The Joys of Cancelled Flights

I was sitting in the Air Canada lounge at Toronto airport chatting with a passenger about the joys of being an incessant traveller. One thing that we can count on is having flights cancelled. Considering the frequency that I travel this happens not as often as one would think. But it does nonetheless happen. She asked me for some of my experiences and half way through she said that I should write them down. Good suggestion … so here we are.

2013 – March 15 – Samoa

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It is very inauspicious when one has two problems on the same trip. We were flying from Nadi (Fiji) to Samoa, with a very uncivilized arrival time of about 01:00. We departed Nadi fine, and I was out like a light due to an excessive number (even for me!) of consecutive sub 6 h night sleeps. I was rudely awoken to be told that the radio on the aircraft had stopped working so we were returning to Nadi to get it fixed. A second rude awakening happened when we landed in Nadi and then again some hours later when we arrived at 03:00 in Samoa—never noticed the takeoff. At least total exhaustion makes trip interruptions far more pleasant. Now I just wish they didn’t insist on having such uncivilized hours for flying… arrived back in Nadi last night from Samoa at 02:00, and have to be at the airport by 03:00 tonight to fly to Tarawa.

2013 – March 4 – Tonga

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What is about travelling to Tonga at this time of year? Oh yes, storms … last February I was stranded in Tonga with a cyclone and this year the weather gods conspired against me again.

I had planned to come to Tonga on Wednesday the 6th, but because the CEO of the Ministry of Infrastructure was leaving that day decided to move my trip forward. So Sunday afternoon I flew to Auckland, overnighted, and then was on the Monday flight at 07:00 to Tonga.image

The flight was uneventful until we got near Tonga when we had a lot of turbulence and heavy rain. I was engrossed in work and the only thing I was aware of was how long we were circling above the airport. They made a few announcements but I didn’t pay attention. I should have.

Eventually I noticed we were descending and when I looked out the window, I thought this is strange. They appear to be landing from the south, but I don’t recognize the terrain. We must be landing from the north for a change. No. We were landing on the island of Niue: some 600 km distance from Tonga. Seems we were getting low on fuel so they diverted here to refuel.

After waiting on the tarmac for a while getting refuelled, we were off again. Not to Tonga, but back to Auckland! What a bother, especially as I had it on good authority that the weather had cleared in Tonga.

We got back to NZ and when I went to the automatic passport control to re-enter NZ it rejected my passport. Along with all the other passengers. Seems that you have to actually enter a country for NZ to let you back in (at least easily). Scored a room at the airport hotel at Air New Zealand’s expense and was up on the Tuesday morning flight.

Air New Zealand handled the situation really well. No hassle about accommodation or rebooking. Well done Air New Zealand.

2013 – February 8 – Toronto

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DSC_0016One expects Canadians to be able to handle snow. It isn’t called the ‘Great White North’ for nothing.

I was in Toronto to spend time with my mother after my father’s death and a very heavy storm hit. Some 25+ cm of snow. Of course this caused disruptions, and Pearson International Airport had a serious meltdown (figuratively speaking that is). There were so many flights cancelled that they considered shutting down one of the runways to hold the parked flights. The de-icing machine broke. The gates were occupied so planes couldn’t get back and offload passengers: one flight spent 17 h before deplaning.

Fortunately, I was travelling the day after the storDSC_0019m and it was a clear, blue sky. I checked Air New Zealand’s web site and they said that my flight was on time. Great. Grabbed the limo to the airport, but left earlier just in case. When I got to the airport I saw that while every other flight was going to Vancouver (where I was connecting to Auckland), the 14:00 flight was now cancelled. Bummer.

So I got into the queue, and then 30 minutes later was at check in. She had been complaining to a colleague that she had had ‘fire in her face’ for the last 36 h. I told her not to worry, I was resigned to not travelling. Unfortunately she couldn’t help me and I had to call Air Canada’s service desk: from a phone bank with a queue of about 10 people waiting to get on one of the seven phones (the eighth was of course broken).

The phones were not a direct line and so you had to dial continuously, since the service desk was overwhelmed with thousands of passengers needing rebooking. However, we soon established a good system. Once someone got through to a human being, when we completed getting the booking sorted out we didn’t hang up but passed it on to the next person in the queue. Quite efficient really. At the same time I got my wife to work on Air New Zealand from their end.

Eventually it was sorted. I only had to wait another 7 hours to get a flight to Vancouver. Went back to the check in line, but they wouldn’t give me a pass to the front of the line, even though I’d waited before, so this time it was about 1:30 to get to one of the two check in staff—down from three before. Had a good chat with Amir, and Egyptian on his way home to Saudi Arabia. He was not happy with Air Canada’s support, and while I agree that they should have had more people to service us, I told him that at least the staff were doing their best to help …

So eventually was off to Vancouver. Overnighted with our friend Anke, a BIG plus. And back to New Zealand only 24 h late. Not bad all things considered.

2012 – December 18 – Honiara, Solomon Islands

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A major cyclone was heading for Fiji. My colleagues Chris and Charles flew out early to Brisbane so as to ensure that they made it home to the USA for Christmas. I dutifully stayed on to debrief the government on the findings from our mission—which ironically was looking at the potential for us to support the aviation sector.

When it became clear that the storm was going to hit Fiji I knew my flight home Honiara-Nadi-Auckland would not happen. My travel agent worked out that the storm would miss New Caledonia so she put me on the flight Honiara-Noumea-Auckland. Great plan B.

The morning of the flight I checked Air Pacific’s web site and it said my flight Honiara-Noumea was on. Great. Packed my bags, checked out of the hotel, and went to the airport in a hotel taxi. As we approached the airport things did not look auspicious. There was nobody at the airport. In developing countries the one thing that can be counted on is to have lots of friends and families see a traveller off. I told the taxi to wait and, sure enough, there was a small A4 note saying ‘flight cancelled’.

I had one last option: that afternoon there was a Virgin flight to Brisbane. But since it was just before Christmas, I was not optimistic: a colleague had tried to get on the flight the previous week and couldn’t do it—all the expatriates heading home for Christmas. Don’t know what my travel agent Maree did, but she scored me a seat so it was back out late in the day for a long trip home. Would have cost a bomb … but I made it.

2012 – February 15 – Tonga

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NUKU‘ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Feb. 16, 2012) – Tropical Cyclone Jasmine dumped over half the month’s average rainfall onto Tongatapu on Wednesday, flooding large areas of the capital Nuku’alofa and surrounding villages, forcing hundreds of people from their homes, and bringing down power poles, electric lines and trees.

Had to go to Tonga for two days of imagemeetings. Meetings went well but a cyclone hitting Tonga didn’t. My flight was cancelled and I sheltered at the Little Italy Hotel. Even though we lost power, the room had 5 cm of water on the floor, and my Bank colleague Tobias had the roof of his room collapse, it could have been worse. At least they went to the trouble of firing up the pizza oven and kept us well fed. Been in far less comfortable digs—like in ‘83 when I camped out in the terminal at Tahiti airport during a cyclone.

From the Memory Banks

New Delhi – Are You on Drugs?

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I spent about three years working in India between 1993 and 2003. My usual schedule was six weeks on/six weeks off so I travelled a lot so many opportunities for flight problems.

I was taking the Delhi-Bangkok flight which left at the very uncivilized hour of midnight. I had the bad habit of never getting to Indian airports early and so was towards the back of the queue. Just before I got to check in they put a sign up ‘Closed’. The flight was overbooked and I was out of luck.

There was about 20 passengers and they were a tad upset to put it politely. They were yelling and banging the table. As for myself? I sat down and wrote my wife an e-mail on my computer that India had done it again. Eventually they organized a ride for us to the local hotel. When I got to the hotel I was told that I would be sharing my room with another passenger. I declined, pointing out that the regulations were that they had to provide me accommodation; not that I had to share a room. They weren’t happy but eventually gave in. Good thing I was so difficult: it only had a single king size bed.

The next morning at breakfast one of the women came up to me and said “Were you on drugs last night?” “No” I replied … “Why do you ask?”. “You were so calm and composed while were all so upset.”  “The plane had left. What use was it getting upset?” I commented. It was not as if it would bring the plane back.  I had learned to be philosophical about missed flights some time before in Ahmedebad …

Ahmedebad – French Superiority

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Being of British extraction, it really hurts me to use the term ‘French Superiority’. Some would argue that it is an oxymoron, but that is something I witnessed in Ahmedebad airport, one June day when it was 40+ degrees C and the dust storms caused flights from north India to be diverted or cancelled.

Ahmedebad airport is (or at least was) a relatively modest domestic airport which probably was designed handle about two or three flights at a time. So it was not well endowed with facilities. So when a number of flights on their way to New Delhi were diverted there due to dust storms, the terminal became very full. There was a solid phalanx of diverted passengers yelling at counter staff, waving small brief cases in the air and creating a somewhat tense atmosphere.  The lack of air conditioning didn’t help matters.

Then the power failed.

Sitting in an overpopulated pitch black terminal, in 40+ weather, with crowds of angry passengers is not a positive experience.

When the lights came back on, one of the passengers sitting across from me looked at his watch and said “That’s it. I’ve now missed my flight home to Paris”. He was very relaxed about it. I said “That’s terrible”. He said “It gets worse: there is only one flight week with my charter airline”.  I said that it doesn’t get much worse than that. “Yes it does. My wife is having our first child in five days”.

Wow. Of everyone in the terminal he was the one person with a valid reason to be angry and upset. But he was showing sang froid by just taking it in stride.  Made me think of Viktor Frankel’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” where he said the only thing we always have is choice on how to respond to a situation. And some people make really bad choices: like the lager louts in Bombay …

Bombay – The Lager Lout Near Riot

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I had enough of Thai Airlines Delhi-Bangkok so I decided that I’d fly Qantas Bombay-Singapore.  This was a much better option, until the time that their computers broke down and they had to check in an entire flight manually.

Once again I was at the back of the queue along with an English fellow who worked in Singapore. The queue move forward at a very slow rate—as would be expected—and then they closed the counter. I wasn’t surprised because if they waited too long the air crew would not be permitted to fly. There were over 60 of us left in the queue—mostly expatriates and tourists.

As time progressed things got very ugly. People started shouting at the staff and then two young English ‘lager louts’ with their shaved heads and Doc Martin boots actually climbed up on the counter and started to really abuse the staff. The Englishman and I went to the front of queue and intervened, trying to calm everyone down. Pointing out that the plane had left, it wasn’t the check in staff’s fault, etc. It took some effort, but people got the message and backed off.

About an hour later the staff came to the Englishman and I and told us that they had managed to secure five seats the next morning leaving Bombay and they were giving us two of them. We said that wasn’t appropriate since were at the back of the queue, but the response was that all the staff had voted on it and they insisted that we take the seats because we had done so much to defuse the situation. She would not take no for an answer so we in the end accepted. I wonder if the lager louts ever got out.

Mine was via Calcutta which did not work out too well: they had forgotten to organize me a flight from Calcutta to Singapore and that took a *huge* amount of effort, starting from finding someone to deal with it! But in the end I made it home. Moral of story: staying cool when all around you are losing their heads doesn’t hurt!

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