Perhaps I have just been lucky as I have never had any really bad flight experiences in all the years I have been traveling. I have never been in an emergency, fortunately, and I have never been stranded anywhere due to delays and cancelled flights. But a few experiences I have had do stick out in my mind
About 10 years ago my wife and I bought a holiday home in Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. We completed on the sale while in the UK so I booked us flights on Iberia to travel to Fuerteventura, via Madrid, a few days later. Usually we flew direct in 4 hours but those flights didn’t work for us on that day from different airports.
We turned up at Heathrow at silly o’clock in the morning to be told that there was a delay on our flight which would mean we would miss our connection in Madrid. We were told we would still get to Fuerteventura that day as we were being ticketed Heathrow-Madrid-Tenerife-Fuerteventura and we would be catching the last island hopper flight from Tenerife to Fuerteventura. That meant it was going to be a long day but hey at least we would get there.
Finally we left Heathrow and found out that the reason for the delay was that the crew had been caught in traffic during their overnight stop in London so would be out of rest hours if we left on time.
Anyway we arrived at Madrid and went off to wait for our connecting flight which left from a different terminal. As we walked away from our gate, there, three gates away, was the Fuerteventura flight which was also delayed and was at “last call” status. So we could have made it after all but it was too late to do anything about it.
We caught the unmanned train to the other terminal where we found the flight to Tenerife was also delayed! We took off almost three hours late and literally, just as we were touching down in Tenerife, our flight to Fuerteventura was sitting at the holding point waiting for us to land before taking off itself.
After lots of hassle Iberia agreed to put us up in a hotel for the night and told us we were booked on the first flight to Fuerteventura in the morning which left at 7:30. We got a taxi to the hotel, which I had to pay for, and spent the evening at a restaurant.
The next day
We booked a wake up call for the unearthly hour of 5am and went to bed. The phone rang in the morning and we quickly got ready and went downstairs to wait for the taxi we had booked for 5:15. When we got to the lobby we realized the time was actually 4:15 not 5:15 as, due to a mix-up, they had called us an hour early. I wasn’t amused.
We sat around for a boring hour (the hotel couldn’t even provide a coffee) and went in the taxi after it arrived to the airport.
We arrived at Tenerife North Airport (the site of the worse ever air disaster) and went to check-in to discover we were lied to by Iberia and we weren’t actually booked on the first flight (the first of three that day) as it was fully booked. So was the midday flight. There was space on the last flight which we were booked on. Boy I was furious.
We were given boarding cards and told we could standby at the gate in case of no shows. Things didn’t get any better.
We went through security and Sue was pulled to one side. In her hand luggage were the two liter bottles of Pimms she bought at Heathrow duty free. We hadn’t even considered this as we were still in transit as far as we were concerned and hadn’t even opened our hand luggage at the hotel. Despite the fact that the bottles were still in a sealed duty free bag they insisted on taking it away. Sue was now not amused. We were now £75/USD100 down, with the lost Pimms and taxis both ways, and we weren’t even there yet.
Naturally everyone turned up for the early flight and again for the midday flight. We spent the whole day in that small departure lounge, almost 12 hours, and were bored to tears. Finally we caught the 30 minute flight and arrived at our new apartment in the evening absolutely shattered. It rather spoiled the excitement of getting the keys and staying in the apartment for the first time.
36 hours to do a journey that only takes 4 hours on a normal direct flight! Not great.
Sometimes it doesn’t pay to complain too much
My wife and I were flying to Arizona to spend a vacation with my Uncle and Aunt who lived in Mesa near Phoenix. I had booked us on TWA from Gatwick (London’s 2nd airport) to St Louis (TWA’s hub) and then a few hours later on a TWA flight to Phoenix.
When I booked the flight I was allowed to select our seats on the first sector so I chose a window seat and the seat next to it with extra leg room. The main reason was that my wife is not a great flier and is happier if she can see out of the window.
When we checked in, we were told the seats we had booked were already taken by someone else. The only seats left were right in the middle of the wide-bodied Tristar. The check-in agent apologized and said he could check us in for our connection so we would at least have the seats we wanted then. He gave us our boarding cards for the STL-PHX flight with our window seat numbers clearly on them.
We weren’t happy about being stuck in the middle all the way across the Atlantic but we couldn’t do anything about it. So we arrived at St Louis and found a bar next to the gate for our next flight and settled in to our US vacation.
They called our flight so we left the bar and went on board. When we got to our seats there were two people already sitting in them. I said “I’m sorry but I think you are in our seats” but they showed us their boarding cards with the same seat numbers.
Off I went and spoke to a member of the cabin crew and complained. I told her about how we hadn’t got our seats on the Atlantic flight, that I wasn’t happy and laid it on a bit thick saying that my wife got airsick if she wasn’t by the window. She went off and spoke to a senior member of the cabin crew who then came and spoke to us. She asked “You definitely need to sit by the window?” to which I replied we did. This was stupid as it turned out.
She went over to the couple in our seats and spoke to them. Then they got up and followed her to to Business Class. She was upgrading them to give us their seats! Then I realized she was going to upgrade us but stupid me insisted on a window seat.
Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to complain too much.
Overbooked but lucky for me
I was traveling to Amsterdam for the weekend on business to meet a potential customer from Australia with my Dutch business partner.
I arrived at Heathrow late afternoon on the Friday with 30 minutes to spare before the British Airways check-in closed. The staff seemed rather sheepish when I handed over my ticket and I noticed a couple of other passengers hanging about by the desk. I was asked to step aside for a moment, which I did.
Then someone came to speak to me, and the other 5 or 6 people, and informed us that the flight was overbooked so we couldn’t get on. None of us was happy, particular as two were going to a wedding and I had my meeting that evening.
We were informed by British Airways that as an apology they were:
- rebooking us onto the first flight on Saturday morning
- being upgraded to business class
- giving us £100 compensation
- putting us up in an airport hotel and providing dinner and transfers to/from the hotel
Well that wasn’t much good to me but having little choice I went off to the hotel in a minibus. When I got to my room I rang my business partner to give him the bad news that I wasn’t going to make the meeting although I would be there in the morning. I couldn’t believe my luck when he told me that he had just had a phone call from the Australians who had cancelled the meeting.
So I rang British Airways, cancelled my ticket and got a full refund. This meant I had a night in a nice hotel, a good meal, a few drinks in the bar afterwards with an interesting Dutch guy, who was one of the others that didn’t get on the flight, and £100 in my pocket too.
Thank you British Airways for all of that and for saving me a wasted journey.
Oldie but goodie
One highlight happened when I was in Kenya in East Africa many years ago. I had been on holiday with a friend in Malindi and we were on our way back home. We arrived at Malindi airport which was literally just a runway and a small building that acted as departures, arrivals, check-in and everything else.
We checked in our bags and sat down to wait for our flight. The friend I was flying with wasn’t a very keen flyer, whereas I loved all aspects of flying and aircraft and have since I was a boy.
We heard an aircraft arriving so looked out to see an East African Airways DC-3 about to land.
When he realized this was the aircraft we were flying to Nairobi in my friend went as white as a sheet.
I almost had to drag him across the tarmac to go aboard.
When we got inside and we almost had to climb along the aisle to get to our seats near the front (as it had a tail-wheel) he was even less impressed.
When the engines started up with the customary pops and crackles his face was a picture. The flight took twice as long as the flight there on a DC9 but was, for me anyway, far more enjoyable. As the aircraft wasn’t pressurised we only flew at around 10,000 feet and had to fly around a thunderstorm which gave an amazing light show out of the window.
When we touched down at Nairobi I thought my friend was going to get down and kiss the ground in true Pope fashion.
I would never have thought I would be lucky enough to fly on a DC3 on a scheduled flight. It was great!
The Airborne Roller coaster
I have never had a problem with air sickness (or seasickness) and have never felt frightened on an aircraft – apart from the time an enormous woman sat next to me and overflowed into my seat so much that I thought I would be crushed.
I was on a flight from New Zealand to Hawaii which was pretty uneventful until we started our descent.
Almost immediately we started hitting some enormous air pockets. The most severe turbulence I have ever experienced.
Each time we hit one the aircraft fell quickly giving the same sensation in your stomach that you get on a big roller coaster when you go over the top.
Some of the cabin crew were in the aisle with a trolley collecting the last of the trash etc and when we hit an air pocket they, and the trolley left the ground. Then they hit the floor again as we got to the bottom.
Passengers were screaming and holding on to their armrests for grim death. Between air pockets the aircraft was heavily buffeted which didn’t help the frightened passengers at all. In all, it lasted for about 5 minutes and I have to say I rather enjoyed it – but then I am a bit strange I suppose as I also enjoyed the odd bit of aerobatics when I was learning to fly.
Finally I get lucky
I took my son to Arizona and Las Vegas for his 16th birthday. Just before I booked our flights I spoke to my Uncle who lives in Canada and worked his entire life for Air Canada. He said there was a good staff offer, which I would be eligible for as his nephew, that would mean very cheap flights. The only drawback was that we would have to fly via Canada as all sectors had to be on Air Canada services. No problem as far as I was concerned.
Anyway, we received the tickets (saving me well over 50%) and set off to Toronto from London. We were flying standby, being that we were on staff travel tickets, but there was plenty of space on that flight. Because of the time change, we had just enough time to go into Toronto city and go up to the top of the CN tower, before going to our hotel for a night.
The next morning we caught the shuttle bus back to the airport and, after getting to the gate for our flight to Phoenix, I gave our ticket to the agent there. We had to wait to see if we would get on as the flight was heavily booked.
My name was called out (the only name that was) and I was handed two boarding cards. I heard her say to the others at the desk that there was no more space. Amazingly, as I was traveling on my Uncles staff pass I also carried his seniority so with 40 years of service (both with Air Canada and its predecessor TCA) it meant we were the most senior.
Not only did we get the only two seats, but when I looked at the boarding card we were in seats 2A and 2B – yes, we were in First Class! The only time I have ever been upgraded on countless flights.
It was a nice flight (and only months before 911) and I took my son up to the cockpit during the flight.
My son went back to his seat and I had a quiet chat with the captain. I told him it was my son’s birthday trip and asked if he could use the jump seat for the landing – something I have done many times. He was a great guy and said yes.
So just as we started the descent a member of the cabin crew fetched him, to his surprise, as I hadn’t told him.
That’s not something many 16-year-olds have done and, due to the increased security following 911, not something any 16-year-old, or anyone else, is likely to ever experience again. It was a double whammy flight that one.
Self induced bad flight
My first job was with BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation). Six months after I joined, BOAC merged with BEA to form British Airways. I went on a trip using my staff travel so was standby on all flights – ie. I only got on if there was space available.
On the way back I couldn’t get a flight direct to London so took an Alitalia flight to Rome which was at least closer to home and had more options to get from there to London.
It ended up that as the flights were so full as it was the end of the Easter holidays, neither I nor the other group who were also trying for a flight could get one that day. So we all booked into the same hotel and went there on the hotel’s shuttle bus.
That evening I was in the bar and got talking to three guys who it turned out were the flight crew on a British Airways freighter (captain, 1st officer and flight engineer) who were having an overnight stop. Well, it turned into a bit of a session.
Drinks flowed and I got somewhat merry. So did the flight crew who were flying the next day!
I went to bed around 1am and had a wake-up call at 6am to get the first shuttle bus back to the airport. I couldn’t believe it when the phone rang as I thought my head had just hit the pillow. To say I felt dreadful was an understatement but managed to drag myself out of bed and just made the shuttle bus. My head was pounding I can tell you.
We all checked in for the first flight that went to London, which was a flight on its way from Africa to London. We all got on and eventually boarded. By now I was feeling very ill. I knew that what I wanted was sleep so as soon as we took off I settled down and tried to sleep.
Unusually I actually managed to and after a while had this overwhelming desire to throw up. I opened my eyes to see that the stewardess had placed an aircraft meal of greasy sausage, bacon and egg in front of me and it was the smell that was making me nauseous. I grabbed the sick bag and headed for the toilets at the rear of the aircraft. Typically, when I got there, they were all engaged.
So there I was standing outside the toilets which meant I was right next to the galley. In the galley was another stewardess pulling loads more plates of greasy sausage, bacon and egg out of the ovens.
That did it, I threw up into the sick bag!
A toilet door opened and the stewardess pushed me in. I did feel much better after that but it as highly embarrassing.
To this day I have never drunk alcohol before a flight. Actually haven’t drunk at all for a number of years. I can still remember that feeling standing by the galley and it is still unpleasant.
Yes, I have definitely been lucky
On balance I certainly believe I have been lucky when it comes to flying as none of these were actually very bad flight experiences. What bad experiences have you had?
You may wish to read my other travel experience articles on how flying has changed in the past 40 years and 10 long haul flight tips and tricks to make it bearable