Well Jim, it’s European air travel but not as we know it: Air travel to Vienna and back – a return trip you’d just want to forget

Posted: April 24, 2012 in Airlines, Aviation & Airports (General News), Europe, Gatwick
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Last week we really could have done with the Starship Enterprise and a dose of warp speed

It’s a bit of a rant I know, but I really need to get this off my chest as it’s beginning to hurt, (and I work in this industry for God’s sake)

Outbound LGW – VIE: London Gatwick to Vienna

Not the best days air travel I've had

The team are now all safely back in blighty (and Holland) after a week’s ‘adventure’ exhibiting in Vienna at the PTX (the Passenger Terminal Expo), an annual pilgrimage that all faithful airport and airline industry members have to make to a well chosen and different European city destination each year.

But this year’s journey was somewhat tainted by the very travel methods we all work within in the air transport industry.

Why, well it’s simple really, on the way to VIE from Gatwick last Monday,  alarms went off in a Virgin Airbus that had just departed Gatwick bound for the States, it had to make an abrupt about turn and return when the detectors indicating there was smoke on-board and it triggered a full scale incident, complete with a priority landing and emergency chutes and all.

We were next to line up on the runway 08R but at the last minute our pilot was instructed to continue to hold just short of the threshold and we had to wait for the said VS flight to land as quickly as he could, so we took a 2 hour delay. The VS flight stopped firmly where he came to rest on the runway and the crew started a full-blown emergency evacuation.

Apart from some injuries caused by the exit routine itself, thankfully there were no tragedies. Read my Airport Informer report on the incident here ……

News Flash – Virgin Flight Passengers Evacuated on Runway

….. hastily written directly where the drama was taking place, from seat 6F. I should add that at this point that the engines were switched off as were the seat belt signs, so laptops and internet access were allowed.

So now with the main runway fully blocked by an Airbus A330 with chutes splayed out from the fuselage like the spiders legs on some crazy carnival float, we were going nowhere fast. In fact as more aircraft joined us at the western holding point and it was starting to look a little crowded, some of the aircraft were actually positioned on the main runway to wait there until things got moving again.

Within two hours, the chutes were finally removed, the passengers all taken to the terminal, or East Surrey hospital in a couple of cases I read about the next day, and we were once again asked to fasten those seat belts, heard the engines throttle up and made our way at a pace down the secondary, or emergency runway as I always call it, passing over the still stricken Virgin Airbus on the main runway at about 250 feet.

The affair brought air transport in the South of England to a virtual standstill for the rest of the day, but the real culprit is the single runway at Gatwick, it’s heavily burdened at the best of times and ATC perform miracles every day to squeeze the most out of its 12,00 feet of runway, balancing inbound and outbound flights with pinpoint accuracy.

Gatwick Airport has the unenviable reputation as the busiest single runway in use in the world, but if it’s blocked by an Airbus that’s the end of all operations, end of game, early bath, thanks for coming!!

European Air Travel ‘Part Deux’ – The Return to LGW and ‘The Monsoon’

Bring sandwiches the next time you're here and the weather turns a bit damp!

Bring sandwiches the next time you're here and the weather turns a bit damp!

After a week in Vienna at the Passenger Terminal Expo it was finally Friday and time to make our return to the UK.

So after collapsing and crating the stand after the shows closure at 15:00, we made our way back to our nearby hotel in the early evening to collect our stored luggage, we booked our taxi and waited in the lobby for our driver to turn up. Mustafa our taxi driver had a fantastic sense of humour and was only about 15 minutes away from our hotel when we rang for him, having already taken half of our crew to the airport, as they had earlier flights to differing destinations.

It was at that point I began to feel sorry for them as they were about to travel with darkening skies in the direction of the airport, which clouded over swiftly with the accompanying sound of thunder in the air and flashes of lightening illuminating the dark skies.

Then the rain started, and what a monsoon followed.

‘No worries’, my colleague and I said to each other, as we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that we had at least three hours before our departure, ‘it will be all over by then’.

Mustafa showed and told us of the conditions that he had travelled through to the airport and back again.

Actually it only took us a little over 15 minutes to make the road journey from Vienna town centre to the airport and on a Friday evening as well. Try that on a Friday on the M25.

But I knew life in this airport was going to be a challenge when we couldn’t even locate the correct terminal, that alone find the correct desks for EZY check-in.

The signage is either non-existent or useless. I eventually found a small logo for easyJet on the exit door of Terminal 2, about 3 x 5 inches in size. That was it.

The electronic signs failed miserably to deliver any pertinent and useful information. Was it just stupid and tired me, no way, there was a plethora of dazed and confused passengers criss-crossing the terminals just like me in search of salvation, or else they would settle for a trip home.

Finally it appeared around the corner, next to an Air Malta operation, two complete desks dedicated to easyJet check-in, right next to the blocked off and inoperable automatic KABA gates leading to a closed and locked departure lounge entrance. I can’t tell you how many times a local resident hoping for a well practised quick exit would scoot around our corner at full speed heading for this blocked entry, but then foiled by the closure, would swear in the local dialect and then look for an alternate route to the airside area.

They all close to the gates and inspected them, just to make sure that they were really not working. It was the look of disbelief on their faces that got to me, as if this had never happened before in VIE airport.

Check-in was slow to start, in fact it didn’t really get going for 30 minutes and we were then departure time minus 90 minutes. When the Supervisor turned up for the fifth time to instruct his check-in crew of two again, you just knew something was amiss. The next clue was when the desks opened, only the non ‘easy boarding’ line was up and running. Smart move easyJet, make your passengers pay for a service then ensure your handler’s crew ignore the fact that some have paid for a premium service (take note in Luton, your handler in VIE is ISS).

So let’s get the gripes over and done with and rejoice in the fact that after two more consultancy sessions with all and sundry, the stressed and sweating Supervisor then opened the Fast Track easy boarding desk up himself. I’ve sat on a check-in desk in the past many years ago so know exactly what they were going through.

The next big clue to the outcome of this adventure was the brilliant flash of lightning almost directly above our heads followed almost immediately by a ground shaking boom of thunder.

At this point I think I fell in and understood that there was no hurry for check-in as the weather was taking over rapidly, I should have figured that the inbound aircraft was nowhere near Vienna at this point in the proceedings. But check-in we did, or rather ‘bag drop’, and then made our way to the Dep Lounge. Passing the boarding card check point and being waved straight through by a bored looking official was a ploy to get us into the ‘Spending Zone’ I’m sure.

The boarding card I was given clearly stated gate D21 was our departure point, the FIDS screens that did work didn’t go that far into the evening, even though departure was by now minus 45 minutes. We were now starting that same criss-crossing trick looking for the right area to head for.

After refusing to pay for the exorbitant prices in the airside retail outlets and I mean exorbitant, my final suspicions were confirmed when a nice lady on the PA system told all and sundry that there were multiple delays now in progress sue to the unseemly weather. Well, she didn’t exactly put it that way, she’s a German speaker after all. It was far more precise than my rantings. But the message was the same, ‘you’re going nowhere fast Mister’.

The FIDS screens now started playing ball and showed at least 10 flights that were to have a delayed departure. Then came the gate change.

You see what happens in an airport with a tight operation is that, if plane number one doesn’t vacate the gate he’s sitting in a timely fashion, plane number two, who is inbound goes elsewhere. So easyJet had probably paid good money for a real gate with an proper Air Bridge, but on this night they were going to get a refund (I hope they will anyway) because we’re on the coaches.

First we have to tackle passport control. there’s nothing like being an orderly crowd and trust me, this was nothing like an orderly crowd. Push and shove to the front, oh and if your late and your flight’s about to leave, don’t try to politely get to the front, if the officials don’t tell you to get to the back, the other passengers will, even if they have all the time in the world.

But it does raise a question I’ve wanted to pose to the DfT for years now, WHY DON’T UK AIRPORTS STAFF (or the Borders Agency) CHECK OUTBOUND PASSENGER PASSORTS ANY MORE?? That’s right folks, you want access to the secure zone of an airport, just buy a cheap on-way ticket to nowhere, print out your boarding pass at home, then turn up at Heathrow or Gatwick WITHOUT HOLD BAGGAGE and your good old 2D barcode gets you right on through, no messy ID questions, no checks, no identification checks for security, just a piece of paper (or if you’re really technically minded, your smart phone with a PDF file on it will do).

Anyway, I digress, now onto the real adventure.

Then it’s off to Central Search, oh joy, there were as many Smiths Industries x-ray units that are in Terminal 1 in Heathrow, only squeezed  into a quarter of the space. I have never in my life experienced such a crush; it was panic and shout, with a mix of bad temper thrown in too. Too hot and sweaty by now as well. Nice!

So now we’re off to Gate D34 and guess what, it’s a coaching gate and it’s a shared area with about 1000 other happy souls, mostly standing at the wrong gate because they read the info screens before they changed as well. The only worry was that when they wanted to leave this gate to go to the right one, they physically couldn’t make it through the crush.

So now 1500 people are gathered in this confined space built for about 200 passengers and we are all going nowhere at all. Most of the passengers at the wrong gate were from Eastern Europe and were calm and well ordered. Not the locals though, bad tempered yet again, arrogance abounded that we were breathing their air.

Ever tried easy boarding on a coaching gate, its real fun. The gate opens, you go through, only the boarding card you were given at check-in doesn’t have “easy boarding” printed on it, so now you have to find your original easy boarding card, nothing’s easy about that when some passengers realised that the check-in crew had kept them and exchanged them for the traditional cards. No proof of purchase of the premier service then?

Down the stairs and on to the front of the coach, 10 minutes elapses then the front doors close, the easy boarding passengers are shunted right to the front of the coach and the back doors open for the rest of the travellers.

Off we set for the tarmac in the distance. As we approach you just know that this plane has only just got in, as the last bags and a assisted passenger are still coming off.

Thankfully the bus driver has been prepped to only open the front doors so that easy boarding has a chance of working.

The final nail in the coffin was, once we are all on-board and seated, we notice that the captain is milling around seat row one talking to the front seated passenger there, he’s not in a hurry to get away then. It was then that the flight desk made the announcement that we were waiting for a new slot, as we had missed the last one allocated to the flight, but hey, that was the least of our worries because he then told us that our bags were still waiting for a ride from our original departure gate, at good old D21.

Vienna airport has yet to master the art of not making a drama out of a crisis. It’s old, poorly signed, too small, expensive, no that wrong it’s VERY expensive, it’s tired, outdated, disorganised and frankly the very worst big city airport I’ve ever travelled through. Yes there was a major weather event in progress, but the Viennese just didn’t have a backup plan. I hope they read this at government level. Do what the Berliners have just done, build a brand new one and move all and sundry there.

Never again……

As an addendum I should add that the final insult to the injury was that our flight was dumped at the North Terminal of Gatwick unplanned at the last minute, so all those meeters and greeters had to make it across on the mon0rail. Then I experienced what I’d read about only days earlier, the queue for the UK Borders passport checks were farcical.

Some advice, if your coming to town for the London Olympics this summer, pack some sandwiches and buy a bottle of drink airside before departure, you’ll need it trust me.


Story by Chris Newman
For The Airport Informer
25th April 2012


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