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Friday 17th May 2002
Having travelled to Stansted by public transport the day before, I awoke after a night at the Hilton Hotel, Stansted Airport and turned on the TV. Teletext warned of delays and possible cancellations at major airports in the UK due to the failure (yet again!) of the UK’s Air Traffic Control computer system. Passengers are advised to contact their airline for advice. At 9-15am, I rang Ryanair and was advised of some likely delays, but was told that all passengers were instructed to turn up at the airport at the normal time for check-in (2 hours before flight).
I arrived at Stansted Airport at 11-15am to scenes of growing chaos and confusion (but at this stage, stoic good humour!). Information Screens indicated the extent of the problem. Most flights (incoming and outgoing) were delayed - some indefinitely. All Ryanair flights were delayed and one - to Italy - had been cancelled. Passengers for my Perpignan flight (FR936) were advised to check-in. My case was tagged and taken, but I was informed that the flight would very likely be late, but was scheduled to fly later that day. Info Screens told us all to "wait in lounge". Wait, perhaps, but where to sit, as all seats in the waiting areas, cafes and bars were at a premium! Hundreds of people were wandering around, waiting. There were many groups of school-children, old people, holiday-makers and business-people all searching out a valuable seat. I found one (almost legally!) and settled down to await further instructions.
The fun really started at just after mid-day. There followed a period of such indescribable confusion that it sounds almost unbelievable - but these are the series of events exactly as they happened. Farm animals are probably treated more humanely. An announcement was made listing several Ryanair flights that had been cancelled, but FR936 to Perpignan was not among them and the Info Screens requested that Perpignan passengers were to still "wait in lounge". I rang the people who are meeting me at Perpignan to tell them I was going to be late, but as I didn’t know how long the delay was, I would be in touch later.
At 12.30pm, Info Screens indicated that Perpignan passengers were to go to Gate 2 for boarding. On time!! I rang the people who were meeting me at Perpignan to tell them I was going to be on time after all - great news considering all the current difficulties with all the other flights.
20 minutes later after a short shuttle ride out to Gate 2 and I joined 100+ people who were all relieved and delighted at our luck. One woman had been informed that we were one of only a very few flights actually departing that day. Great - but where were the Ryanair staff, I wondered? There weren’t any at Gate 2, but there was a General Information Desk with a "manned" computer terminal - that is a real person who when questioned by numerous Perpignan-bound passengers endeavoured to phone his "central control" to ask when Gate 2 would be manned by Ryanair staff! While waiting for a reply, the Info Screens ominously changed - to "Wait In Lounge"! But the phone message, relayed to us all, was - there would be a delay, but boarding would be from Gate 12. I rang the people who are meeting me at Perpignan for a third time, to tell them I was going to be late after all, but as I didn’t know how long the delay was, I would be in touch later. Gate 12 was a 5 minute walk from Gate 2. So off we all went, young and old, to Gate 12 where a lone person (not a Ryanair person!) by a computer screen seemed bemused by the invading hoard, for he had no knowledge of if and when Ryanair Flight FR236 would board from Gate 12. But he made a phone call and advised us to stay put somewhere between Gates 2 & 12, near an Info. Screen, so we knew what was going on. I pointed out that said screens now indicated that we should have been waiting back in the lounge. A shrug of complete confusion from man-with-computer - and still no Ryanair staff anywhere!
Dozens of people were now wandering aimlessly between the two Gates (looking for Ryanair staff?).
At 13.30, after an anxious wait, an announcement is made over the PA system that more Ryanair flights were cancelled - but not FR936 to Perpignan - and we were between gates 2 & 12, but should actually have been in the Lounge (with no seats).
What we all really expected was confirmed 15 minutes later. There was a PA announcement that the Perpignan flight was cancelled and all passengers were to go to Gate 1 for buses to take us to the Baggage Hall to reclaim our luggage. Again, I rang the people who were meeting me at Perpignan to tell them I’m not going to be travelling, and I would be in touch later regarding alternative arrangements. Buses arrived and we were duly deposited at Passport Control, where we had to queue (honestly!) to show our passports to get into the Baggage Hall (we hadn’t been anywhere other than Gates 2, 12 & 1).
Hundred upon hundreds of people - from the few incoming flights and all the cancelled ones - were waiting for their cases to appear, but as the screens were not set up to indicate the cancelled flights, no-one knew which of the 6 carousels would have what cases. No Ryanair staff were available to help or advise. Finally a PA announcement was made detailing which carousels we must go to, plus information that all passengers requiring re-imbursement or re-scheduled flights should proceed to the Ryanair Desk in the Arrivals Hall. While waiting at the carousel, I tried to call Ryanair on my mobile phone. Everyone else seemed to be doing the same, as all I get is a recorded voice advising me they’re very busy - and then I get to listen to some Irish Jigs while on hold!
At 14.05, I was finally re-united with my suitcase and had to pass through Customs (honestly - we’d only been out to Gates 1, 2 & 12!!!). I walked through Arrivals to be greeted with completely unbelievable scenes at the Ryanair desk. One tiny desk, with maybe 2 or 3 employees, faced a queue which was probably a quarter of a mile long, snaking back along the concourse - full of tired, fed-up families, school groups, old people, etc. all with trolleys laden with their luggage. Here we were, Ryanair customers waiting in line for their turn for information from one tiny desk. I estimated over 500 people are in the queue and each query would take possibly 5 minutes to sort out. On the phone, I still listening to Irish Jigs, but I am intelligent enough (just) to realise that as there was only one available flight to Perpignan per day from the UK (Ryanair FR236 from Stansted), and it was always very busy and popular, the chances of getting on the next day’s (or weeks) flights were zero - they’d be booked solid for days once I made my way to the front of the queue.
A quick shouted question (Irish Jigs continued to entertain on the mobile phone) to the Desk seems to indicate that if you wanted to be put on a stand-by list you had to wait your turn! The chances of getting a flight to anywhere in the South of France on any airline was nil, and there was no promise things would be back to anywhere near normal as far as last-minute, re-scheduled bookings were concerned, as there were so many delays, etc., etc. I tried to ring several hotels locally for a room for that night - nothing available, anywhere.
So, it’s decision time.
I wanted to be in Collioure (near Perpignan) as soon as possible - how could I do it? Flying was not only a risky choice (due to lack of seats), but as I was using public transport in the UK, there was the not too easy task of getting to another airport, plus at 57 years of age, I did not fancy sleeping on the floor of an airport! I couldn’t realistically get home and back again the next day. So, it was cancel completely or use my experience of Eurostar & TGV’s.
At 14.35 I went to the Stansted train station and purchased a ticket to London Waterloo, and 10 minutes later the train left Stansted Airport.
I arrived at London Waterloo at 16.00 and joined large, but quick-moving queues for Eurostar tickets to Paris. Just a quarter of an hour later, I purchased the cheapest single ticket to Paris on the next available service (30 minutes later) and at 16.48 I departed London Waterloo for Paris Gare du Nord. The train was delayed by track restrictions in Kent, and it wasn’t until the train departed these shores and was in a civilised (public transport-wise) country, France, that speed was of the essence.
Eurostar drew into Paris at 21.15, but the 20 minute delay in Kent has proved costly, as it was now impossible to get across the city in time for the night train to Perpignan. All the ticket-booths were closed for the night, so I could not reserve a seat for the next morning’s TGV to Perpignan until very early the next day. As I knew a small, cheap, clean hotel near the Gare du Nord, I made my way there and there was a basic room available (€45). Although seemingly an overflow area for Sangatte, I was so tired that sleep came easily.
Saturday 18th May 2002
An early start by taking a taxi across Paris to the Gare de Lyon and it was 07.00 when I tried to buy a ticket on a TGV from Paris to Perpignan, but there was a problem! It was a Public Holiday Weekend in France and the whole world and his dog were travelling to the South on TGV’s. However, I was offered a 1st class ticket, but I had better be quick as there were only 10 seats left on a "double-decker" TGV departing in just over an hour. No choice - buy it!
At 08.24, I depart Paris on the wonderful journey to Perpignan, where the TGV arrived exactly on time (of course - this IS France after all!). It was 13.45 when I finally reached Hotel Madeloc in Collioure.
I once again tried to contact Ryanair by phone, and after listening to more Irish Jigs they finally confirmed that NO seats on the Perpignan flight would have been available that day, and stand-by seats for the following days were almost certainly not available.
So, that was the saga of the start of my annual break in Collioure. In effect, I had lost a half a days holiday, but that Saturday morning was wet and cold, so spending it on the TGV journey through some lovely countryside was no great hardship. For the "independent traveller", there are some lessons to be learned - basically, try to ensure, if you travel in the U.K., that you have a possible alternative, as things can easily go wrong. Whatever you do, get out of the U.K. as quickly as possible, as alternative travel and hotel accommodation is cheaper and much more reliable abroad. I don’t blame Ryanair for the delays - they were totally in the hands of the British Air Traffic Control (God help them!) - but it’s obvious that costs are kept down by reducing staff! ......and finally, folks, ensure that you obtain adequate travel insurance - the cheap deals seen everywhere may cover some - but certainly not all - eventualities, and insurance companies are notoriously famous for finding a let-out clause or two.