What to do when air traffic control goes wrong

Not going anywhere.

Not going anywhere.

I am an infrequent, economy class flyer still in wonder at the impossibly of it all.  Last weekend I had a new experience.

We had been told that the flights we were due to take were headed into trouble – a general strike in Italy.  My son was on a British Airways (BA) afternoon flight scheduled to leave shortly after mine and the travel agent’s advice to both of us was that all would be well as Italy would be back at work by the evening.

In the end it was as I buckled in that the delay was announced.  Suddenly optimism vanished into a mix of flat light, long stranded hours and these few lessons learned:

1)  Before you board buy yourself a bottle of water and a roll of sweets at least.  Four, close-packed hours is a long time to be without food.  Half an hour without information is bad enough.  We were told, in both Italian and English, that the Italian strike would delay us by about 90 minutes.  We were given the option to leave the aeroplane but also told, ominously, that if we did we would probably have to spend another night in London.

2)  Make sure your mobile devices are fully charged and with you.   My mobile was not fully charged but it managed a few searches and to make contact with my son, the BA boy.  They had boarded their flight but were also delayed.  More distressingly for me, they were about to be served a meal.

I checked the web to see if there were any rights for passengers stuck on planes without food or release.  I found out there are a few but also an equal number of get-out clauses.  The latest from the European Commission provided at least a deadline to work to.

Then, for boredom’s sake, I searched Meridiana.  I had flown happily with them a couple of times but had not known this:

“The company was set up with the name of Alisarda on 29 March 1963 by Prince Karīm al-Hussayn Aga Khan with the aim of promoting tourism in Sardinia. Scheduled flights commenced in 1964.”  

Since then the company has added on new routes and swallowed some of the opposition.

The searching had eased the boredom but not helped my diminishing battery.  Thankfully it was at this point that the  captain, true to his hour and a half deadline, wheeled his aircraft away from the terminal buildings.  Psychologically it was a well-timed move.  There was a brief rush of hope and buckled belts …

Then the cups of water arrived.  Something was wrong.  Seat belts were re-released and passengers moved back into the aisle.

Still not going anywhere

Still not going anywhere

3)  Never indulge in any sense of national superiority.  The delay, when we started, had clearly been down to Italy however the radio silence that came with the next long hour, when we already had our nose pointed down the runway, was more baffling.  Rumours were that the problem was now British-owned.   This is when point 4 comes in handy.

4)  If you have enough battery check local news websites for information on what’s going on.  In our case it turned out that the BBC had the story first and that it had got its information from the website of the flight safety body Eurocontrol.  In the eye of the storm was NATS (National Air Traffic Services) “the UK’s leading provider of air traffic control services“. Their website says that each year they “handle 2.2 million flights and 220 million passengers in UK airspace“.  It turned out that a significant chunk of these flights were in limbo last Friday afternoon thanks to a “technical problem” at the Swanwick control centre in Hampshire.

By the time we had this information the aisle was jammed with passengers.  They unlocked limbs, shrugged a few shoulders and, down our end of the cabin, quietly occupied the tight space.  There was nothing to do but wait.

Eventually … about four hours after boarding … we rolled down the runway and took off for Naples and our mid-flight snack.

The crowning reward for our patience was the night flight in over the packed city.  We were so low we were in finger-tip distance of the lights.  We could peer right into the nest of the football stadium and almost stretch out to play with the apartment blocks, all cubed together around the high curves of the tangenziale.

Then suddenly, to generous applause, we had landed.

I learned, once through to the baggage reclaim area, that BA boy was still on his way.   It did not take him long.  We met in a pile of suitcases.  He had two further tips to add to the list.

5)  Don’t lose your patience with the cabin staff – they are all you have.

And, where possible:

6)  Avoid sharing long delays with large, over-exuberant orchestras.

My final tip:

7)  An old-fashioned book is worth its weight in batteries.

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018

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