This Travel Nightmares story is told by David Ashton, a frequent reader and commented for EELife and EDA Designline.
While I was working for SITA, the airlines telecomms network, in Zimbabwe I used to have to travel to our head office in Paris once a year for our annual technical meeting for the Africa region. These were fairly enjoyable on the whole. We had to present our budgets and had the bean counters knocking us back for just about everything (as bean counters are wont to do) but we got some presentations about new equipment and services that were coming onto our network, and had a chance to get together and have a beer or three with colleagues from far-flung places whom we didn't see very often.
For some reason someone in the French airline system always seemed to contrive to have a strike the week that our meeting took place. If it wasn't Air France, it was Air Traffic Control, or the baggage handlers, or someone on whose heads the smooth transfer of passengers depended. As we were part of the airlines we travelled on free staff tickets, and when there were bottlenecks we always got shoved to the end of the queue. "Seat warriors, that's what we are", a colleague used to say. "Always fighting for a seat...." It didn't matter if Air France were on strike and we had British Airways tickets. All the full fare passengers who couldn't get an Air France flight transferred to British Airways, and so seats on BA were at a premium too.
One year I was travelling with my friend Andre from Johannesburg. Our bosses had advised us to get out of Paris as soon as we could, as flights were very tight. So Andre and I headed out to the airport as soon as we'd finished our meetings. Getting one seat on a full flight was a mission. Getting two seats was well-nigh impossible. We were refused flight after flight. Andre was all for calling it a day and going back into Paris and getting a hotel for the night. I was a seasoned seat warrior though, and refused to be beaten. I looked at the screens showing departing flights and amongst the ones showing as "Annullé" (cancelled) I saw one on a small airline going to Luton, one of the minor airports serving London, which was still open. This was a long shot, as airlines were often chary of accepting staff tickets from other airlines, but I thought it was worth a try. We had to go to another terminal, but the checkin agent was friendly and helpful. Yes, they had a couple of spare seats, and yes they would take our tickets. Andre was impressed but hadn't heard of either the airline or Luton, so was a bit sceptical. When we finally got sent to the gate and put on a bus, Andre spoke up. "A bus! David, what have you got us into??" "Relax!" I replied. "The plane's just not at a gate." The bus made an interminable trip round the terminals and deposited us next to a small two-propellor plane. "No, David", said Andre. "What the hell is this? Propellors???" I just laughed. We are both big guys and had to bend down inside the plane before squashing ourselves into small seats. Andre was not happy. He didn't travel as often as I did, and was used to being in big jets when he did. I on the other hand was always swanning around the middle of Africa and this was by no means the smallest plane I'd been in. When they started the engines he could no longer talk to me from across the aisle and merely glared at me.
Andre was visibly relieved when we touched down in Luton an hour and a bit later. We now had to get into London. We found our way to the train station and had over an hour to wait for the next train. No pub, no kiosk even, just a sit and a wait. We looked across onto fields and cows. "Are you sure we're near London?" asked Andre.
Eventually a train came, got us to London, we got a taxi to a hotel and met in the pub for a beer. "Well, here you are, we're in London!", I said. "And think of the war stories you can tell everyone in Jo'Burg!". "I suppose so", said Andre, placated by his first sip of beer. "But for a bit there, I wondered what you had got us into...."
Another year I was travelling alone and had similar problems. I'd been at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for hours. Again I found a flight on a small airline, Air UK, going to Gatwick. I had a British Airways staff ticket, and they'd told me I had no chance with them. I went to the Air UK checkin desk. The guy was sympathetic but said he was full. I asked if I might have the jump seat (the little flop-down seat behind the pilots). "I've got someone who's booked that already", he said, "but I haven't seen them for a bit, so if they don't come, it's yours. But I'll need you to get BA to sign your ticket over to us. And it'll be late, we won't leave before 10 PM." This was a straw, but it was worth clutching at. I trekked back to the BA counter, and asked them to sign the ticket over to Air UK. "You'll be lucky", the BA guy said, but signed the ticket and I went back to Air UK. "Come back in a couple of hours" he said, taking my ticket. You might be lucky.
I went and had a beer and a bite, and returned to the desk at the appointed time. "There you go" said the Air UK guy, handing me a boarding pass. "First class jump seat!" There were more delays and we took off about 11 PM. But it was a beautiful clear night, and the jump seat gave a far better view than the usual windows. As we approached England I could see the lights of all the towns lining the Thames estuary. My sister lived on the Isle of Sheppey on the north side of the estuary and I could see the lights of the streets of the town where she lived. We flew south of London proper but I've never had such a good view of the city from the air - it looked magical. I only got to bed in a hotel in London well after midnight, after a nightmare day, but that is one flight I will not forget.
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