Flight fiasco(s)

Dark and stormy Atlantic Coast

Warning!

This is going to be a rant so please do feel free to skip…

As mentioned in our previous post, travelling during our current times is not quite as straightforward as it was in the pre-Covid days. However, the added bureaucracy is something we need to do if we wish to enjoy the privilege of being able to travel and to visit different places.

Our recent trip to Spain massively increased our hassle factor with 3 difficult and stressful airline experiences…

Pre travel

Our original return direct flights to Bilbao were moved, changed and cancelled several times from when we first booked (in April 2021) until a couple of weeks before our departure date. However, to a certain extent this is to be expected and is the risk one takes when booking travel at the moment. We understand that airlines have to make changes in order to operate in such a way they make a profit and can offer flights at prices people are willing and able to pay. The airline had stopped their direct service to Bilbao and the final itinerary was to fly from Heathrow to Madrid to Asturias (and back from Asturias to Madrid to Heathrow). OK, fair enough.

Issue 1: Saturday missed connecting flight

Our outbound flight to Madrid was delayed by an hour. This was frustrating because the delay was caused by too many people taking too much cabin luggage which wouldn’t all fit into the fully booked plane cabin. This has happened on past fights with other airlines but they seemed to deal with it efficiently and hasn’t resulted in delayed departures. However, this time there was one person trying to sort this as well as checking boarding passes to enter the plane.

As the flight to Madrid was one hour late, as soon as we landed, we rushed towards our connecting gate but this involved transiting across to a different terminal, going through the Covid health check, immigration and security all of which made it impossible and of course, our connecting flight was on time and so we missed our flight to Asturias.

As to be expected by now the departed flight gate was empty having been abandoned by staff. We subsequently sat in the deserted gate area and spent 2 hours trying to call and online chat with our airline until eventually we were booked onto a flight the following day. By now it was 9:45 pm and we were stuck in Madrid International airport and with nobody around starting to feel very much like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

We were offered no guidance until finally Mr Online Chat Agent suggested we visit the customer service desk in the check in part of the airport. This team were super efficient and soon booked us into a nearby airport hotel, with shuttle bus and a meal. Sadly our euphoria was short lived as the shuttle bus didn’t arrive and by the time we got a taxi (at our expense) to the hotel it was gone 11:00 pm and the kitchen was closed. We waited in the reception as the hotel kindly offered to make us some sandwiches. The limp salad and white cut bread sandwiches were finally ready at 12:30 am:

Saturday evening meal at the hotel

Sunday

Eventually we made it to Asturias however we were one day late and missed the first day of our holiday. This had impacted on our arrangements for the trip. We had to cancel the Asturias hotel we had already pre-booked for that first Saturday night. Our car hire had also been cancelled and nobody was available when we tried to call the office. We had to get a taxi to our accommodation, then a lift to the car hire place and eventually we picked up a different car at greater expense.

Issue 2: Friday online check-in

We had a wonderful five and a half days exploring Asturias but the airline problems resumed the day before our return flights when I tried to check us both in using the airline app… oh dear… errr where is Chris??? He had disappeared from the entire booking and wasn’t going anywhere the following day! This time we spent the whole of our last afternoon trying to call, online chat and Twitter with the airline. This was incredibly frustrating as we tried to call several times but were unable to speak with anyone by phone (voice message at 3 pm on a Friday afternoon being “We are experiencing a high volume of calls, please call back during office hours” and the line went dead).

We simultaneously tried about 20 times to speak to an online chat agent, going round in a loop until eventually we were found ourselves in a virtual queue where we were number 40. After 45 minutes of (semi) patient queuing we finally got through to a live customer service online agent! After another hour of trying to type everything several times to explain, the online chat stopped working for no apparent reason. Chris checked his airline app and thankfully the agent must have sorted the issue as Chris now had a new and separate booking reference with his return flights. He was still unable to check in and the app said he had to do this in person at the airport. Fingers crossed…

Issue 3: Saturday missing connecting flight

For our return flights, thankfully we were both checked in properly at the airport and given our 2 boarding passes each for our flights from Asturias to Madrid, and then from Madrid to Heathrow. Hurrah! We looked set for a smooth journey home 🙂 WRONG!

The flight arrived slightly late in Madrid which left us only 30 minutes maximum to board our flight home. We had a vague hope that this would be doable however we were sitting at the back of the plane and by the time we disembarked, 15 minutes had been eaten into. The next flight was in the Satellite terminal (23 minutes away) and the immigration queue to exit Spain and get our stamp (as we are non EU citizens now) was huge and took at least 30 minutes to get through. Of course, we missed this flight too… we rushed to the gate in time to watch in dismay as the plane was leaving. This time, rather than contacting the airline (more online chat???? Nooooooo) we went to the airside customer desk and joined a lengthy queue full of other passengers who had also missed their connections. After 30 minutes of waiting we were eventually told we had 2 options:

Option 1: all flights to LHR were full until Tuesday lunchtime (this was Saturday evening), so we could be booked on the Tuesday flight.

Option 2: we can go on a waitlist for the early Sunday morning flight, meaning we would need to arrive at the airport at 5:30 am, go through the usual security checks and immigration, wait for everyone to board and then be told if there were any seats on the plane or not.

While we were originally given this choice, the person at the service desk suddenly gave us 2 x standby tickets for Option 2. OK, decision made for us (although we did both have work on the Monday morning so that was probably for the best).

We enquired about accommodation for the Saturday evening to be told that wasn’t their problem and we would have to sort something. By now it was around 6:30 pm so we had two more options:

Option 1: sleep in the airport

Option 2: book ourselves into a hotel

Option 2 it was so again at our expense, we had to find a hotel and pay for a taxi there and a return taxi in the morning. We did this fairly quickly and found a nearby hotel but still had to get up at 4 am in order to return to the airport for the early flight that we were not even sure we would be allowed onto!

Long story short… we had arrived very early on the Sunday morning and waited in eager anticipation as we watched the hundreds of fortunate passengers queue at the gate in order to assume fully assigned seats on the plane. We asked a couple of times if we could have seats but were told to wait until the gate closed. Eventually… YAY!

We were passenger numbers 332 and 333 and were squeezed in! The rest of the journey was finally smooth and we arrived at Heathrow at the end of our holiday with no further problems! All we had to do was drive ourselves home 🙂

Lessons Learned

  1. If you can find one, go straight to a ‘real’ person at the airport to sort your issue rather than trying to phone or online chat with your airline.
  2. Even a small delay could cause these kind of disruptions so be prepared to have your holiday cut short if you have anything other than a direct flight.
  3. If your destination has no direct flights and you have no other option, consider extending your trip and spending a couple of nights in the ‘middle’ destination.
  4. Transiting through a large airport such as Madrid International can easily take an hour or more. Check to ensure there is at least 2 hours between your flights.
  5. If you are travelling with different airlines on different bookings you may need to consider an even greater transfer time as it would be more difficult to sort this en-route and claim any compensation. At least with one booking, the one airline should take responsibility for getting you to your final destination.
  6. Think carefully if you have hold luggage to deal with. We had both travelled light with just a cabin size backpack each. If we had checked with a case we have had no idea where that might have ended up!
  7. Consider a road trip! It would be lovely to return to Asturias but maybe next time, we’ll drive!

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