I was fully prepared for a stressful journey back home. I told myself that whatever happened, it was out of my hands, I could do nothing about it. I could control my breathing. What’s the worst that could happen?
But then reality kicked in and as I write this at home several hours after the events, I am still breaking out in cold sweats. This post is quite negative, so feel free to skip it. I’m only writing it because in years to come, it will be hard to believe that any individual trip can be this stressful.
If I were an explorer, venturing into the unknown, I would expect to be scared and hesitant. But my plans entail using supposedly well ordered 21st century travel infrastructure. It should be comfortable, safe, predictable, civilised.
After two weeks with the family in Anchorage, it was time to go back home. Liesel and Leslie dropped me off at the airport in very good time, at 10.00am, for my 12.40pm flight. The queue for checking in was already quite long but, as I said, I was in very good time.
At 10.30, I was able to report that the queue was moving, albeit slowly. There was only one person behind the desk but I told myself I’m sure they know what they’re doing. After all, this flight is a weekly event, they know how to process all these hundreds of people in good time, right?
As well as all the potential passengers, we were surrounded by dozens of chill boxes containing newly caught Alaskan salmon, destined for domestic freezers back home in Germany. I was glad I wasn’t checking in any luggage, it might have been crushed by all the fish.
10.50 arrived and so did the other queue, the so-called Premium Economy passengers. At this point, the still solitary check-in person gave them preferential treatment. This was the point at which I first began to feel uncomfortable. The dad in the family behind me in the queue was becoming agitated too. He was edging their luggage forward a centimetre at a time, even though nobody else in our queue was moving.
At 11.11, I reported to Liesel via Whatsapp that our queue hadn’t moved for 20 minutes. There were about 20 people in front of me at this point and probably well over 100 behind. 70 minutes in a queue seems unreasonable to me. Still just one person working, processing people in the other line.
The bloke behind spoke to a passing uniformed woman, asking for reassurance that we would be checked in in good time?
Uniformed woman: I don’t know, I don’t work for Condor.
Agitated bloke: But you work for the airport, no?
Uniformed woman: No, I work for a cruise liner.
Agitated bloke now deflated. This brought a rare smile to my face, thankfully hidden by the mask.
11.25, she took a group from my queue for the first time in 45 minutes. Via Whatsapp, Liesel commented that at least I had snacks. Well, yes, but eating was the last thing I wanted to do. Not throwing up was a major achievement. I know it’s out of my control, but that’s the problem. I can see the problem is not enough check-in personnel, and the solution is obvious: get more people. But I can’t do anything about that.
11.28, ‘holy moly’ is the phrase I didn’t use, someone else turned up to work at the check-in counter.
11.30, oh, she’s gone away again, a man appeared from nowhere to tell her that she couldn’t use that terminal.
11.42, Liesel asked if I’d reached the counter yet: nope.
11.45, I’m at the counter and my two boarding passed were printed within 30 seconds. 105 minutes waiting and less than one minute at the counter. Paradoxically, I felt short-changed, it should have taken longer, there should have been more of a ceremony, fireworks, everything.
Deep breaths as I now walked round the corner dreading the length of the queue I’d have to contend with before going through Security. It was now within an hour of the scheduled departure time.
12.00, Security was a breeze. A short wait, my bags went through without being pulled aside. At this point, I was shaking but no longer felt like I was going to be sick. I knew it was only a 10-minute walk to the boarding gate, so I took time out to buy a coffee. If I’m gonna be shaking, I might as well take on board some caffeine, was my strange train of thought.
I arrived at the boarding gate. No staff here and nothing displayed on the screen, just a lot of people sitting or milling about, some of whom I recognised because I’d been watching them ahead of me in the queue. What’s going on? Nobody knew. So I backtracked to find a screen displaying all the departure details, just to make sure the gate hadn’t changed since my boarding pass was printed. It hadn’t, but the information gleaned was much worse.
As you can see, my 12.40 flight actually departed at 11.55. Cue another surge of adrenaline, panic and cold sweat. How can a flight depart so early, especially when so many people were still in the check-in queue at that point? I know, I’ll ask a member of staff what’s going on. Only there were none.
12.42, two minutes after the scheduled departure time, two members of staff turned up, the two who’d been checking people in, one of whom had turned up just as I was being processed. The screen here at the gate was still not showing anything, so people swarmed around them asking for information. It seems this flight was so over-subscribed, they’d squeezed in an extra flight. Well, that’s great, but why not tell us? Why not update the departure board to reflect this fact, rather than telling us our plane had taken off a long time earlier? The lack of communication probably caused more anxiety than anything else.
And now of course, I know this flight will be leaving very late, making it more difficult for me to make my connection at Frankfurt airport.
1.12, finally, I am sitting on the plane, trying to tell myself that I just don’t care any more, but even this little trick isn’t working today. The stewardess (do we still use that term?) welcomed me in German to which I replied ‘schanke dön’. Proof that my brain was well and truly addled.
The pilot made an announcement, welcoming us on board. He also apologised for the delay, which was because it took longer than usual to move the plane to the departure gate from the other terminal.
Some good news though: I had two seats to myself.
Oh, but the bad news: my vegetarian meal wasn’t. There was a huge lump of beige meat on a bed of vegetables. The crew-member took my ‘non-lacto’ meal away and replaced it with a proper veggie meal. This didn’t bother me at all. A mistake was made somewhere along the line, and the problem was resolved. This is on a different level to the general level of incompetence experienced at the airport.
At some point, over Canada or Greenland I guess, I asked a crew member what time we expected to land at Frankfurt. About 9am local time, she said. Which was good news. My onward flight to Manchester departed at 9.45. Last time I flew from Anchorage to Manchester, transiting at Frankfurt, I just walked from one gate to another, dead easy, took five minutes or so. I was happy that I would not, after all, miss my connecting flight.
I couldn’t sleep during the flight, but I did start to relax a bit.
It was an unusually bumpy landing in Frankfurt, and for a moment, I thought I had plenty of time. But no. Instead of disembarking into the terminal building (just a few gates away from where my next flight would be boarding, as I thought), we stopped in the middle of nowhere, and had to take a bus to to the building. A quick 5-minute ride, surely? Nope. 15 minutes, so of course, the panic is now beginning to build again. Still, once inside, it should be a quick walk. Breathe.
I followed the signs to my departure gate, checking the screen on the way, which was just as well, because we’d been promoted from B24 to B27. Follow the signs. Just round the corner, surely. Down the stairs. Round this corner, then. Nope. Down more stairs. To a shuttle bus that would take us to the gate. A quick 5-minute ride, surely? No, another tour, seemingly of the whole airport. I really had not considered the possibility that I’d have not one but two shuttle bus rides at Frankfurt.
At the gate, I joined the queue to go through, not really caring what ‘group’ of people they were letting through, I just wanted to get on board, now, with only 5 minutes to spare. The machine rejected my boarding pass, it flashed red, but at least klaxons and alarms didn’t go off. The flashing red light stirred an otherwise disinterested man into action. He told me to go to go to that desk over there.
In front of the desk was a woman asking the young assistant what had happened to her luggage, last seen in Bucharest. It was probably a short conversation but at the time, I thought she’d never stop talking and get out of my way. But she did, eventually, and I presented my errant boarding pass.
Assistant: Have you just flown in from Anchorage?
Me: Yes I have.
Assistant: You’ve been cancelled, you flight was delayed, we didn’t think you’d get here in time.
Me: Oh. (And much more in my head.)
Assistant: How many checked items do you have?
Me: I don’t have any checked items. (Thank goodness, good planning there.)
Assistant: Would you like to be reinstated?
Me: Yes, please. (People were still going through the gate, so I thought I was OK for time.)
Assistant: (A million clicks on the keyboard. Then she gave me a brand new boarding pass.)
Me: Thank you very much.
I walked straight back to the scanning machine, jumping the queue, I’d already queued once pointlessly, and I’ve never seen such a welcome sight as this green light.
Of course, my seat had been reallocated and I was now sitting much nearer the front, by an exit, with plenty of leg room but no little table in front of me.
This flight was uneventful. The worst part was me being in the toilet when they went round giving out the chocolates. Huh. So when a crew member was distracted by another passenger, I just grabbed a chocolate off his tray. He didn’t notice.
Going through passport control at Manchester airport was a breeze on this occasion. All the machines were working. I had to temporarily remove the protective ‘I am European’ cover from the passport before the machine could read it.
Nothing to declare of course, so straight through Customs, also straight through the unavoidable but I’m sure very lucrative duty free shop, and out into the real world. Of course, the taxi I took home only accepted cash, so we had to go via an ATM.
At home, I climbed the stairs, went inside, collapsed on the bed and had a quick and very welcome nap.
As I said to Liesel, if I were a spy and you wanted to extract my secrets, you couldn’t come up with a more severe form of torture than making me fly internationally through under-staffed airports.
Thanks, I feel better, now. Very cathartic. I feel purged and cleansed but I will be searching for ‘industrial strength anti-anxiety medication’ when I’ve had another nap.