Simon Calder: Sunday night flight into the unknown
The man who pays his way
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 03 August 2013
You can fly from Geneva to London in just over an hour on a good day. Last Sunday evening, though, was not such a day. By midnight, two plane loads of passengers who had expected to fly from the Swiss city to London were nowhere near where they wanted to be. The passengers booked on easyJet's flight 8485 faced a long old wait. As you may have read in Tuesday's Independent (bit.ly/86years), after their flight was cancelled the airline emailed to say that they would not be going to Gatwick until the summer of 2099. At least they knew they were due to fly home before the end of the century. Furthermore they were all tucked up in their hotel rooms.
In contrast, those of us who had chosen to fly with British Airways to Heathrow were queuing for hotels in a city that had never featured in our travel plans, with no certainty about when we might get home. Our Airbus A321 had taken off about an hour late. Halfway through the intended journey, the inflight maps were switched off and retracted. When the setting sun swung around to appear through the right-hand windows, it was clear that something was awry.
The cause: "a potential fault with an air speed indicator". That's serious, since the pilot's single most important reference is the speed through the air. Which explains why we headed for Paris Charles de Gaulle, to be greeted by three truckloads of pompiers, who sped along the apron parallel with the decelerating aircraft.
Having landed the plane safely in stressful circumstances, Captain Andrew Jones turned his attention to the passengers' prospects:
"As Paris was not our original, intended destination it seems to have caught them a wee bit on the hop, despite the fact that we did send a message forward that we were coming here. I do apologise. We'll get things sorted out as quickly as we possibly can and hopefully take care of your onward travel." That's a man who is on your side. But not everyone else appeared to be.
In the three hours between the diversion being declared and we passengers being offloaded, you might imagine that BA's operations team in London, and the airline's staff in Paris, would be organising meals and accommodation for the passengers and crew, and finding seats on other flights or Eurostar trains. But they were not. Capt Jones stood at the front of the aircraft and candidly told the passengers: "Our local staff, the airport manager and such, have been very difficult to get hold of."
'It's like swimming in Marmite'
Half-an-hour later, we were still waiting. Capt Jones appeared again: "It's totally embarrassing upon my part as a representative of the company to be faced with such a situation as this. We do expect to get the back-up and it hasn't happened today. So all I can do is, on behalf of British Airways and your crew doing their utmost to try and facilitate your onward travel, is apologise. It's like swimming in Marmite or treacle."
Other thick, viscous substances are available, but BA's operations team had evidently declined to oil the wheels. Instead, the airline poured a big heap of, er, trouble, on its passengers.
Most of us eventually found our way to the BA check-in area at a deserted Charles de Gaulle through the one doorway that was not locked and bolted. Several staff from BA's ground-handling firm, though no-one from the airline itself, were sitting behind desks. At this stage, the custom – and legal obligation – is to hand out vouchers for hotels and meals, and rebook passengers by whatever means necessary to get them to their destination as quickly as possible.
Instead, we were given the name of a hotel written on the back of a baggage tag and told to go there and await instructions. No mention of meals nor options for continuing to London on Air France, easyJet or Eurostar. So I asked if I might remind passengers of their rights, trying to encourage responsible behaviour by stressing that alcohol with dinner would not be covered (while secretly craving a Kronenbourg). The first passengers reached their hotels at around midnight. After a hiatus because our only proof of entitlement was a baggage tag, we were eventually checked in – dinner not included.
Next morning, a dozen of us decided to ignore the instruction to await information and instead head back to the terminal to try for the first flight out. We all squeezed aboard, having promised not to eat a meal (providing the interesting revelation that BA's first flight from Paris to London is catered the previous afternoon at Heathrow).
A BA spokesman said: "This was not a good experience, and we apologise for that. There is no doubt that this could have been handled better on the ground in Paris."
Back in Geneva, easyJet moved its replacement flight forward by 86 years. But it was still 13 hours late, which triggers a possible claim under European passenger-rights legislation.
Whether the airline owes every passenger €250 compensation depends on the cause of the delay. But easyJet doesn't seem to know. On Sunday night, the reason given was: "continued weather activity around the airfield and on route to London Gatwick. This also caused your crew to exceed their duty hours limit." By Monday morning the story had changed to "a technical issue with the aircraft". Sounds like the Swiss could have a role as mediators.
Wherever you venture this August, good luck.
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