This is a tale of the impact of the French ATC strike on folk trying to get home from a combined business and leisure visit to the Algarve.
We were due to fly to Gatwick from Faro on the second day of the strike and, having had to reorganise things for our son the day before when his Easyjet flight was cancelled, I combined relaxing by the pool with regular trips into the cottage to check the flight status of our 20.00 departure. Sure enough, at lunchtime came the great news that the anticipated time of departure was now 02.35, with a 05.30 arrival expected into Gatwick. So, that would mean no hotel rest before our onward flight to Scotland…..
I kept checking. An hour later, the departure was posted as 21.22 – things were looking up, or were they? Half an hour later, when I checked the outbound, Gatwick Airport showed an on-time departure (!!) as did BA but this time with a 00.55 arrival into Faro – over 8 hours for a 2’40” flight. Our own departure was now showing as 00.52, three minutes before expected arrival of the aircraft!!
I rang BA in some confusion – they knew nothing more than was posted on the website. I rang the travel agent where I had booked my ticket and they could not provide any further clarification – just the warning to check in on-time whatever!! So, no extended poolside evening and a leisuely dinner before our flight!! As it transpired, the advice on check-in was gold-plated as, we later found out, check-in closed at 19.20 as normal…
We arrived at the airport at about 18.20 for our supposed 20.00 flight and were checked in by the handling agent team. The process on all desks (we used the Club Europe desks) was very slow but eventually we headed through, armed with improved seats (emergency exit), €15 f and b vouchers and directions to the Lounge. We were advised by the check-in agent (not BA) just to check our bag to Gatwick as timings were likely to remain fairly fluid – an understatement by any other name!!
The Lounge is third party in Faro – the only one in the airport which also doubles up as a paid-for lounge for the likes of Easyjet. – and was heaving as many flights were delayed. Luckily we found seats and I proceeded to monitor information, courtsey of the wifi system there. This continuued to fluctuate because, it would appear, the inbound aircraft was very late into Gatwick and the, even after it pushed back, took an hour to be allocated a slot for take-off.
Lounge drinks facilities were perfectly adequate but food was minimal so I ventured out to spend our combined €30, joining snaking queues to purchase over-priced but reasonable tasty options. Even so, spending €30 on food only was not that easy in an airport really only offering fast food and snacks but I was quite pleased with my tray-full when i returned. My haul included the exquisite Portuguese custard tarts (Pasteis de nata) so I was happy!!
Information sources started to firm up on a 00.50 inbound arrival and a 01.35 departure but, ominously, with an arrival time into Gatwick of 06.55, hardly credible unless a long wait after boarding was anticipated. There was certainly a Dunkirk spirit in the Lounge, which made for loud hilarity but all was generally good natured.
We were turfed out of the Lounge at 23.30 (normal closing time) and, while some people objected, it seemed fair to let the poor girl on Reception get home!! We made our way out, through Immigration, to the considerably harder seats of the non-Schengen departure area where, luckily, we could still pick up Lounge wifi. A couple of Easyjet flights made to board but one was cancelled when the departure slot allocated meant that the crew would be out of hours. So, a nervous wait for us on the BA flight.
The flight was called at 01.15 and we boarded via buses, premium passengers first. Once into 12A and 12B, we appreciated the extra legroom but noticed that the seats, fine for daytime flights, are starved of width when trying to sleep. Once we were all aboard, the captain was able to inform us that the allocated slot had moved forward from 04.20 to 02.45 and this, in fact, came back to 02.30, dictated by a volatile ATC situation. We were promised a 2’40” flight and, once airborne, the crew provided a quick and efficient service of drinks and wraps before we tried to get some sleep. In fact, we landed in Gatwick earlier than announced at 04.50 and taxied to a remote stand where buses were waiting to take passengers to the Terminal.
A short wait at immigration was followed by a ridiculously long period before our luggage appeared – close to an hour because, the word on the street said, there was only one baggage crew on duty at Gatwick North and a number of flights to service. True or not, the apologies without explanation appeared token rather than sincere. Eventually, our bags appeared and we were able to head upstairs to check-in for our Glasgow flight.
Most of this horror story was outwith BA’s control and it is clear that they were dealing with constantly changing information themselves. In the pre-internet age, most of these changes would have passed us by, certainly, the ability to track depatures, arrivals and in-flight on our mobile devices means that airlines do need to be a bit more proactive themselves in providing up-to-date information to passengers and that applies to local service agents as well as to the airline itself at its ‘mother’ hubs.