck back to the check-in desks at Zone J, nearly 10 hours after I last saw the place. You can imagine the scene. Couple hundred of the aforementioned tired and hungry sheep, all baaa-ing at the four US Airways employees, who are starting to get snarky. Despite the plan (as above), there is indeed no coach – people must make their own way to Brighton, and write to US Airways’ customer enquiries after the fact to get reimbursed. And, those food vouchers? Not ready yet – not what hungry people want to hear.

I stood in the mess for a bit, texting my boss to sort out if I should bother even catching the flight the next day – it’s not a very long trip, and missing one day is missing a lot – while trying to get someone’s attention to find out if I need to rebook, or if I can get connections to Orlando the next day. I manage to get someone to look at me, and she says “just a sec” before running away behind a door and not coming back.

I took that as a sign to just go, and come back in the morning. As I turned to head to the trains, I heard the ticket desk woman loudly say: “yes, just show up tomorrow morning to catch the flight, but turn up early – it’s going to be a mess tomorrow.”

I got back to Bermondsey nearly 12 hours after leaving the house. I was on three hours sleep. I was hungover. I was unshowered. It took me a little while to decide if I should indeed bother going, and in the end, I decided to try again the next day.

I showered, called my mom, called my boss, and conked out about 1030pm.

Day Two
When I woke up at 5am the next morning, I was confused. Where was I? Why was my phone (which I use as an alarm clock) going off so early? Had I set the time wrong? And then I remembered.

Back on the tube to the train to head back to Gatwick. Missed mine by a second (a train platform staff guy yelled, “time, love” to me, whatever the fuck that means) but I had a feeling there’d be more delays, so wasn’t too stressed.

Arrive at good old Zone J about 645am-ish. It’s packed. We weren’t the only US Airways flight to be cancelled – why did theirs get cancelled, when other planes took off? I don’t know – so it was a shit show. Passengers from that day’s flights, and from our delayed flights, were lined up past the Monarch desks, around the corner, along M&S and down the hall to Boots when I got there. And it just got worse.

Nothing you can do, right? I made sure I was in the right line, by asking people in the line, as US Airways staff were impossible to find (fair enough, they were checking people in.) But we did have line management, in the form of BAA staff in yellow shirts.

Standing in line behind the same people I stood in line when I checked in before, an extended American family, I flipped back into my Obama book, kicking my bags along the floor as I shuffled forward with the line. So far, I was keeping pretty cool. I was pissed off, and writing letters in my head, and thinking of ways to make BAA pay, but was well rested and fed and showered so I felt okay.

But then I guess M&S wanted us to stop blocking their storefront, and BAA is big on retail (don’t get me started) so they decided to clear a gap in our line so people could get thru. Fair enough. The gap was to be between me and the family in front of me who had a lot of luggage, and were annoyed at being told where to go, and the father (grandfather?) grumbled a bit. He wasn’t rude. He just grumbled. And muttered a little, and then did what he was told.

In response to his grumbles, the yellow-shirted airport employee then turns to me and says: “Talking to some people is like talking to a brick wall, I tell ya.”

All of my frustration from the day kind of peaked then. I snapped: “You shouldn’t be expecting much sympathy from people in this line, we’ve been waiting for the past day and a half.”

Okay, not exactly the worst thing I’ve ever snapped at someone. I then flipped open to read a bit more Obama, when she said: “Don’t take it out on me. It’s not my fault. We can’t control the weather. It’s the weather.”

To which I replied: “It’s not the weather. It snows every year. BAA is terminally understaffed. This is a staffing issue.”

Her witty, calming, professional rejoinder: “I don’t work for BAA.”

She is wearing a bright yellow shirt that says BAA across it. I point this out to her. She argues that she’s just a contractor, clearly not understanding that she should either just apologise for the trouble, or walk away. Instead, she stands there complaining to her coworker about what jerks we all are. Rather than risk my place in line by yelling at her and getting accused of “abusing” staff, I stand there, silently fuming, pretending to read my book, but unable to focus for sheer rage.

She leaves. The line doesn’t move, but people start joining it behind the American family. I point the unwitting queue jumpers out to another yellow shirt, who looks at me blankly. I have to explain it again before he understands that people think that’s the end of the line. Silly optimists. It’s actually about 150 people behind me.

At this point, it’s about 830, maybe a bit later. That 9am flight isn’t going to happen. No one comes to tell us the flight has been pushed back to 10am. We here rumours of it, but nothing official. A short while later, while I stand outside of M&S freezing from the chill coming off their fridgeration units – the retards finally decide to separate out the lines, and take us forward a bit. There’s still thirty or so people ahead of me, but it’s starting to look like I might actually get on this flight.

I’m still pissed off from the dumb yellow-shirted woman, but calm enough that I can read my book some more. Standing in the switchback queue next to me is a gorgeous family – a lovely little girl who has been nicknamed “princess” by others in the line, and her total hottie of a dad and beautiful mom.

The little girl is being lovely, not misbehaving at all. She’s standing with a stuffed sheep, poking it the nose and giggling. My mood lightens a bit. Then she looks up at her wavy-haired dad, and lets out this insane noise – at first it sounds like a wail, but then I realise she’s playing, not crying. She runs up to him again, and does it again – this time, it sounds more like a roar. Her parents are trying to make her stop “playing monster” but everyone in the line is giggling – how much did we all want to just let out a roar over the past day? – and she’s so cute. Her mom makes her stop – but then she looks up at me from her vantage point a foot and a half from the floor, sees that I’m giggling hysterically, and does it again.

Yeah, my mood was much helped by her cuteness. We continue curving thru the line, me flipping thru my book, with an actual smile on my face. At this point, the American dad/granddad turns to me and says that I have been so calm thru everything, that I’ve been the calmest person on our flight thru everything. I’m not known for calm, so this comes as some surprise to me, but I take it as flattery, as it’s always nice to be seen as in control.

Finally, boarding card in hand, back thru security, and back onto the plane. It’s weird seeing the same flight crew again, and they remark on it as well. A few delays getting everyone on board, but we’re finally off, to the applause of most of the passengers… While I was happy to finally, finally, finally be in the air… I still had 12 hours of travel in front of me just to get to Orlando, before turning around and doing it again on the way back a few days later… though thankfully, flying Virgin for the return leg.

I realise this is already an opus (hey, I’m bored, I’ve run out of books) but there’s two things that must be addressed before I end.

First: Snow is not enough of an excuse to shut down London’s airports. It snows at least a few times every year. Gatwick (apparently) has just one de-icer. Clearly, that’s not enough. BAA and the airlines are failing to invest in the equipment and staff that they need to deal with this stuff because it’s cheaper for them to just screw us passengers over now and then. It shouldn’t be. If everyone on these delayed flights could claim compensation, it would remove this false economy, but EU rules say such compensation is limited if the delay is due to weather and other unforeseen circumstances. But weather isn’t unforeseen – the BBC told me it would snow on Sunday. Why didn’t they get more staff in? Any good manager would. Much of the delays could have been avoided or at least better managed if the airlines and BAA were better staffed – but they get out of being held responsible because it snowed. Fuck that shit.

Second: After reading The Audacity of Hope, Obama has my vote (not that I have one). I dont' don’t agree on everything he says - not least a vague recollection he's anti-gay-marriage... is this right? has he flipped on this yet? - but if that book is an honest representation of who he is and what he believes, then we line up pretty well on most other things. So yeah: vote Obama, and read his book.

That is all. I'm going to finish drinking my mini-bar vodka and apple juice, and then pass out in my ridiculously plush bed now. And then wake up and work. Business trips are fun...?

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Blogger Daorcey said...

Good lord. I'm not sure I could work after all that... I'd need a day off... at Disneyworld!

Seriously... no.



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