Friday, 6 November 2015

Prague (Part 2): Terminal Tedium

I have never been bumped off a flight before.  I'm sure I have been on many that have been overbooked where other people might have been "denied boarding" (that's the polite phrase for it) but it has never happened to me.  And I'm not sure I really ever thought it would.  But it did, and that's how I came to spend seven and a half hours in Terminal 3.

Ray's team at Best Impressions had handled all the travel arrangements, and we were booked to fly on Monday with British Airways at 1450 from Heathrow to Prague.  For whatever reason they didn't attempt to check us in until the morning of the flight, and the system wouldn't let them - they assumed it was because they'd booked through a third party cheap flight website but I must admit it set alarm bells ringing with me.

Nevertheless I was at the airport well early.  I love airports and I hate rushing for flights so I'm usually around in very good time.  Plus I was coming from Southampton on a Monday morning and I had to bring my car - which I would normally avoid - so I had to plan for the M3 being in a bad mood and then having to get into the airport from the car park.

Needless to say it all went incredibly smoothly and I was in the terminal just after 1130, and with Ray due to arrive at 1300 I had time to kill.  Terminal 3 at Heathrow is the best of all the terminals to kill time, because it has the most interesting array of long distance flights to and from distant places, so for a while I played one of my favourite games of trying to spot the person with the most improbable amount of luggage.  Bonus points if the pile of cases is taller than the person pushing them, but actually I got bored of that because there were too many of them.

I was however completely taken with the 'cat flap' that they have had built in to the glass wall that fronts the terminal, to allow luggage trolleys to be returned to the wild, and watching that kept me amused for ages.

In due course Ray arrived, and when we couldn't check in at the self-service terminals we knew something was up.  Sure enough, the very helpful check-in assistant confirmed that there were no seats for us on our booked flight and told us to do a bit more aimless wandering around and then came back at 1400 when check-in closed to see if seats had become available.

The previous day's flights had been severely disrupted by fog, with some issues continuing into the Monday morning, so I had been fully excepting a weather delay, but to be told there were simply no seats for us was frustrating in the extreme.  Overbooking is a practice that I have always loathed with a passion - the idea that a service provider can simply choose not to provide a service that one has booked and paid for seems to me smack of arrogance and a disdain for the customer.

However, I do understand why they feel the need to do it, the news was broken very politely and on this occasion we weren't critical for time.  So we were fairly laid back about it - had we been on a tight schedule for an important meeting I doubt we'd have felt the same.

We presented ourselves again at 1400 to be told that one seat had become available.  The assistant gave us the option either to accept confirmed seats on the 1920 flight, or to take the one seat on the 1450 and then the other one could hang around at the gate during boarding and if anyone else failed to turn up at that stage, they could then be booked on.  However, the sting in the tail was that the 1450 had just been given a four hour delay - albeit this hadn't been announced yet - and therefore it was an easy decision to take the definite seats on the 1920.

I was a bit suspicious about this supposed four hour delay.  All the electronic systems were suggesting a 90 minute delay, meaning that the 1450 would leave at 1620, and it is not at all unknown for airports and airlines to lie blatantly to customers about known delays - I have caught them red handed at least once before.  And the explanation given by the assistant that the preceding inbound flight had suddenly gone from a one hour delay to a four hour delay, because of a fog problem that had cleared up hours ago, didn't quite make sense.

So although we talked about going off and doing something completely different for a few hours, we couldn't really think of anything in the area we really wanted to do, and I wanted to keep an eye on the delayed 1450 so we just went straight through security to airside.

Given that we now had five hours to kill until departure time, we didn't want to rush things.  So we took our time searching the numerous shops for a new woolly hat for Ray (Jack Wills couldn't help, success in Ted Baker) and then browsing and buying a book for the flight.  After stringing our shopping expedition out for as long as we could, ten minutes had elapsed, so we now had a mere 290 minutes to fill.

Sure enough, the plane for the 1450 arrived and started boarding shortly after 1600 - exactly as the information systems had been saying all along - and to be honest this fact annoyed me far more than the fact that we had been bumped off it.  I can cope with service disruption.  I don't like being lied to.

Had we accepted the offer of one seat on the 1450, the check-in assistant had told us that the other person could hang around at the gate in the hope that other passengers might not turn up.  After all, people check in for flights weeks beforehand, so the point when check-in closes is only a theoretical view of the number of people confirmed on the flight - and it doesn't follow that everyone who has checked in at home will actually turn up.

So we surmised that if one person could hang around at the gate, so could two, so we trotted along to the gate and politely explained that we had been bumped off this flight but would like to wait around in case any passengers didn't turn up, and would this be possible?

The politeness and good grace that we had encountered downstairs in check-in was not at all evident at this point and we were told very abruptly that check-in had closed, the flight was completely full and there were no seats available.  Which is one fewer seat than we had already been told was available when check-in closed, but nevertheless we accepted that and wandered off.

But at that point they were still processing passengers into the gate, so actually they still didn't know if they had all the passengers they were expecting.  So after thinking about it for a moment, we decided to give it one more go and rejoined the back of the queue.

By the time we were back in front of the same gate guardian, she had been joined by a male colleague.  The one who recognised us was clearly not happy to see us again.  But we explained politely, and with lots of smiles, that we were aggrieved at having been bumped off this flight, but were hoping that if anyone hadn't turned up for it, we might be able to be bumped back onto it again.

At this point, the male assistant took over and told us in no uncertain terms that there were no circumstances under which it was possible to add passengers to the flight at the gate.  This was a different explanation to the one his colleague had given us ten minutes previously, and was a direct contradiction to what we had been told at check-in - the assistant there had been absolutely clear that the second passenger could be added to the 1450 if anyone didn't turn up.

I have no idea if BA856 actually took off with any empty seats, and if it didn't I guess there's nothing we could have done anyway.  But to be bumped off a flight that we had booked and paid for and then lied to at least twice doesn't sit well with me, so at this stage my view of BA Customer Service is firmly in the doldrums.  But I flagged my concerns on twitter and they've given me a contact email address so they still have an opportunity to salvage the situation.

Meanwhile, this still left us nearly three hours to kill, so in the end we found seats by the window and just waited it out.  The Prague flights are operated by Airbus A320s and here is one leaving at the same time as the one we should have caught - just to really make us jealous...

Parked at the adjacent stand was this Emirates Airbus A380.  These are quite huge but very graceful birds and certainly on my list of planes I wish to fly.  But on this occasion we could just sit and watch while they made it ready for its next trip to the Middle East, and pass the time by trying to take arty photos on an iPhone into the sun - which I can now confirm doesn't really work!

Eventually we resorted to pacing the corridors.  We trudged wearily from Gate 11 to Gate 1, then back to Gate 11, then back to Gate 1.  And so on.  We began to feel increasingly disconnected from reality, stuck in frozen time remote from the real world.  Eventually we found a new corridor, and with renewed excitement walked to Gate 24.

Slightly to our surprise, we were called to the gate for the 1920 on time.  They even started boarding pretty much on time, just after 1900.  As we boarded the plane, the thing that was obviously missing was a flight crew - the flight deck was in darkness.  Eventually one of the cabin crew announced that our pilots had been delayed on an inbound flight and would be joining us soon - and sure enough they were the last to board the plane at around 1935.

The Captain - who co-incidentally was also in charge of our return flight on Wednesday - deserves credit for standing at the front of the cabin and explaining the situation frankly and with good humour.  He explained that he had just been to Amsterdam and back and had met with fog delays both ways, and that it would take about 20 minutes to set our plane up for our flight.  Air Traffic Control then added a further delay so were finally underway at 2020 - one hour later than scheduled, 5½ hours later than we had planned to fly and 7½ hours after arriving at the airport.

During our hour long wait on the tarmac, the cabaret was provided by one of our fellow passengers who proved that there really are people stupid enough to smoke in the toilets of an aeroplane.  Thirty seconds after disappearing into the cubicle, lights started flashing and alarms started warbling.  Three cabin staff and the Captain simultaneously leapt into action and started hammering on the toilet door and shouting for the gentleman to open the door.  When he did so, he was ushered into the forward galley, the curtains were drawn across and eventually the remains of his dismembered body were paraded in front of us.  Actually I made that last bit up, but I suspect he was addressed pretty sternly.

All this meant that rather than arriving in Prague at a nice civilised time in the early evening, giving time to explore and enjoy a relaxed dinner, we finally made it into the arrivals hall at 2345 - not ideal when the last sensible public transport link to the city left at 2344.  By now exhausted and desperate for bed, we did the one thing that we had both vowed not to do, and jumped in a taxi.

The Art Deco Imperial Hotel is apparently not art deco at all according to Ray, who is far more culturally literate than I could ever hope to be.  Apparently it is more art nouveau.  I leave you to judge for yourselves, but it is a really nice hotel and one that I would thoroughly recommend.  But after taking a few seconds to admire my room, the only thing that concerned me was sleep!


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