News of yet more cancellations at Heathrow is the latest blow in the run up to what seems almost certain to be a chaotic summer for travellers. There is nothing any of us can do to stop our flight being cancelled, but my experience at Athens airport the other day, suggests there is a lot that could be done to improve the situation for passengers caught up in the pandemonium.
In this case, it was a question of cometh the hour, cometh the man. “Anyone checking in for BA623 please queue in this line; anyone from last night’s delayed BA633, please queue here,” a loud voice boomed across the check-in hall. There was a ripple of applause from the 250 passengers who had already queued for more than an hour and were getting nowhere. Stress levels were soaring and the lines of passengers were in chaos as a woefully inadequate team of three staff battled to check in two flights at the same time.
But it wasn’t an airport employee who had intervened, nor a BA representative. It was a passenger driven to despair and desperate to impose some order. And he did manage to inject some semblance of organisation, so that eventually – after perhaps two hours – I got to the front of the queue.
“It’s OK, you didn’t need to queue,” said the desk attendant with a sigh almost as weary as mine. “You can use your existing boarding card.”
One reason for the chaos was that my flight – BA633 to Heathrow – had been delayed from the night before and rescheduled for noon next day. After a long wait in the departure lounge, we had been escorted back through to arrivals and told to book an overnight hotel. Before leaving the airport I had asked the official escorting us if we could use the same boarding pass for the rescheduled flight. “No,” he said, “you must check in again in the morning.” It proved impossible to do this online and an email from BA about the rescheduling didn’t mention boarding passes. Hence my two hours wasted in the queue the next morning.
My response was one of resignation rather than exasperation. This is what happens when there is no leadership. Communication breaks down, problems are compounded and the situation just gets worse. Had someone at the airport shown some initiative, combed the queues, reassured the passengers and been available to answer basic questions, the situation would have been better for staff and customers alike.
And that is what happened when – after yet more unexplained delays to the take-off time – we finally got to the gate. The BA crew walked in and, at a stroke, the atmosphere changed. The pilot himself – let’s call him Captain Fantastic – went to the desk and addressed the lounge, the first time I had seen this happen. He explained the problems that had beset the flight and what he was trying to do about it. He and the rest of the crew chatted to any passenger who approached them. Even though we finally landed at Heathrow more than 19 hours late, the goodwill between passengers and crew remained intact.
Some things are bound to go wrong. I have flown six times in the last six weeks and all but one flight suffered a significant delay. Planes were held up by a shortage of staff to refuel the plane, transport the crew and drive the transfer buses. I have waited because there was no driver for the push-back tug and I’ve arrived at the gate after landing only to wait for 20 minutes because no-one was there to operate the airbridge.
Sometimes the hold-ups have resembled a comedy script. On an easyJet flight from Gatwick to Palermo, we all waited on board while an engineer was found to repair a minor fault. That done, we were about to push back when the tug towing a plane passing just behind us broke down, trapping us at the gate. Finally extricated, we were held on the tarmac for another hour because of air traffic control restrictions. We finally got to Palermo nearly three hours late.
I have sympathy with airlines and airports ravaged by the economic fallout of the pandemic, desperately trying to play catch-up as demand surges and staff shortages are compounded by the latest wave of Covid. But what we need, to get us through this summer of inevitable disruption and delay, is some basic initiative and information.
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