Robina and I are supposed to be on holiday in Barcelona and the Basque Country all this week. We aren’t, and it’s all down to the mind-numbing inefficiencies of free-market capitalism combined with the ludicrous machinations of the most incompetent airline we have ever encountered!
They are called Vueling, by the way. I wouldn’t wish a flight with them on a planeload of Tory Crystal Palace fans on their way to a Coldplay concert.
Before I go any further I want to make a couple of points. The heartless, ludicrous experience we went through last Monday as (mostly) European holiday travellers is of course less than nothing compared to the plight of refugees and the dispossessed trying to journey round the world to stay alive. I realize that. But that fact doesn’t make our experience meaningless and/or mitigate the way we were treated.
And the fact that I have a job I love and am lucky enough to be regularly invited to perform in different countries meant that I personally was less affected by the whole experience than those fellow passengers who had worked their arses off all year in a job they hated and scrimped and saved for those precious days away in the summer. We talked to some of them, and their sadness made us very angry. Even my wife Robina is in a different position to me. She can’t come on tour with me a lot of the time for family reasons, and a holiday together is very special for her. She was devastated.
Here is what happened. I’ve tried to make it a laugh as well as a moan to make it a palatable reading experience. It certainly didn’t feel like a laugh at the time.
We arrived at Gatwick Airport last Monday, ran the ghastly check-in retail gauntlet without the slightest inkling of temptation and found a spot in the departure lounge. Then we were informed that a plane had burst a tyre on take off, the runway was closed while they checked it for debris and we would be flying from Heathrow. We were asked to go back through baggage reclaim, pick up our luggage, have our passports checked (though we hadn’t gone anywhere) and get on a coach.
We arrived at Heathrow about the same time as we were due to land in Barcelona.
We could tell the difference.
So far, so good. Well, not good, obviously: we were in Heathrow, not Barcelona. But no cause for complaint. Accidents happen and of course flights were cancelled and diverted while the runway was checked. Safety is paramount. It was what happened next that beggared belief.
On arrival at Heathrow we were put in a check-in queue and left there for over two hours with nothing happening, no food, no water until we (Ok, I) complained, and no-one telling us anything other than that we would be checked in ‘in the next ten minutes’ every half hour or so. Information which had to be passed along from one passenger to the next since there was no amplification available and the announcements were made by someone who had evidently been taught the art of public speaking in a Trappist monastery.
Eventually I had had enough and, in my customary assertive style, marched to the front and demanded to know what was going on.
I was informed by a member of airline staff – who was visibly irritated that I had the temerity to ask such a question – that yes, a plane was waiting to take us to Barcelona. However, it was impossible to load the passenger manifest from the Gatwick operating system onto the Heathrow one because they were incompatible with each other – they were run by different companies – and until that was done, we couldn’t be checked in.
You learn something new every day. Last Monday I learned that our two biggest airports – two of the biggest in Europe – have different operating systems. Even though this state of affairs is self-evidently, palpably, ludicrously self-defeating, since they are engaged in exactly the same business and should obviously be co-operating. Presumably this is part of the ideology of free market competition. (Which is one of many reasons why the ideology of free market competition is TOTAL BOLLOCKS.)
For a couple of seconds the mind-boggling nature of this fact flummoxed me. Then, in a flash, I had an idea.
‘Why don’t the people at Gatwick put the list in the body of an email and send it to the people at Heathrow?’ I said. ‘ Back home in Southwick, I have a Mac. But I can send someone in Australia with a PC an email, and they get it. Surely, if that works for me and my punk rock mates organising DIY tours, it works for world-renowned international airports?’
My groundbreaking suggestion was met with a blank shrug.
We stood there in that queue for another hour or so: despite no food and nowhere to sit, everyone was politeness and endurance personified. Eventually, about 10pm, check-in was opened (maybe the email was finally sent?) and we went through security once more. We saw our flight on the board for midnight – nearly ten hours late. Our spirits rose.
Then it disappeared from the board and a brusque announcement was made in the same Trappist style. We eventually worked out we were being asked to go back though baggage reclaim, pick up our luggage once more and return to the check in area, where we would be informed what was happening.
For the second time that day we picked up bags which had not gone anywhere and were checked through passport control despite not having left the country. Around midnight we assembled in the same check-in area where we had waited for hours not long before. There we were told, brusquely, rudely, that our flight had been cancelled, no accommodation arrangements were in place, there would ‘perhaps’ be another flight for us tomorrow and it would definitely be going from Gatwick. Yes, they knew we were stranded at Heathrow and it was too late to travel anywhere on public transport. We were offered complaint forms. That was that.
There was uproar. My darling wife persuaded me not to orchestrate that uproar any further.
Robina and I got a taxi from Heathrow back to our home just outside Brighton. It cost a fortune. The next day I phoned the Vueling helpline and was helpfully told that there wouldn’t be any flights for us for the next couple of days and that it wasn’t their problem since I had booked through their partner company, British Airways. BA are very much aware of my dissatisfaction, as I am sure you can imagine: someone is going to be paying us compensation, or someone is going to lose their dangly bits.
We’re having our holiday at home. Spending countless hours together queuing fruitlessly at an airport check-in desk is a great way to affirm how much you love each other. It’s like a surreal way of renewing your marriage vows.
However much you love each other, I wouldn’t recommend it though.
Have a good Summer. And don’t fly with Vueling.