Trains, Planes and Automobiles….

A simple return home from The Netherlands to Portsmouth via Dusseldorf and Southampton became unusually long, tiring and traumatic last week – it took me 21 hours for what usually takes 6 hours.

Having left the office in Heerlen at 430pm, I arrived as usual at the airport for my FlyBe flight back home on Thursday with time to spare so I made my way through security and passport control to buy some tax-free goods – cigarettes, perfume for the other half and some pipe tobacco.

I then made my way through to the business lounge where I read my book and waited for boarding. It’s now that the timeline becomes important. With thirty minutes to spare I walked down to the gate, it is literally on the airport lower level,  and stood around as is usual, for the aircraft to be cleaned on turnaround and the transit bus to arrive at the doors of the gate. A guy I have seen on and off who also uses the service had commented that the inbound flight was delayed so we were unlikely to be leaving on time. For now we’ll call him Jonah.

We eventually boarded for an 845pm departure later than planned but the exact time escapes – it wasn’t relevant at the time – we have often taken-off late but still with good routing have returned to Southampton on time if not before. So we sit in the aircraft and we’re sweating – the climate in The Netherlands and Germany was particularly humid and hot last week – there are to add insult to injury threats of severe thunderstorms. The crew close the doors; the pilot speaks to us and we taxi out for take-off, hold our position and then we’re off. The usual acceleration starts but then the pilot hits the brakes – we slow and the aircraft is steered to the left and we sit on the tarmac. I remember the pilot’s words “Cabin crew, Normal Operations” which I can only presume is airline speak for “Houston, we have a problem”. After a few minutes the pilot explains we have some issue with the Avionics and we’re going to try to fix it where we are. After a few more minutes it’s explained again by the pilot that we have to return to the stand to contact engineering as going through the ‘manual’ isn’t solving the issue. We taxi and return to the stand and wait. At this point I don’t imagine I’m going home tonight. The pilot also gives us leave to use our mobile phones to contact people expecting us in Southampton so I message my fiancée to say I don’t think I’ll be on time.

To my short-lived relief we (I’m now nervous) proceed after an announcement from the pilot that the problem is resolved, taxi out and take-off.  Wheels-up and then we climb but something isn’t right (I’m now very nervous). The first thing I noticed was we don’t get the usual initial ‘bing-bong’ nor do the cabin crew un-belt and start to come down the aisle with the drinks trolley. In fact,  we actually get an announcement from the pilot that the problem hasn’t been cured as at first thought and we’re now returning to Dusseldorf airport. The next twenty or so minutes felt like a lifetime, so as a distraction I actually opened my book and read some more.

Eventually, the wheels came down and we landed – it was bumpy to say the least and taxi to the stand. All credit to the calmness of the cabin and flight crew as their contingency training must have kicked-in. It was very quiet on the aircraft but there was I am sure a communal sigh of relief as we were allowed to un-belt and leave the aircraft and return to the building via a transit bus. By now it’s just after 10pm.   At this point in a call to my fiancée she is still seeing our arrival scheduled on FlightTrack but shortly afterwards the flight is showing ‘cancelled‘ at 2213 on the app confirming this.

We pass through passport control again and then all congregate in baggage reclaim and pounce on a member of ground staff who is handing out a ‘your rights’ flyer. He is actually dealing with another flight cancellation who fortunately or otherwise hadn’t left the ground which was apparently due to the extreme weather in Dusseldorf – very heavy rain, thunder and lightning.  It’s very odd but I never saw Jonah again after we initially boarded the aircraft. So eventually the ground staff guy says he will go and come back on 5 minutes. Sometime later he comes and explains we need to wait by the supermarket at the end of the arrivals hall. So I duly march out to the store with the others  and take the opportunity to go outside to smoke. There are a few of us out there. Two guys from the British army trying to get to Blandford, another guy who reminded me of Norman Wisdom, a German girl travelling to Bournemouth and a few other stragglers. There  had been 3 German couples – middle-aged – who were apparently trying to join a cruise in Southampton – I never saw them again.

By this time it was evident that an enormous thunderstorm had broken over the airport – whilst we were undercover we could see very bright flashes of lightening, very loud claps of thunder and torrential rain pouring into areas where there is a gap between the terminal and the car parking.

By midnight we are directed to board a coach that has been sat outside the airport for at least 30 minutes. But the numbers have dwindled; the German girl has gone to stay with some friends. In fact the soldiers had decided to stay in the airport instead of the to and fro to the hotel; but changed their minds last minute and came to the hotel with boasts about emptying two mini-bars. We’re also told that there will be taxis to take us back at 5am!

By 1230 we are at the hotel; the barriers are shut, so we walk the last 20 yards across the car-park. We all check-in and I am directed to 1414 – I’ve put my hopes on getting a shower and collapsing into bed with an alarm set for 4am. I shower but am past tired so go down to the lobby and have a smoke. By 1am I am reading and drinking miniatures from the minibar, reading my book and watching the storms on the horizon. It was I can only imagine like being in the blitz – clouds being illuminated by lightening and loud bangs getting closer and closer. I hasten to add these were louder because the room was very hot and humid so I’d opened my balcony door to let in some cooler air. I was also hungry so I consumed a Coca-Cola sized tin of peanuts from  the room along with the whisky, vodka and brandy. Needless to say I eventually felt tired – 3am I think it was. My eyes closed and the next thing I awoke to my alarm and had to gather myself. It was one of those ‘where am I?’ moments! I’d sorted my clothes – packed the suit I was wearing the day before and was down in reception by 425am.

There was a woman from Leicester, who was travelling to Southampton; she was in the lobby when I got there. The night porter was unable to supply coffee; but when I was out having another cigarette, the night manager produced a tray of coffees and came outside to tell me. What a hero! I certainly needed a coffee because I felt like something from Waking the Dead. After that and another cigarette I boarded the taxi -minibus to the airport. That was somewhat scary because the driver took full advantage of the autobahn on the way there arriving in little over 20 minutes.

So I go all over again check-in to get a new boarding pass for our rebooked flight to Birmingham, due to leave at 7am. Pass through security and passport control where I get to spend the 14 Euro voucher given to us at check-in along with our boarding pass. I got coffee, a sandwich, water and a cake. It passed the time before I went to the Camel smoking lounge before joining the herd to board the transit bus to the aircraft. It drops us off by the Bombardier, where we board and collapse into the seats.  Then everything stops as we wait for 5 people who are missing from the flight – not I hasten to add anyone from the Dusseldorf flight – they eventually arrive and board the flight – finding something funny. I am not sure I was in the mood to find anything funny.

We take-off, late, the drinks trolley arrives, from where I have two miniatures of single-malt to help relax me and I read. I actually think I relaxed enough to sleep for the last 30 minutes of the journey.

It’s now Friday 815am (local time.) Landing in Birmingham is not something I’ve done for a long time. The old ‘Eurohub’ which was the centre of BA operations at BHX is now the Flybe hub evidenced by all their liveried aircraft huddled around it. The plane gets to stand; we’re disembarked and I even get to walk on a pier into the airport building despite having to walk on the tarmac from the aircraft steps. Through passport control, through baggage reclaim and into arrivals where the Flybe ground staff are waiting for us NOT! A deputation goes in search of customer services – I go outside for a cigarette along with a the usual suspects.

By 9am we are being marshalled to a coach to take us back to Southampton. The soldiers and German girl are there. Still no sign of Jonah. We leave for the south.  Despite having only had about 2 hours sleep I engage one of my colleague travellers in conversation – he is reading ‘Redbreast’ by Jo Nesbo which was my hook. We talked all the way back to almost the M3; we swap business experiences – he works for a major UK telephone company and is in Germany working on a new financial reporting system under the same 3 letter application brand that I am working now on. Nice guy – even offers me a lift home on his was back to Chichester.  I hope I politely decline – getting off the M27/A27 to get to our home is a real pain in the posterior as I explained – but thanks M!

In just under 2 hours 30 minutes we are at Southampton airport. Most people disappear. I go for a cigarette and call the other half – we realise I don’t have a key. She says if I get a train to Cosham she might be able to collect me, as she’s out in her car. I go to the station buy a ticket and miss two trains working out my route. I eventually get to Southampton Central where I eat and drink something and read my book waiting for the 1244 to Cosham and beyond. It’s not long before my fiancée’s son who happens to have just finished a job in Southampton calls me and says he’ll pick me up. So by 1pm I am on the last leg home. I think I relax now don’t you! I arrive at home about 2pm – approx. 16 hours late.

I collapse in a heap to enjoy my day-off or what’s left of it.

Epilogue – Monday evening I am sitting in 15D on the outbound leg of my journey back to Heerlen via Dusseldorf and see M from Friday get on and sit down. Lo and behold who should get on a sit next to me in 15C – the German girl – she’s called Julia.

We have an uneventful flight – me and a Jack Daniels a bit of chatter and a book and then it’s back to business as usual.