I've written here in the past about being obsessive about missing flights. And in my long career of taking flights for business purposes, I missed my first flight on Friday morning.
And not to do things by halves, I missed my second flight later that same day.
Missing the first flight was entirely due to the freak weather conditions around London at the end of the week. Snow? In winter? They never saw it coming.
Missing the first flight was virtually inevitable. I was in good time, caught the train to Stansted, trying to keep warm against an extremely bitter morning.
The first hint of travel problems came when the train stopped at a station for a while and stayed there a bit too long. It eventually inched out of the station, but stopped in the middle of nowhere about ten minutes later. That's when people started looking concerned and checking their watches every few minutes.
We got chucked off that train at the next station, citing points failures due to the cold. Fair enough. The train we were sent to arrived and we set off again, only to stop again in the midst of countryside. And although the landscape looked like one of those old wintery Christmas card scenes, there was a bleakness as we realised we weren't going to make our flights.
Finally, the plane arrived at Stansted, about 10 minutes after my flight had taken off. No chance of getting on, I (and everybody else) switched to Plan B - get a ticket on the next available flight. Most of us stood in a Ryanair queue for about two hours before being told that no more flights for Belfast were available and to go away.
So things flight-wise were looking bleak. EasyJet had no more flights from Stansted that day, and RyanAir has seemingly run out as well. I phoned home and got Lisa to check out options on the Internet.
She turned up just one flight - from London Luton leaving at 6:50pm that night. It was just a matter of getting to Luton, so I grabbed the next bus and had a hour-and-a-bit worth of sleep.
Luton airport - not one of my favourites at the best of times - was like a refugee camp when I arrived. With flights delayed and cancelled all morning, people had filled up the seating areas, then the restaurants, and were now sitting around the floors or sleeping on their bags.
I was there in plenty of time, and the queues at the EasyJet desks were horrendous, so I decided to wait before checking in (I needed to physically check in because I only had a booking reference). So, I mucked around for a couple of hours until the queues got smaller.
By about 4:00pm, bored, I noticed the queue had gotten smaller, so I went over and asked if I could check in for the Belfast flight. The girl behind the desk politely explained that they weren't booking in because they weren't sure if the flight would go out. Due to the weather, naturally. "Just keep an eye on the boards for Belfast and I'm sure we'll be calling the flight within about two hours of the departure time."
Fair enough, back to aimlessly wandering around the shops and people-watching. For the next few hours, nothing happened. The Belfast status refused to change, and most of us waiting for that flight assumed that it was delayed on account of the weather. We took heart from the fact that it had remained normal while most of the flights around it had been cancelled.
Anyway, well past the flight was due to go out, the Belfast status changed to an orange colour saying "Proceed To Departures". What? I'm not even checked in!
I raced to the check-in desk with about 20 other passengers on my tail. There was a man ahead of me trying to get checked in, but we all heard him being told that the flight was closed and wouldn't be accepting any more passengers.
It didn't take long for our group of worried passengers to turn into an angry mob. The EasyJet girl insisted that the flight had been called, and a raging mob yelled back at her that it had never been called. Still, she persisted. Clearly we, the people who'd been sitting staring at the screen all day, had missed the part where the flight was called.
It's also worth mentioning that not only was there no indication on the screens, but there were no tannoy announcements at Luton at all.
Continuing the customer-insulting behaviour, the EasyJet rep said that there were clearly 100 other people who had made the flight. Yeah, well perhaps they'd been able to do an online check-in! Stranded in airports all day, I only had a booking reference. If I'd been allowed to check in earlier that day, I'd have been sitting in the departure lounge with all those other passengers. Grrr.
To make matters worse, not only had the flight not actually left, but there were still seats remaining. However, not enough for the crowd of pissed-off EasyJet customers standing around the desk. And, well, the pilot wasn't prepared to hang around and wait for us.
I can see now why people get so angry and frustrated with these low-cost carriers. You're far from home, tired and anxious to get back. Somebody else's error leaves you stranded in an airport at Christmas time. Flights are fully booked. And flights are being cancelled left, right and center due to the snow.
What makes it worse is that the EasyJet staff were so unsympathetic. First, they wouldn't acknowledge the error with the flight status screens. Then, they wouldn't explain how we couldn't still board the waiting plane. The best they would offer was a night in a nearby hotel and a free meal.
- "Would we be bussed back to the airport in the morning?" "No."
- "Would there be a guarantee of a flight the next day?" "No, all EasyJet flights tomorrow are fully booked."
- "Will EasyJet be putting on an additional flight to all the customers they screwed over?" "Nope, sorry. Now, get in the bus and got to the hotel."
Let's just say, there was a lot of swearing going on.
From talking to many of my fellow stranded passengers, a lot of them planned to go back to Luton and try again tomorrow. I don't know how they got on, but it seemed totally pointless. Flights to Belfast were already full, and there was still a possibility of them being cancelled.
Luckily, I have Lisa and her itchy keyboard fingers. She loves nothing more than booking flights, so within half-an-hour, she'd booked me onto a Heathrow to Belfast City flight the next day.
I got home about lunchtime and promptly spent two hours in the bath trying to warm myself up after 24 hours of freeing in train stations and airports.
EasyJet Customer Service
99% of the times I've flown, I've never had to complain. Flights have been more or less on time, and there have never been any major complications.
However, it's that 1% of times when things go wrong that people are afraid of. When you get stuck on the wrong side of the ocean, you hope that the ground crew will be helpful and sympathetic. But they're not. I know I had to calm down a few of the more inebriated passengers myself, but a father with his young son who'd been waiting since the early afternoon were just knackered and wanted to go home.
Maybe the low-cost carriers don't get this, but when you book with an airline, you're placing your trust in them to get you from A to B. And when they can't deliver on that, you expect them to be gracious, apologetic and try to help you find another way home.