The flight that time forgot

In the week that a Laker Airways flight to Orlando was delayed by two days, Wendy Berliner was also stranded. It took her more than 53 hours to get back to Gatwick from Florida

It was 12.45pm on Tuesday when my husband, 10-year-old son and I cheerfully arrived at Sanford Airport in Orlando, Florida, ready to return home after our holiday. Half an hour later, at the front of the check-in queue, we were less cheerful. Our 4pm flight on Airtours International was to be six hours late, we were told. We were to be bussed to a hotel, given dinner and bussed back. Why was it late? Cumulative delays of other flights, they said.

The function room at the Hilton Hotel was packed with our fellow travellers sitting at round dinner tables spread with cloths but no cutlery. With children running around it looked like the end of a long wedding reception. As the afternoon progressed the children got noisier and space constraints meant we had to eat our dinner from plates on our laps in armchairs in the hotel's smart lobby.

Genuine guests of the hotel looked at our already crumpled T-shirts and shorts with distaste. Without work clothes, we had lost our status. We were clearly wearing out our welcome with the hotel managers. The buses began to arrive for us an hour early.

Back at the airport we were told the aircraft would be leaving at 9.30pm. Time ticked by. At 9.25pm there was an announcement - the flight was delayed by another 10 hours and we were to be taken back to the Hilton. Now the problem was that the aircraft had damaged its landing gear, and it was to be fixed. The plan was to get off the next morning.

Our luggage had been checked in and, in the wake of the TWA bombing, we were not getting it back. We were allowed access to it under supervision to remove articles for an overnight stay, and medicines. Then it was out into the hot, sticky Florida night, with exhausted children fretting and ratty parents snapping, to wait for the buses. They took an age to come. A disjointed flotilla of minibuses and coaches swallowing all 317 of us up at a painfully slow rate. It was 11.45pm before we landed in our hotel bedroom with me close to tears as a headache of monumental proportions appeared to be trying to punch my left eye out from the inside.

Breakfast was good. Then Robert, the very impressive young American from the guest relations firm used by Airtours took the microphone. He was direct and to the point. They were working hard to get us home. They hoped to get us off today. It wasn't likely. You could have heard a pin drop as the information hit home.

Yet there was no riot. People asked endless questions about how they could get messages home, what their travel insurance covered and why there were no drinks available when they had arrived at the Hilton the previous day.

We were told we could leave the hotel as long as we left our names with Lesley from Airtours. Amazingly, people began to smile. The sense of humour breakdown which had been in evidence since the previous day was obviously more correctable than the landing gear fault.

Back in the lobby it seemed less funny. A young mum, up all night because her overtired two year old and six year old could not sleep, wept. Someone said Airtours had tried to hire an aircraft to get us out but that other companies, knowing that Airtours was over a barrel with 317 people stranded at peak holiday season, were not offering cheap rates. The lowest offer had, apparently, been one million dollars for the day.

We were given a three-minute telephone card and 50 dollars emergency cash per person - which just about covered our phone calls (my husband and I were both due back in our offices).

We were given lunch, we killed time and money at the local mall, we were given dinner. Then we were bussed to the Sheraton for an overnight stay. There was not enough room for us all in the Hilton and they wanted to keep us together.

The buses began to arrive. One older woman suffering from asthma was taken to hospital. The strain was showing. The Sheraton had set up an emergency reception area in what appeared to be a nightclub so there were no overwrought, weary tourists to frighten off the real guests. We were told that we should get off first thing in the morning. A special repair team had been flown in from England, heavy lifting gear had been moved in from Miami - five hours away by road - to jack the 767 up on the tarmac and the repairs would go on through the night.

A plan emerged. There would either be a wake-up call at 6.30am or we would be told what was happening at breakfast. There was no wake up call. After breakfast we were told we should be taking off at 2pm but if that didn't happen there was a back up aircraft on its way and we would get off at 5pm.

We got off just gone 5pm to applause and cheers. At Belfast, where we stopped over, there were more cheers on landing. Then there was an announcement from the captain. A security alert had closed Gatwick for a time and we faced a two-hour delay. There were a few groans but the fortitude of most, not just then but throughout the whole ghastly business, was awesome. In the end this wait was only 45 minutes and we finally touched down at 8.05am on Friday morning, more than 53 hours late, with fulsome apologies from Airtours and pounds 50 a head for every adult. Our nightmare was over - well not quite. The car, which we'd left at Gatwick, wouldn't start. Fortunately, the RAC was slightly quicker in rescuing us than Airtours had been. For next year's holiday, we'll drive.

A SUMMER OF DISCONTENT

In one week, two delays of more than 48 hours: Wendy Berliner's Orlando-Gatwick flightmare, described left, then the latterday Laker-haters whose trip to central Florida was preceded by two days in central Sussex. The hundreds of held-up holidaymakers deserve sympathy, but in a sense they are the inevitable victims of a system that provides flights to Florida for less than pounds 300. The amazing thing about charter flights from Britain is that long waits are so infrequent.

You want cheaper flights than anyone else? Then you must understand that the system that provides them is stretched almost to the limit in August. Aircraft used by Britain's charter carriers are worked hard. They usually operate three round-trips to the Med each day compared with just two for holiday flights originating in Germany.

The third daily "rotation" helps save cash: consider the depreciation on your pounds 10,000 car, then multiply that by 5,000 to imagine how expensive it is to finance a medium-sized jet. Night flights are sold off cheap, but the revenue still helps the airline to defray the depreciation. My dawn flight from Gatwick to Corfu, returning at 2am, was a win-win arrangement for everyone except people living near the respective runways. Working close to the edge inevitably means that when something goes wrong, it can go very wrong. When trying to send 300 people to Florida, there are as many possible causes for delay as passengers.

First, you have to get all the passengers, preferably sober, on to the aircraft. One reason airlines often reveal a delay only at the airport is because they need to gather everyone together for immediate departure once the plane is ready. All the luggage has to be on board, too. While the bar-code sorting used at bigger airports works well, one in 10 bags has to be screened separately as part of a random security check. Sometimes the screened luggage arrives late, and the take-off slot is missed. Bad news, indeed.

The skies above the UK are full of overflying aircraft. Your charter to Florida has to slot in with the Amsterdam to Atlanta and Berlin to Boston flights, ushered around by air traffic controllers from Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Canada and the US. If your plane misses its cue in this complex choreography, there will definitely not be another one along in a minute. On long flights, for example to the US West Coast, there is the risk that the crew may not be able to complete the trip within their permitted hours - their day is deemed to begin when they check in, not when they take off. So passengers can find themselves offloaded from a perfectly healthy plane while a new crew is sought - no easy matter when everyone is working their inflight socks off.

The most serious delays, as Wendy Berliner and her family discovered, result from mechanical problems. Passengers should celebrate the fastidiousness of British and US airlines and their pilots. Anything that could jeopardise safety is enough to ground a plane. The Airtours and Laker delays, each the result of faults, probably cost each airline around pounds 250,000 and some attendant bad publicity. But as the old aviation saying goes: if you think safety is expensive, try having an accident.

Simon Calder

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