Sunday, February 28, 2010
Travelling with the Easyjetset
The queues snaked out of the departure lounge and down the corridor. Everyone stood silently, staring up at a small computer screen. I glanced at it: Newcastle - Boarding. Quickening my step and clutching my Speedy Boarding card I sought out Gate 84.
This was my first test of the Newcastle-Stansted route. I travel to London at least once a week and enjoy the train journey, but over the last couple of months the rise in prices on the East Coast line has finally pushed me to try something new. A friend had told me she swore by the Easyjet experience. It turned out to be an appropriate verb.
The 7am flight from Newcastle had been precisely on time, and although the Stansted Express, coupled with the Victoria Line, doubled the length of the journey, I reached my first meeting at 9.45pm. That's precisely when the 6.30am train would have brought me there, but I was £50 richer. If the return trip worked as well, I might just make Izzy’s bedtime.
I stood with my fellow speedy boarders by the unmanned departure gate and checked the screen again: Boarding, most definitely. In fact, it proudly claimed everything was boarding: Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast. But none of the queues seemed to be moving. Maybe it’s a ploy, I thought, to get people there on time.
Suddenly the tannoy caught everyone’s attention: it was an Easyapology for a delay on the 5.15pm Belfast flight. One of the queues swayed and I heard Irish murmurs. It was already 7.15pm. I smiled smugly: we were on “Final Call”. Except noone was there to open the gate. I frowned. Was there another Newcastle queue?
I asked the man next to me where he was going and he said Edinburgh. So did another. A non-speedy lady turned white and protested: this queue was definitely for Newcastle. Scottish and Geordie voices began a debate. We looked in vain for an Easyjet uniform. There were no staff at all for nearly a thousand people crammed into the tiny lounge. We checked the screen again: both Edinburgh and Newcastle flights said Gate 84, but the Newcastle flight was now “Closing”.
Half an hour passed. I rang home: we were already late, but the computer denied it. “Ask an Easyjet person”, said Jo with her American logic. “Not so Easy”, I said grimly.
I was just saying goodnight to Izzy down the phone when our queue suddenly disintegrated. Edinburgh was now in Gate 85. In their hurry to form a new queue, the Edinburgh passengers collided with another group of Easyscots from a Glasgow flight that had also been switched. The Edinburgh line had only just reformed when the screen changed again, to Gate 81. It was like musical gates: lines of sheep crossed the room, sorrying their way past each other.
Finally it was our turn to move, but not in the way we expected. Without warning the screen declared “Newcastle: Estimated 9.15pm”. We were two hours late.
The chap standing next to me told me it happens frequently: the Geneva plane to Newcastle was late so all the regulars had known since lunchtime that this one would be delayed too. Shame they didn’t tell the Stansted flight information board. The chaos and lack of customer care reminded me of another internal airline service I’d experienced back in 1993. But that was in Romania, a third world country in those days, where you had to bribe someone to get on board. I wouldn't expect this sort of thing in a British airport in 2010.
1993 was also the year I was a guest at a small dinner party in a swish loft apartment overlooking the Thames. It was a 26th birthday celebration for a delightful, shy Greek Cypriot man who’d bought the apartment with money from his shipping owner father. He’d also bought himself a small shipping company, but he was most excited about another project.
“I’m going to start an airline”, he told us. His name was Stelios.
We all laughed at the absurdity: he had to be joking. No, he was deadly serious. And on Friday, the joke was on me.