My worst week as an air traveller

A busy flight schedule last week started well: the Monday morning flight to Brussels was OK! After two days at the press conference for the Emerson Exchange European event in the ‘Cube’ in Brussels, which included an enjoyable afternoon seeing the sights around the Grand Square in Brussels city centre, all that was needed was to catch a flight back to Heathrow on Tuesday night: I needed to get home, to then do a quick turn-round and head to Gatwick on Wednesday, to then catch a lunchtime flight Thursday for Cancun in Mexico. This was our holiday trip to visit my son in Mahahual, way South of Cancun, where he lives and works as a fishing guide – so holidays tend to be visits to see him.

A quick trip to Brussels

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The special Tintin A300 on the outward journey to Brussels

The taxi ride for a colleague and myself out to Brussels Airport was a nightmare:  we had left Brussels city centre with 3.5 hours available before the 2130 flight time. There were jams on the motorways all the way, and then the slip road to the airport was closed off by the Police. Eventually we discovered from other drivers, and then the Internet, that a suspect vehicle had been seen on one airport approach road, so the airport had been closed, and all current flights cancelled.

Return to Brussels centre?

OK so turn the taxi round, head back for Brussels and try to catch the Eurostar home. Bad traffic again, which made the task of connecting with the last train of the evening, leaving at 2030 approx, impossible. No matter, colleagues in Emerson could book us a room for the night, and we could fly home Wednesday morning! But wait, the Internet now says Brussels airport is now open! Flights are leaving! OK, turn the taxi round, again, from half way back to the town centre, and go back to the airport! No jams now, although the taxi drop off point is Floor 3 of the multi-storey car park. Possibly the taxi driver was happy, as he had a fare of 2.5x the normal airport taxi cost. Maybe he is part of the evolving conspiracy against getting us home?

Fast track departure through the chicanes

Following the suicide bombings at Brussels Airport, in the Departure lounge, there have been some recent re-adjustments to the departure route for passengers, to get the airport operating again. These mean that from the public taxi drop-off point then you walk down the ramps from the car park to the ground floor, pass a couple of 7 foot tall Belgian Army Commandos, and zig-zag thru an entrance route to get to a big reception tent. Here Police and Army boarding card/e-ticket and passport checks only let passengers through into a long baggage screening and metal detector search area, protected by several concrete barriers. Sounds good, and is effective. And as Eoin O’Riain comments, the document checks were all very friendly, helpful (and multi-lingual) and good natured. Then you get to the check in area in another big tent structure, with lots of people – but there are still some automated boarding pass machines. We got thru those, to gain a boarding card each and proceeded to enter the real building, moving quickly now because it was getting late: this meant going up three flights of concrete stairs, emergency exit type, to get up to the third floor again, and the real pax screening.

Thru the ticket check and baggage x-ray, and metal detectors again, and into the departure area. All the time everything had looked OK: but only here did we see a flight departure info screen in English, to discover that our flight was cancelled, because not wanting to get left out of the misery stakes the Belgian air traffic controllers had decided they didn’t like all this hassle of getting to work, and went on strike!

Turn again, back to Brussels centre?

What to do now? Well let’s ask the airline, Brussels Airlines. Some passing local staff told us there was a Brussels Airlines desk in the actual departure gate area, which was the place to go for help. This meant going thru passport control, and then walking the full length of the departure terminal again, to reach the desk at the far end.

Here a very helpful lady said the Air Traffic Controllers would be back at work at 10pm, so our flight could not go because it was scheduled for 2130. Why 10pm? She did not know, but said they always come back then, maybe they get a higher pay rate after 10pm, maybe the pubs close then, who knows? So we were re-allocated seats and a boarding card for the 1100 flight the next morning, and given a Hotel room and a meal voucher for the night.

All we needed to do now was walk all the way round the terminal again, find the exit into the car park, and this time wait for a courtesy bus to get us to the Hotel. Here it is worth commenting that the Belgian Hotel staff were very sympathetic, and had no respect for the air traffic controllers who for personal gain were piling more inconvenience onto those travellers who had shown solidarity with the city, and refused to delay or cancel their travel plans. Next morning , back to the airport for a repeat of the check-in procedure, up the stairs, thru checks etc, only to discover the boarding cards did not scan properly, so we had to go thru another repeat, to re-issue these boarding cards (on a better printer) at a very busy Brussels Airlines desk, which thank goodness was a quick and easy process.

At least I arrived home on Wednesday afternoon, with no further hiccups, to set off at 6pm to drive to a Hotel at Gatwick, to catch the next flight of the week, this time my wife and I were going on holiday to Mexico, to see our son Nick, who is a fishing guide in Mahahual, south of Cancun on the Costa Maya.

On to Cancun, we thought….

Thursday morning saw my wife and I at Gatwick, looking to fly to Mexico on Virgin Atlantic. In fact the flight was Virgin VS093, on 14 April 2016. A nice flight, we’ve used this route before, on a big Boeing 747 Jumbo jet. Gatwick was crowded, and the flight was delayed by nearly an hour, boarding about 1300. Not too many passengers on board, so we could spread out a bit.

After about 4 hours, the hostesses brought several families with young children into our seating area and put them into some rows of spare seats – I thought maybe this was to let the kids lie down. Then it became obvious that there was something else going on, when the Tannoy system made some form of an announcement, finishing with an audible bit that said “We will be arriving in New York in 2 hours”. The flight map also showed that the plane was heading west for New York, having previously been heading southwest, over the Atlantic off the coast of Labrador. First of all you panic, thinking you are on the wrong plane. Then you think there must be some technical problem with it..???

Just another drunken Brit!

It transpired, with a further announcement, that a passenger, a member of the stag party heading for Cancun, had been abusive and threatening to the Virgin staff and some passengers, and generally disruptive. He “needed to be restrained by the airline staff”, and would be kept under restraint in the aircraft until he could be off-loaded into the care of the authorities at New York.

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A Virgin Jumbo arriving at Cancun: it can cost up to £200,000 to divert one of these to make an extra stop, and compensate all the passengers who are waiting to fly home.

The plane did a straight in approach to JFK Airport in New York, and in the words of the crew was “held at the edge of the airport for the authorities to board”. The authorities were about six burly policemen, who removed the offender, but then spent about an hour taking statements and info from those who had witnessed the events. Eventually we arrived in Cancun, 3 hours later than planned, which messed up most people’s onward travel arrangements. The rest of the stag party also disembarked, all looking a bit daft in their matching baseball hats and T-shirts.

What happened to the offender, left in New York? Maybe from there he will have to travel home by sea, in a container preferably: he certainly will never fly again, and probably it will take a few years before he has paid off the landing fees for a Jumbo to visit JFK, just to drop him off. I hope he was not the Groom!

[Note: This story is published after our return home, to hail and wet UK snow on the road back from Gatwick, a significant contrast to the 30-40C temperatures experienced in Playa Del Carmen, Akumel, Tulum, Chetumal and Mahahual]