Sunday, 30 June 2013

Under the Weather

Despite the heading, this is not a post about health or well-being.  It is inspired by my getting fog-bound in Jersey on Friday afternoon (a bizarre occurrence given the blazing sunshine elsewhere in western Europe this weekend).  



The experience itself was like a farcical B-movie, where you knew at each stage what was going to happen, but were helpless to prevent the ensuing catastrophes.  My mid afternoon flight was initially delayed because the plane coming to collect us was unable to land and hence was diverted to Southampton until such time as the fog lifted.  Slowly, during the course of the afternoon passengers for both mine and other flights came and joined me in the airport lounge, much of human life was there: 

  • a nurse trying to get back to the UK in time for her shift at Southampton Hospital;
  • a worried daughter desperate to see her mother (just diagnosed with cancer);
  • a girlfriend keen to fly to Bristol to join her boyfriend and friends at Glastonbury; 
  • a wife’s birthday treat - being taken by her husband to enjoy centre court tickets at Wimbledon on Saturday;
  • grandparents-to-be hoping to reach Gloucester in time for an imminent arrival;
  • a man off on vacation, salmon fishing in Russia (clearly his longed-for treat for the year), provided that he made his connecting flight;
  • a delightful retired couple, who had enjoyed a week’s holiday on the Island, but who now were each looking forward to a cup of tea in their favourite mugs and a good night’s sleep in their own beds;
  • a small group of bankers and businessmen en route to their homes in Guernsey, after busy weeks in Paris and New York; and
  • me, trying to get home to be with my family, after a productive week with my team (it was our annual offsite, followed by two days with technical colleagues to decide our priorities and scope the enhanced  IT system we need to support us).

I am in no way a weather girl, but, back in the airport and looking out of the window, it was clear from the swirling tendrils of mist, (or rather, looking out of the window it was not clear, due to the swirling tendrils of mist), we had a problem.  Like an Agatha Christie murder mystery, slowly each flight was killed off.  The two Bristol-bound aircraft were initially amalgamated into a single journey on “a larger plane” - although where it was to materialise from was not clear, (the lady trying to get to Glastonbury retained her spark of hope) - before being cancelled at half six (her crushing disappointment was almost palpable).  The gentlemen bankers, trying to get home to Guernsey, spotted the problem before most of us (they were veterans of island weather) and they surreptitiously departed to secure places on the ferry that was due to leave for Guernsey at 8.00pm.  The tennis fans (a headhunter and his wife) also demonstrated their superior knowledge by hot-footing it to the ferry terminal to catch the overnight ship to Plymouth, which I subsequently learned docks at 6.30 am and hence would allow them sufficient time to reach Wimbledon.  Neither party shared their knowledge or plans with other beleaguered travellers - they simply grasped the opportunity and departed.  I only know because I was sent a message by one of them, shortly before their ferry docked, to tell me what they’d done and the headhunter emailed me just after 9.00 pm.  On being told about "the great escape", some less charitable than myself, observed to me that, you can always rely on bankers and recruitment specialists to look after their own interests before considering others.  I just wish I’d had their knowledge and foresight and then perhaps a few more could have reached the UK early on Saturday.  The worried woman with the sick mother would have appreciated knowing about the opportunity to take alternative transport; she could have done with the support.  Like the Glastonbury idealist, I clung to the hope that the airline would deliver what they cheerfully stated was probable - the plane in Southampton making the crossing and delivering us to London that night.  



Most of the scheduled flights were initially delayed for one or two hours before being reclassified as cancelled.  On being told that they would not be flying, groups of frustrated travellers were lead to Duty Free to return their purchases, before being notified of the date and time of the next flight available to them.  The nurse managed to locate a colleague able to take on her shift and so decided to return to her family and take up a different shift schedule.  The grand-parents-to-be opted for as soon a flight as they could get.  In many ways the most adversely impacted was the fisherman.  No tight lines for him.  He remained calm, but was clearly upset - by failing to get to the UK, he had missed his connecting flight to Russia, the earliest flight available was on Sunday and by then he would be unable to get to his destination in time to enjoy his vacation.  If only he had taken the Portsmouth ferry his situation might have been different.



We, the London City Airport flight, were the last to be cancelled, long after the other passengers had departed (and, when doing so, claiming the few remaining Saturday flights and hotel rooms).  The airport was closing as we, a motley crew, paraded through Duty Free and on to the desk to make fresh arrangements and/or to hear our proposed fates.  I was late leaving the departure lounge, as I had by this stage anticipated the likely situation to come.  Swiftly I made contact with a friend who was able to book me onto a flight online for Saturday morning, whilst I  and the others were being marched through the deserted departure hall.  There my forethought and good fortune ran out - I called the hotel I had been staying at, expecting them to welcome me back, only to discover that it was already full, as were four others I knew of in St Helier.  I had been talking with the retired couple earlier and, by chance, found them again behind me in the queue.  As they had been on the island for a holiday and not for business, their hotel, in a secluded spot away from the commercial bustle, was not full - they had already called and reserved a room.  They gave me the number and I too was in luck.  



The process of securing a flight off the island was chaotic.  The airline offered all impacted passenegers flights on Sunday but no accommodation or compensation prior to then.  Last October an EU court judgement clarified the rights of passengers to claim compensation and be provided with accommodation, if their flights are delayed by three or more hours, under EC Regulation 261/2004.  However, Jersey is not part of the EU and hence the airlines are not subject to the ruling.  The best flights offered in lieu of the ones cancelled were late on Sunday - two days later.  No hotels or rooms were provided at all.  



None of us, who had yet to secure alternative flights, wished to lose what was potentially the only flight available to us (the majority of direct flights on Saturday and early Sunday having already been taken by earlier casualties), but at the same time people were being forced to use whatever means they could to make other arrangements in the short time available before the desk closed.  By the time my elderly companions and I reached the check-in desk to accept what was offered, book an alternative flight or request a refund, all the obvious flights were full.  The process was very strange - the airline did not suggest flights, despite having access to technology available to inform them, we were made to guess at flights and, if successful in naming one were then made to wait for agonising minutes whilst the airline staff assessed availability of seats.  It was one of the most disorganised experiences I have endured for a while.  

As you know, I had already secured my flight but the elderly couple with me were not as fortunate (and had no access to a useful friend miles away who could make a reservation on-line).  I am pleased to report that I was able to return the favour of the hotel room, by notifying them of a flight that most passengers were unaware of, as it only operates in the summer months.  I have recently been running a leadership development programme in Cambridge and when making arrangement for attendees had noticed that there was a direct flight between Jersey and Cambridge for a few months of the year.  Fortuitously, the couple lived just outside Cambridge and the flight, being unknown to many would-be-travellers, was not full.  We were a happy trio who toasted our good fortune, when we reached our destination for the night.  We had a wonderful fresh crab and Jersey Royal supper to celebrate.


I have learned much from the experience.  Just watching how people responded to the situation we found ourselves in was a lesson in human interactions and drivers and the same behaviours can be observed every day at work, namely:
  • optimism in an outcome, that a simple assessment of the evidence available would prove to be unfounded;
  • self interest, potentially to the detriment of the greater good;
  • the need to keep abreast of developments or risk failure;
  • the benefits of collaboration;
  • the value of technology; and
  • the pleasure to be gained from working together to achieve a goal and celebrating afterwards.

I wish you all a wonderful week ahead...I'm off to Jersey again on Wednesday.  I hope the weather is good.



3 comments:

  1. What a wonderful narrative, lovely story telling, and great linking together of the themes.

    I remember an identical experience at Jersey a couple of years go, on a Friday night after a long week. Just ready to be home. The paucity of information, or staff on the ground was astonishing at 8.30pm when it was becoming increasingly obvious to us all that no flights were leaving.

    Interesting when there is a captive market, how these organisational behaviours develop. I thought mine must have been a one off experience, but it's clear that this is how they behave.

    Hoping for brilliant sunshine for you this week Kate.

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    Replies
    1. I gather from a number of people who have contacted me following my post that it is a fairly common occurrence. Lots of lessons learned and almost all of the airline/airport issues come down to organisational behaviours (some of the procedures could do with a bit of consideration too!!).

      I met a group of wonderful people and witnessed some less than desirable traits in a few others.

      As an aside, it probably did me no harm to be forced into taking things at a slower pace for a little while.

      Thank you for your comments and good wishes.

      Delete

  2. "At the risk of appearing to be a 'me too', I had this experience numerous times in my trips to the island. Seems like a properly coordinated and communicated contingency plan might just help everyone!!!! Keep well, Mike Bell"

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