On Monday, a lovely long weekend in Paris was entering its final day. The first hint of trouble emerged over petit pain au chocolat, with a small paragraph in the paper about an air-traffic controllers' strike. I was booked on that evening's BA flight to Edinburgh, so I called the airline from the Louvre's glass pyramid. The flight had not been grounded. So I headed off, reassured, to boost France's retail trade figures in the splendour of the Galeries Lafayette.
The good thing about flying BA, so the airline's stylish ad campaign asserts, is that it will take more care of you when things go wrong.
At the airport, things were about to go wrong. I was cheerily waved away from check-in with, "Oh, the Edinburgh flight's been cancelled" – apparently, a last-minute deletion from the schedule. Joining the end of an already long queue at the BA ticket desk, I heard the first of many angry voices as fellow-passengers contemplated the prospect of an unscheduled 34 hours in France, the length of the controllers' strike.
A leaflet was available, giving details of the planned strike action, with apologies for any inconvenience caused. That wasn't enough for the irate gentleman behind me – his wife could do nothing to pacify him either. Neither his nor my humour was helped by a rumour that Eurostar staff were out in support of the strike – it appeared that another option had closed to us, though this turned out to be unfounded.
I was elated to be told that I had been found a seat on the flight to Birmingham, with onward connection to Edinburgh that evening. I approached the check-in desk for a second time, only to be told the Birmingham flight was full, several times over. Returning to the strained and tense faces at both sides of the ticket counter – and taken to the front of the queue by my sympathetic check-in lady – it was third-time lucky. I was booked on to a London Gatwick flight leaving in 30 minutes, although the connection to Edinburgh would be the following morning. Hotel room? No: I could find (and pay for) my own, or sleep in the terminal at Gatwick for free. Ryanair offers exactly that choice, too. Reimbursement? Not our responsibility. Alternatives? none.
British Airways' logic is that it will pay for hotels, meals, etc, only if the delay is its fault.
"The strike was obviously beyond our control," says a British Airways spokeswoman.
We taxied on to the runway with only 10 minutes to spare before the controllers went home. Robert Louis Stevenson might have found that travelling hopefully was better than arriving, but I needed to arrive, and preferably that night. Sitting behind me, the same couple was discussing their plans – a taxi in to London, a good hotel for the night, and send the bill to BA. I left them to dream, while I wondered: if BA had no flight north, perhaps easyJet would?
I now know that it takes seven minutes to sprint (with the aid of the shuttle train) from arrivals at North Terminal at Gatwick airport to the easyJet ticket desk in the South Terminal. The run was worth it, though – frills or no-frills, there were seats available on a flight leaving in 35 minutes – and the fare was only £40. I was in bed by midnight, sparing a thought for the hundreds of travellers left behind, or facing the glum choice of a night on the floor at Gatwick airport, or a dented credit card. A room at the airport Hilton costs £170, which is twice what I had paid for the BA flight in the first place. But yesterday the airline said that, because the Edinburgh flight was cancelled at such short notice, it would look at individual cases and consider covering extra expenses incurred. To be fair, you don't get that on Ryanair.
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