Tuesday 12 December 2017

How we turned our holiday from hell into a great big adventure

DON'T let flight disasters ruin things - they can show the kids why there is always a plan B

LIFE LESSON: Arlene’s sons Callan, Tadgh and Rodhan learn to deal with airport chaos.
LIFE LESSON: Arlene’s sons Callan, Tadgh and Rodhan learn to deal with airport chaos.
Arlene and son Tadgh on holiday in France.

Arlene Harris

Preparing for a holiday can be a stressful business – from the weeks of frantic preparation to the tense moment of trying to close the zip on the holdall.

So by the time you reach the airport, all the stresses of everyday life have been banished and the holiday officially begins after the security checks and you are free to browse the duty free and wait for your flight to be called.

But what if, through no fault of your own, you ended up changing your destination at the last minute, sitting on an aircraft for hours and arriving in a different country late at night with three children, no place to stay and no means of getting to your final destination – not such a great start to the holiday now is it?

This is exactly what happened to me and my family last month. We had planned to visit a rural village not far from Carcassonne in south west France and although we became aware of the French air traffic controllers (ATC) strike the evening before departure, checks to our airline assured us that this destination was not affected.

Our flight was due to leave at 11am and we arrived two hours early. The airport was packed and monitors showed that dozens of flights to France had been cancelled – but ours was still flashing its availability, so we breathed a sigh of relief.

After locating our seats, buckling up and watching the routine safety display, we waited for the wheels to start moving. But nothing happened. After a period of muffled conversations and charged glances between staff, the captain finally enlightened us to the horrible fact that our flight had been cancelled and we would all have to disembark.

Previous back-packing survival instincts kicked in and I motioned my stunned family to grab their bags and make a hasty exit. If there was an alternative route to be had, I didn't want to be at the back of that queue.

Racing through the terminal, we found the service desk which had three staff on duty – two of whom seemed to have been employed purely for decorative purposes (as neither apparently had any access to the computers in front of them and simply stood there watching the mania) and another whose task it was to try to pacify the several hundred people who were beating a path to her desk.

While I got in line, my children sat slumped on their cases – the youngest with tears streaming down his face – while my other half rang the insurance company to find out what the damage limitations were. We had no idea what options would be available to us once we reached the harassed woman with the sole working computer, but we were determined that we wouldn't be going home.

After the briefest consultation with Mr H, I requested a transfer to the Girona flight which was due to leave at 15.30 – we would arrive by teatime and make our way to France – it was a bit out of the way, but it would be an adventure.

With this new turn of events, everyone perked up (particularly as clutching our new tickets, we walked past the hundreds of people still waiting to hear their fate). Tears were dried and the idea that we were going on a detour to Spain seemed suddenly thrilling.

It was just gone midday and we had a few hours until we boarded but after going through the rigmarole of security, boarding and passport control again, there didn't seem to be much time left and by 15.00 we were sitting on another plane waiting to take off for Girona.

Despite the stewards' assurances, I was no longer willing to believe the supposed take-off time until the wheels left the ground. It turns out I was right.

After half an hour of sitting on board with the doors still wide open, we were stung for the second time in one day by the ATC strikers. Sure enough, the rest of the passengers had just begun to get twitchy when the captain announced that there was some difficulty about flying over French airspace and our allotted time had been pushed back from 15.30 to 19.30 or even later.

We were unimpressed – particularly as for the duration of the four-hour wait, we were kept in our seats on the aircraft without so much as a cup of tea or even a glass of water. Then the cabin crew took their lives in their hands by venturing down the aisles offering refreshments for sale, peddling bottled water, overpriced beverages and a selection of limp snacks which looked every bit as exhausted as the passengers.

After a series of announcements from the captain, we took to the air. Before arriving in Spain at 10.30pm, the supervisor announced that there would either be accommodation provided or a bus to take us to our original destination once we landed.

Foolishly, we believed her and disembarked into the balmy Spanish night to be confronted by a terminal full of irate passengers whose flight back to the UK had been cancelled – our cabin crew were nowhere to be seen. We made the spontaneous decision to find the nearest hotel, dump our bags and get a good night's sleep.


It was obvious that no one was going to get compensated at the airport, so we decided to worry about that at a later date.

With only a handful of available rooms, we were delighted to have found a bed in the airport hotel and after a deep sleep; awoke the following morning to the next task of trying to make our way to the little village where we were supposed to be staying in the heart of the Pyrenees. It was only about 100 miles so we figured it wouldn't be much of a problem.

But after waiting almost two hours for the scheduled bus to Perpignan, we discovered that some bus and train lines had either gone out in sympathy with the ATC strikers or were waging their own protest. We got chatting to another family who had followed the same steps as us from Ireland and we agreed to share a taxi minibus to Perpignan, where we would then attempt to get a train to Carcassonne.

Like a scene from Trains, Planes and Auto-mobiles, we loaded up the vehicle and began the 40-minute journey over the border to France. On arrival, we bid farewell to our travelling companions, held on to our receipts, which we would use to claim back expenses on our return, and got ready for the next leg.

But lo and behold, drivers on our train line were on strike so the only way to get to our final destination was a local bus which visited every hamlet along the way, taking up to two hours.

C'est la vie – there was nothing else for it, so we hot-footed it to the bus station, joined the queue and sank into our seats for the homeward stretch of our 24-hour journey to Carcassonne.

Throughout the many hours of travelling, queuing, negotiating and waiting, we never lost our cool.

Sure we were annoyed and dismayed, but one thing I have learned from my travels over the years is that if something is beyond your control, there is no point in getting too stressed, because nothing will change the course of events.

So we turned a holiday nightmare into an adventure where the kids got to see more than they bargained for and it was also a good lesson in learning that things don't always go to plan so it is important to come up with an alternative.

There are likely to be more ATC strikes this summer, so my advice to anyone who gets caught up in industrial action is to take a deep breath, consider your options and turn the situation into a positive experience for the family.

The Herald



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