Saturday, 14 June 2008

Flying lesson

Coincidence? Rotten luck? Bad karma? I wonder what it is about me and public transportation. On second thoughts, perhaps I should shut up before someone puts out an all-ports warning to stop me ever going anywhere. I am not superstitious, touch wood, fingers crossed. I wasn't worried for one moment about flying home on Friday 13th, or that the flight departed from Gate 13. Departed. How I wish it had been that simple.

We had a gentle, relaxing holiday. It rained, but was sunny enough often enough for La Fille to turn an edible caramel colour even though she was smothered in factor 60. The Frenchman, who has a horror of sun cream, went various shades of rouge the likes of which are rarely seen outside The Happy Snapper fishmonger's . As La Belle Belle Fille warned in an email: "My father is convinced that if stays 2 hours on the beach in his swimming trunks but wears also a hat or a cap, it protects him from any sunstroke on his WHOLE body without using sun cream. You didn't know you married a magician". I laughed like a drain when I read this sitting in the hotel reception while the Frenchman quietly sizzled nearby but dared not complain because, after all, I had told him so several times. Me? I sat under a big hat and La Fille's SF60 and went ever-so slightly off pale Anglaise.

We arrived at the airport feeling chilled out. Cool; make mine a last rum and (diet) coke cool. I'd checked in on line and secured the tall Frenchman the last available seat with extra leg room. La Fille and I, both vertically challenged, sacrificed ourselves to the row behind. The biggest difficulty, the Frenchman and I naively thought, would be to persuade La Fille to shun the in-flight cartoon channel and sleep all the way home. Easy peasy-ish, we agreed in a cool sort of way. We noted the plane had arrived from London several hours beforehand and, reassured, we went shopping. When they announced boarding in 15 minutes for a 16.40 departure we went dutifully and as instructed to the gate. La Fille yawned. Home and dry, we thought.

Wrong on all counts. Minutes passed. Nobody boarded. It began to rain. And rain. And rain. A tropical depression in every sense. A toddler shrieked and threw a tantrum and you could see even child-loathing people thinking: "Good. Maybe that'll get things moving", except it didn't. Nothing budged except airport staff who stuck who buckets under the leaks in the terminal roof as the tropical storm raged. We passengers, trying to eke out the cool, chuckled and patted passengers next to us on the arm while laughing the laugh of strangers united by common experience.

Around 90 minutes of common experience later as we stood in a very ramrod British line yards from the plane steps - so near but so far - the laughs were strained. The pilot, a handsome man called Ian with a reassuring voice, informed us the plane had lost both its high frequency navigation radios after a lightening strike on the way out. He asked for patience while repairs were carried out in a way none of us could refuse. It was only afterwards it dawned on us that the airline had known about the "technical problem" since the plane arrived from the UK, and well before we checked in, but had chosen not to tell us.

Goodwill turned to anger. La Fille complained she was hungry but we couldn't take her to the arm-and-a-leg airside restaurant for fear of suddenly being called to board. As airline staff - some on free tickets - tried to wheedle their way onto another flight, goat class passengers were herded this way and that. Each time we were ordered to move I, mindful of the TGV incident, went through the same routine: Charlie? Check. Bébe? Check. Fred? Check. Green Monkey (new stuffed toy acquisition) ? Check.

Finally we were told what we already knew: the flight was not leaving and we would be taken to a hotel for the night. We had to hand back our cheap duty-free bottles of rum, check out our bags and clear off. To add insult to injury some of us were thrown out of a queue for accommodation and directed to another twice as long because the first was "for first and business class passengers only". I lost my cool at this point. 'Acts of God' such as lightening being one thing. 'Crass Corporate Actions' another.

I haven't named the airline, suffice to say there are only two major British-based companies that fly direct from Gatwick to Barbados and it wasn't Virgin.

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