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Hit the road Jack and don’t you come back
No more, no more, no more, no more
Hit the road Jack and don’t you come back no more
What you say?
– Hit the road Jack, Ray Charles
Day 75 of my world tour and the wheels are coming off. Well, one of them is, at least. Many people, not least me, have said it’s time I retired and so I suppose there was an element of empathy in my Lufthansa aircraft to Frankfurt this morning undergoing exactly that experience, phonetically at least. More of that in a moment.
And the day had started so well. For once, wary of rumoured delays at check-in and security at Heathrow, I turned up very early for my 10.30 flight to Germany and then on to Thailand.
Alas, quite why I opted for a tight transit connection through Frankfurt en route to Bangkok for what shapes as my first holiday since 2019 and a welcome reunion with my wife Yulim will haunt me for some time.
Yes, it saved me a few hundred pounds but ultimately it has cost me a day of my life, a multi-storey raising of my blood-pressure levels and a real despair about the state of the European air travel sector.
You see my 10.30 Lufthansa flight 903 did not depart until around 14.00. Around about the time, that is, my connecting Thai Airways flight was soaring serenely above the River Main. And that, dear readers, is because my chosen aircraft had gotten a flat tyre.
Now I am not the most practical of men but even I know that when faced with the dreaded prospect of a flat tyre on a motorway you pull the car over to the hard shoulder (the motorway’s, not yours), open the boot, pull out the jack and the spare wheel, and set to work. Hey presto, unless you’re me and need to call the AA because you’re totally useless, you’ll be done in 15 minutes or so.
Not so, it appears with a Lufthansa tyre. “We don’t know yet if they can even locate a tyre,” one of the understandably flustered staff members told a group of us at the boarding gate area, where people had gathered having been called there for an anticipated 11.00 take-off. Several suggestions, some of them not exceedingly polite, were made as to appropriate sourcing.
For a moment I did consider contacting the local Robin Reliant specialist but that would have meant all passengers having to sit on the right hand side of the plane to provide sufficient balance. Inflation is one of the biggest challenges to the aviation industry. Now you can add deflation to the list. It is turning out to be not a very Goodyear after all.
So we waited. And waited. And then we waited some more. A young trainee nurse bound for Australia told me tearfully that she would miss her exams and that a travel delay was considered no excuse. “I’ll have to wait another whole year,” she told me, tears welling in her eyes. I told her that there was still a chance. After all, my trusty (and best-in-class) travel agent Phil Burdekin from Flight Centre had told me that that the Thai Airways mid-afternoon flight from Frankfurt to Bangkok had been at least an hour late for each of the previous seven days.
A chance then. But Slim. And Slim, as they say, had just left town…
Yes, Thai Airways 921, Frankfurt to Bangkok, was on time. And so ensued a rather disconcerting hour or so en route to Frankfurt wondering what might await me upon landing. It was nothing short of the travel equivalent to the gates of hell. The first Lufthansa Service Centre which lots of us rushed to was closed. The sign said to go to zone B. That meant going through security (where of course my hand luggage was put through a secondary check) and immigration.
B clearly stood for bedlam. Hundreds upon hundreds of passengers were lined up in a queue that snaked through the terminal from the Lufthansa Service Centre. Some were crying, some were shouting, most had simply resigned themselves to their fate. No-one was there to help, no water was being handed out. No-one to turn to. It was carnage. Inexcusable carnage. Abandon hope all you who enter here.
For two and a half years airports had almost no passengers. Now we have lots of them and we are ‘handling’ them – to use that horrid airline and airport phrase that should be banned – like cattle headed for the slaughterhouse. Lufthansa cannot do anything about a flat tyre, nor even an apparent shortage of Heathrow staff to fit a new one. But it can and should ensure that there is properly humane treatment of all the passengers whose schedules lay in tatters as a result of such delays.
On trusty Phil’s advice I set off instead trying to find the Thai Airways ticketing office. Big mistake. After navigating the alphabetical maze that is Frankfurt Airport, chocker-block with queues everywhere, I spied a Thai Airways check-in desk. I rushed up to one overworked assistant and asked where the airline ticketing office was.
“We don’t have a ticketing office,” she replied tersely.
“Well, who can I talk to? My flight in from London this morning was delayed and I missed my onward connection with Thai to Bangkok.”
“You have to talk to Lufthansa. They made the mess; they need to sort it out.” And she turned away.
A feeling of abject hopelessness set in. It was like watching the All Blacks play Ireland all over again. Pondering alternatives to returning to that unbearable queue I rang Phil and found out there was one seat left on a Qatar Airways flight that evening through Hamad International and on to Suvarnabhumi International in Bangkok. The price was eye-watering but the prospect of getting out of here beguiling. But what of my checked-in luggage?
I also asked at one of Frankfurt Airport’s many last-minute flight booking counters and was quoted over €11,000 for a one-way ticket, again through Doha. There was one seat left, I was told. “Better buy it now.”
I wandered on, pondering Phil’s option, when I spied a rather quiet Lufthansa check-in zone. I noticed a manager just about to walk behind the counter and asked her if she could help.
“Let me see,” she said, looking at my ticket.
“Can I have your passport please?”
She disappeared into a back room for a few minutes then returned and made a call. She then produced what very much looked like two boarding cards and a third form of some kind.
“Ok, you’re going to Stockholm tomorrow morning and then on to Bangkok,” she said. “We have arranged a hotel for tonight. Your flight is at 6.30 in the morning. Be here at 4.30 in the morning, ok? 4.30. You must be here. You have to get through security.”
I took that (rightly as it turned out) to mean that security would be a further challenge and vowed to arrive even earlier.
“You are an angel,” I said, thanking her profusely. And she was. I wish I had asked her name because I would write to Lufthansa and suggest they put her in charge of customers relations.
“That’s my pleasure,” she smiled.
And so my journey continued, unexpectedly, to the InterCity Hotel Frankfurt, a spartan experience with quite possibly the worst (and definitely the worst-looking) airport hotel buffet I have experienced.
But the cleansing German Pilsner was glorious, the Blauschiefer Mosel Riesling 2020 from Markus Molitor exhilaratingly dry and refreshing, the staff affable and I had a bed for the night. It could have been worse and for many it was.
One of them was the young Australian would-be nurse, who I bumped into again as I arrived back at Frankfurt Airport at the ungodly hour of 4.30a.m.
“Do you have a flight?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”
“How long did you wait in the queue yesterday?”
“Two hours in the first one, then they closed it off. One hour in the second one, then they closed that too. About five hours in the next one.”
“Oh no. And did they get you on a flight?”
“No, they just got me a hotel room. I don’t have a flight. I’m trying to find someone to help. I honestly think yesterday was the worst day of my life.”
The young woman, her nursing dreams now on hold for a year, wished me luck and dashed off to try to find someone, anyone, anywhere that might help. I wonder how many others are finding themselves in a similar plight, not just at Frankfurt but across the collective disaster zone that is European airport space.
It might have just after 4.30a.m but my heart sank as I saw the pre-security queue stretching out into the distance in front of me. Besides the human discomfort, think of all the commecial revenues that are being lost.
“Airlines, airports and ground handlers must end the blame game,” ran the headline in a story by Financial Times columnist Peggy Hollinger yesterday. She described “Europe’s summer of travel chaos, when thousands of flights have been cancelled for lack of baggage handlers, cleaners and security staff.” Add tyre changers to that list.
I am now on day 76 of my world tour and I’ve set up an Interim SAS Lounge Bureau at Stockholm Arlanda Airport. I was lucky enough to meet a second angel, the simply lovely lounge manager Eva who even let me through to the higher level Gold lounge after hearing my story.
It just hasn’t been my week. Messrs Sod and Murphy strike again. On Tuesday I attended my younger son Ali’s graduation in York. It was the first in-person graduation at York University since the pandemic began and it happened to coincide with the hottest day in the city’s history, 41C.
One suspected that the ever-fragile British railway system which cannot cope with the wrong kind of leaves in autumn certainly wouldn’t cope well with Sahara-like temperatures in summer. As a result, all trains from York into London were cancelled the next day, the eve that is of my fateful outbound flight.
How to get back to London? Planes? Nope, nothing available. Trains? Well I told you the answer already. Automobiles….? Well, just maybe.
This felt like a flashback to 12 years ago when Dermot Davitt and I cast ourselves as latter-day John Candy (Dermot) and Steve Martin (me, of course) characters in a remake of Plane, Trains and Automobiles. On that occasion we found ourselves stranded in New York due to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in Iceland that played havoc with air space all over the world.
In York, it was people rather than a volcano erupting. All coaches were booked out and every executive car service likewise by people facing similar plights. Surely I wouldn’t find a Uber? I did. “Arriving in four minutes.”
And so, four and a half hours later, after working from an Interim Uber Bureau the whole time, I arrived back in Brentford, £425 poorer (including a generous tip) but happy in the knowledge that I would be flying to Bangkok the next day. Little did I know. Maybe I should have simply taken the Uber all the way to Frankfurt. Deutschland, Deutschland Uber alles.
I’m sure a few hours’ sleep on the next leg will cheer me up but for now, just like Lufthansa 903 I am feeling distinctly deflated.