And this is a long one…
Yesterday morning, 22nd of December, one day after London ground to a halt because of the snow, I headed to Heathrow airport with my big suitcase full of Christmas presents. Destination: HOME, ie, Milan, Italy.
I already harboured very harsh feelings towards the snow, since I missed my chance to celebrate Christmas with my boyfriend thanks to our modern cities’ incapability to deal with bad weather. After leaving his flat at 3pm, Patrick was forced to return home after 5 hours fighting the elements, a broken Tube and buses that didn’t show up. I had made dinner, lit candles, placed my presents under the tree… all for nothing.
As a first Christmas as a non-single person, it truly sucked.
Anyway, the sky was blue on Tuesday morning, I was in a cheerful mood and Jim the Irish builder was singing outside my flat. He offered to take my suitcase down the stairs and to the bus stop, and, like every time London suddenly shows its human side, I felt quite uplifted, positive. Ready for my journey home.
It’s Christmas! And I love Christmas, family gatherings, friends gatherings, panettone, carols, presents, trees, Santa and baby Jesus…
Back in November, I had made the “clever” choice of booking my Christmas flight with Alitalia, not out of patriotism but because, being an “old fashioned” airline rather than a “no frills”, it doesn’t charge for luggage, and Christmas is the only time of the year when I travel to Italy with a suitcase. Moreover, they had a special offer, cheaper than Ryanair.
As both Linate and Heathrow websites said that flights were still suffering delays, I gave myself plenty of time and got there 2 and a half hours earlier. The tube was running smoothly, I read my book, checked my passport and boarding card (I had checked in online) and relxed listening to musicals on my Ipod. Nice nice nice. Until I reached terminal 4 – where Alitalia has been “relegated” – and noticed a long, long queue of people stadning behind crush barriers in check in zone E, Alitalia’s area. I ignored it, I had already checked in, so I was obviously not going to be placed in a queue, all I had to do was dropping off my luggage. Simple, no?
There was no drop off desk. In fact there was no operating desk whatsoever, not for the poor people travelling to Milan at least. The moment I tried to walk to Alitalia ticket area in search of information, an airport official stopped me and guided me towards the crush barriers.
“No wait”, I shouted, as I suddenly realised the queue behind the crush barriers wasn’t actually a queue, as it was leading nowhere, and the barriers weren’t there to create a clear path towards the check in desks but just to “contain” all Alitalia wannabe travellers and prevent them from wondering around in search of somebody with a piece of information on their flights. Old people, babies, students, business men, paraplegics, all with enormous suitcases, were sadly staring at the Alitalia desks on the other side of the barriers as at some paradise lost, looking as if they were about to be deported to a prison camp. Joining them equalled never seing home, I felt it in my bones.
“I’ve got a boarding card!” I said to the airport guy, waving my piece of paper, “I don’t need to be in the queue, I only need to drop my suitcase!”
“Everyone travelling to Milan needs to be in the queue,” he replied. “If they’re going to operate the flight, drop off desks will be activated.”
“If? What do you mean IF? I must be in Milan tonight, I’m working tomorrow morning.”
“Those people have been there since yesterday. I’m sure they had commitments too.”
Yesterday? Had they been standing behind crush barriers for 24 hours? If it was a joke it wasn’t funny.
“Are you saying my flight g isoing to be cancelled?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who knows? Who can I ask?”
“Nobody. We don’t know. Join the queue.”
Feeling strangely calm (I knew I WOULD find a way to get to Milan not only in time for Christmas but in time for my recording session, and when I make up my mind, nothing can stop me, as the rest of this story will prove), I took my place in the queue, next to a girl who was only supposed to change over in Milan on her way to Sardinia.
“I need to be there by 6pm if I want to get the flight to Cagliari,” she says. “Do you think I’m going to make it?”
After half an hour of standing with no information available – no announcements, nothing written on the airport board, no Alitalia official to talk to, the situation was as followed:
– Italian people who’d been there since the previous day started collapsing to the floor, one lady claiming she had health problems so if there was ANY plane leaving to Italy she HAD to be placed on it. I point out that no water nor food voucher was handed out by Alitalia and the nearer cafe of vending machine was downstairs at arrivals level.
– The Brits as usual accepted the situation silently, in case complaining or moaning could be perceived as unpolite. They pretended to look jolly while contemplating the option of giving up on the idea of spending Christmas on the Alps. Swindon is not such a bad place after all, is it?
– Italian people just arrived and travelling with families were trying to find ways to entertain their children, wondering whether it was worth leaving thir place in the queue (and the only hope to reach a check in desk, shoul they ever open) to join a different a queue at Alitalia ticket desk in order to re-book their whole family on a flight leaving on the following day.
– Italian people travelling on their own, like me, armed with notebooks, Iphones and Blackberries, looked increasingly livid and started to plot a counter-attack. Because this isn’t 1989, when, if you were stuck at he airport behind crush barriers, you were effectively cut off from the world, unable to communicate. This isn’t even 1999, when your only hope for info was to ring your mum and ask her to ring Linate airport or Alitalia main office. This is 2009. A few men around me went line checking weather forecast in Milan and flightstats. “Hey, none of the Alitalia flights is showed as cancelled in linate!” “Yes, and Alitalia website confirms they’re all running!” “It’s only raining in Milan, no snow!” “My friend on Facebook says he’s just eaten 6 slices of Panettone (there’s always some idiot who’s on FB in such cases).” I personally was on the phone with my friend who’s a journalist for Corriere.it, and in no time I was being interviewed, slugging off Alitalia, live, on air. There was also a group of gay men talking about alternative routes:
“if we rented car and crossed the Channel…”
“You can’t cross the Channel, the Eurostar got stuck there because of the snow!”
“We won’t go UNDER the channel, pirla, we’ll go on a ferry!”
“All ferries are fully booked because of the Eurostar not working.”
“We could take a train to Dover, board a ferry without a car, rent a van in France and drive to Milan.”
“And get stuck under the Mont Blanc?”
“Oh, you’re SOOOO negative!”
In the menatime, from the Alitalia personnel, only a big silence. No tannoy announcements to explain the situation, no official communication, the airport boards still saying that our flight was regularly set toleave at 5.40, even though it was now 4pm and the check in was still closed. Then, all of a sudden, a few Alitalia hostesses arrived and with a smile not full of good tidings, began to distribute sheets of papers. They said : “due to adverse weather condtions, we’re experiencing long queues and cancellations. We reccomend Alitalia customers to go home and rebook their flights by calling the call centre (a 0871 number that costs 10p per minute plus VAT). Flights on the 23rd and 24th are NOT available.”
At this point I got angry. Were they seriously saying we should give up on the idea of flying home for Christmas? Also, lots of people in the queue were tourists, with no accomodation in London. Was their hotel going to be re-funded? Apparently not because “bad weather” doesnt depend on Alitalia. The number they gave us was not only so expensive to call it would have cost us as much as our flight, it was also constantly busy. How could we get in touch with Alitalia? And, more to the point, was our flight officially cancelled?? Nobody knew. On the board, it was still marked as leaving at 5.40. It was 5.15…
I asked the Sardinian girl to look after my luggage and left the queue to and speak with one of the hostesses. She was blond, English and wearing too much blue eye shadow.
“Is our flight cancelled?” I asked
“We don’t know anything. All flights to Milan are currently suspended, but they might still take off. Or they might not. But we do reccomend to re-book.”
“Didn’t you get the paper?” Her Essex accent was trully irritating as was her cocky smile. I so wanted to slap her.
“Which paper? The one saying we should spend 100 pounds to be placed on hold and then told we can’t flight anywhere until new year?”
“It’s not my fault, madam.”
“I don’t care. You’re not giving us any information. Is our flight cancelled?”
“We don’t know. It depends on whether we’re going to have an aircraft flying in. Flights are suspended in Milan and if no aircraft arrives from Linate, we’ll have no aircraft to fly you back.”
A very, VERY angry guy now joins me. He’s wearing a suit, has big curly hair and very small eyes. He starts shouting. “You MUST tell us what’s happening here, as you’re making up excuses, you’re sending people home without telling them which compensation they’re entitled to, without giving them a chart with their passenger’s rights, and since our flight isn’t even officially cancelled, they can’t even ask to be re-booked at a later date for free as it’d look like it’s their fault for not taking the scheduled plane!”
“Sir, don’t shout at me.”
“I demand to speak with your boss!”
“We’ve given you all the info you need.”
“You’re giving us fucking nothing!” another guy screams – now I begin to fear for the annoying hostess’ incolumity as the crowd is slowly leaving the crush barriers to gather around her – “you didn’t even make a tannoy announcement, the boards say the flight is leaving!”
Two security guards arrive and force us behind the crush barriers. The guy with curly hair is still screaming, his face red.
Ten minutes later, somebody says all flights to Milan have been cancelled. My heart sinks. The idea of calling the stupid number and be re-booked for a flight on Christmas Day isn’t something I even consider. So I ring my boyfriend asking him to go online and check whether different airlines have available flights for the following morning. He find me a Lufthansa for the marvellous price of 300 pounds. I could fly to NY for that money but I tell him to hold on to it while I queue at the ticket desk to ask whether there’s a chance to be refunded. This because Mr screaming is now harringuing the crowds like a politician and stating passenegers’ rights, including the right to be rebooked ona different airline without charge.
“Listen, people!” he shouts, like Cicero in front of the Senate, “what they’re not saying is that the flights aren’t cancelled because of bad weather. It’s not snowing in London and all airlines are operating normally. They’re cancelling flights because they refuse to flight empty aircrafts in from Rome and Naples. They don’t want to waste money. So they’re trying to send you home and force you to fly on Christmas Day. If you leave and go home now, you’ll never be home for Christmas! And you’ll never see a refund as they’re not distributing reclaim forms! We should force them to fly aircrafts in from Rome!”
I ring back my journalist friend and ask him if he’s interested in the story of Alitalia forcing people to give up on spending Christmas home in order to avoid having to fly planes in from Rome. He is, and Mr Screaming gets interviewed, spitting venom and accusations on air.
I join the now interminable queue at the ticket desk. I’m truly tempted to go home and buy the Lufthansa flight, but something in me doesnt want to give up. All Milan flights appear as regularly scheduled on the airport board, including the 5.40pm (even though it’s now 5.50) but now a hand written poster has appeared, stuck with sellotape on Alitalia ticket desk: “5.40 flight to Linate, cancelled. 6.50 and 8.15 suspended until further announcement.”The online flightstat page for Linate airport however says the 5.40 is still scheduled.
A voice starts spreading that one flight has actually left Milan at some point in the afternoon, so Alitalia does have ONE aircraft.It shows on Heathrow website. Somebody whispers that one flight will leave at some point – maybe the 5.40, maybe the 6.50 – but Alitalia intends to get rid of as many passengers as possible so that they an fit whoever is left at the airport on this ONE aircraft. The chaos is total.
At this point all Brits have left and some of the Italian families have joined the ticket desk and rebooked for the 25th and 26th, husbands holding kids while wives called home to tell the grandparents they won’t be opening presents with their grandchildren on Christmas day. Only a man in a very elegant blue coat holding a baby is firm in his resolution to leave today. Same for a woman with a big buggy and even bigger circles under her eyes.
I’m almost about to speak with another annoying hostess at the ticket desk, when someone shouts: “They’re boadring the 5.40 flight! It’s not cancelled!”
We all start running like crazy towards the check in, it was like being in “Chariots of fire”, but we’re fully dressed and dragging suitcases. In the mayhem I think I trip into an Air Japan hostess and probably almost run over an Indian baby. Nothing can stop me.
But our hopes drop the moment we reach the desk.
“We know nothing about the 5.40 flight,” the Alitalia blond says (the same Essex girl with too much make up). I don’t know who told you such thing.
At this point Ms Screaming truly tries to kill her with his bare hands, supported by a cheering crowd. Such is the general anger, finally Alitalia “big boss” leaves his office and comes down. He’s a huge man in his late 50s, with a big belly and white hair. He looks like a mix between Zeus landing from Mount Olympus and Santa Klaus.
He smiles benignly at the furious crowds, opening his arms as if to hold us on in a warm embrace.
“My friends, let’s all calm down. There was a mistake on the check in desk. We’re actually opened the check in for the 8.15 flight.”
“A mistake on the board? Why are you boarding the 8.15 and not the 5.40?”
“We have people who have been stranded here from yesterday. Most of them were transferred on the 8.15. We’re only doing our best here. All airlines had problems today, it’s the weather.”
“Lier! Look at my Iphone! I checked Easyjet and Ryanair and their flights to Milan have landed on time!”
“It’s a problem of aircrafts, we don’t have aircrafts…”
“Fly one in! From Rome! The weather is perfectly nice in Rome! You’re saving money at our expenses, you’re disgraceful!”
“YEAAAHHH!” the whole crows says.
“Children will miss Christmas. Parents won’t see their babies. Hundreds of families will have their holidays destroyed because of you!”
Now the tone is getting really melodramatic. Alitalia boss gives us another benign smile.
“Listen, be patient.”
“Patient? You must be joking! I’ve just released an interview to Corriere!” says Mr Screaming, “and the WHOLE OF ITALY knows you’re not flying extra planes to London in order to save money. You’ve been shamed!”
I return to the ticket desk. Of course in the meantime I’ve lost my place in the queue. Patrick on the phone is still asking me if I want the Lufthansa flight. I give him my credit card number to buy it. But at the last minute I says wait. The 5.40 flight is still showing as scheduled on the board. The Linate website confirms it. Perhaps the consipiracy theory about Alitalia not wanting to fly planes is right after all. Especially since I now turn and see a man waving a boarding card.
“I’ve checked in!” he says. “They’re boarding the 5.40 but they’re trying not to let people know!”
Once again I leave my place in the queue and run to the check in area – chariots of fire style etc. False Alarm again.
“No, no, we’re boarding the 8.15, not the 5.40,” the Essex girl says.
“But somebody I’ve just bumped into says he’s checked in for the 5.40.
“I know nothing.”
I march back to the ticket desk and almost re-join the queue for the 3rd time when I see the Alitalia manager om his own just under the flight info board. If he had a red cap on, he would truly look like one of those Santas you see in supermarkets taking pics with children.
“Listen,” I say. “What’s going on here with the 6.50 and 5.40 flights? They keep on appearing and disappearing. What are they, the Phantom of the Opera?”
“It’s all a bit complicated. we only have one aircraft.”
“And which flight are you boarding?”
“Well, let’s say that if you’re lucky enough to get checked in, you might be leaving.”
Now, this doesnt make any sense. Does it mean they’re basically boarding people from 3 different flights onto ONE aircraft, hoping some passenagers have by now given up and gone home, and without announcing it, so that the hundreds of so people now queing at the ticket desk will continue with their re-booking?
“I have already checked in,” I say. “Online.”
He looks at me, smiles and comes closer. Now he does look like Santa.
“Then RUN!” he whispers. “Go to the first class desk, drop your luggage, and run. They’re closing the flight in 10 minutes.”
Gathering all my strength and this time I gallop even faster than the guys in Chariots Of Fire, I’m like Superman-faster-than-light, I rush to the first class desk, drop my suitacse, run to Fast Track security, dropping passport, credit cards and newspapers in the process and stopping to pick them up, run through corridors and corridors of gates, duty free shops, tapis roulants, gate 3 is the very last one, it’s like running towards the gate of heaven, “wait! Please wait!”
“Slow down, signorina,” a very old and elegant man at Alitalia gate says, very quietly. Am I dead? Is he Saint Peter? He isn’t even wearing an uniform. “The flight isn’t going to take off for another hour. In fact we still have 30 seats to fill.”
“Of course! Nobody knows this is boarding!”
“We know. we just want to avoid overcrowding.”
When I get on the plane I see Man in Blue Coat with Baby, the gay men group, an Italo-Somali family who I’d noticed earlier on and even Mr Screaming.
“You’ve made it!” they say, clapping. “Well done!”
It’s like we’ve reached the other side of the Force or something. I take my seat. I try to contact Patrick but my battery has run out. Mr Screaming who’s now turned into Mr Nice, takes a battery out of one of his phones and offers it to me. we’re like a big family. Gay man gives his laptop to Woman with Buggy so the child can watch a movie. Man in Blue starts socialising with the Somali family. The stewerdesses – much nicer than the one at the check in – starts offering fizzy water and biscuits and someone shouts “Happy Hour!”
It’s 8.30pm. They close the doors and we’re about to leave when the capitain all of a sudden announces Linate has been closed. We won’t take off until 11.30pm. If we take off. The stwerdesses are running out of fizzy water and everyone’s burping. A Japanese girls is sick and has to be taken off the plane. They call a doctor. We start playing games and telling stories. By 11pm we all believe we’re never going to see Milan. Until, at 11.20, the capitain switches off the lights and we TAKE OFF.
You’d think this is the end.
But it isn’t.
When we land in Milan at almost 2am, the airport is desert. Literally, meaning most airport personnel had been sent home. So there’s nobody who can take a slide to the airplane in order to disembark us. 40 minutes later, we’re still waiting. Suddenly, a light, and a little man in bright yellow, like a little elf from the underworld, appears with the slides. Outside it’s cold like at the North Pole. I don’t remember such cold air in Milan since the 70s. We’re packed into one bus, driven by somebody who’s probably still wearing his pyjamas. We reach the terminal. I’m almost tempted to kiss the ground.
And this is NOT the end
When we reach the luggage area, it’spure mayhem. The screen over the carousels are off, even though the carousels are actually working, and hundreds of suitcases in search of an owner are spinning round and round, round and round. Bags from Paris, Catania, Amsterdam, bag that nobosy claims, that shouldn’t been there – or perhaps that should have been there ages ago. Even a cat in a box. Together with our flight, another flight has arrived, from Sicily. Turns out, there’s no personnel to download and deliver luggage. Some planes’s holds have been emptied but there’s nobody driving the containers with the bags to the terminal. It didn’t cross the Linate and Alitalia’s manager to ask people to work extra hours because of the emergency, apparently. It can be hours before our luggage comes. If it does, of course.
We all wander about the place like zoombies, looking at the mountain of unclaimed bags, eyes wide open. There’s only one woman at the info desk, and her suggestion is “write your name and bag number on a piece of paper, together with contact details, and go home. Come back tomorrow.”
Going home and coming back tomorrow seems to be all Al-Italians’ favourite strategy, as if by magic everything will be solved tomorrow, as if people were just ready to give up ther flights, bags, presents, relatives, Christmas holidays, even their lives, and trust all this in the capable and reliable hands of mother Alitalia. There was a time, long long ago, when Alitalia crew wore Armani uniforms, served caviar on board and welcome passangers on planes with leather seats. Perhaps back then I would hav gone home and returned tomorrow. But right now, “tomorrow is another day” only means another day of desperate attempt at surviving, so I totally refuse to leave the luggage area. Luggage or bust!!!
In the meantime my parents have began to ring me every five minutes. It’s 3am and I just wish they’d go to bed. I tell them I’m prepared to stau at Linate until morning waiting for my suitcase. Time passes by. Suddenly, a tannoy announement:
WE FOUND A CONTAINER FULL OF BAGS ON ONE OF THE RUNWAYS. THEY WILL COME TO CAROUSEL NUMBER 4.
What the hell? Is this a joke? Who left a container in the middle of the runway? Like falcons, we all gather around carousel 4. The man in the blue coat is there, carrying his poor baby, and so is the Somali family. The light over the carousel starts beeping. The belt starts moving. And, like in a Hollywood “feel good” movie, the first thing appearing on the carousel is MY BAG. I almost cry. It’s 4am.
And this, my friends, is the end.