As a general rule, I like travelling. I don’t just mean visiting lots of countries and exploring different cultures. That’s a given. What I mean is, I actually like the travelling bit. Train, plane and boat journeys are part of the adventure for me. I don’t dread having to spend two hours in an airport waiting for a flight or sleeping on a night ferry for nine hours, I relish it. On occasion, however, there are journeys that push even me over the edge. Getting from my home in Cardiff, South Wales to Innsbruck, Austria last weekend was one that definitely comes under that category.
I visit Austria fairly regularly. I used to live there myself, and now my brother lives in Innsbruck with his family. So, when I was invited over for my youngest neice’s naming ceremony, I booked a return flight with Lufthansa, flying out from Heathrow on Friday and returning on Monday.
Although we have an airport near (not actually in) Cardiff (the only international airport in the whole country), unless you want to fly to Jersey, Spain or Greece for a week, it’s not much good to you. In good traffic (I always try to book early morning flights to ensure this), Heathrow is only 2 hours down the motorway. Airport parking is reasonable and well organised in the London airports, so all-in-all it’s normally a fairly smooth journey. I usually encounter some kind of diversion on the M4 motorway. In fact, I do wonder if there is ever a night that the entire motorway is open. This time the diversion was through Bristol, a route which I know quite well and the roads were quiet so it didn’t cost me too much time. So far, so good.
Before the days of sat navs and GPS, road diversions in the UK were well signposted. You were given plenty of warning about a change in your route, and lots of clear yellow signs would guide you around the obstacle and back onto the right path. Nowadays, the assumption seems to be that everyone has a small electronic device sat on their dashboard instructing them based on up-to-the-minute traffic and travel information. As I was living in Greece when sat navs became popular, I’ve never used one. Well, when you live on a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean, an annoying electronic voice telling you that you’re lost on a goat track isn’t really helpful. So, I still depend on maps and diversion signs. Sorry, I know, I’m archaic and old-fashioned. The first warning I got that the entrance to Heathrow Terminals 1,2 & 3 was closed was a row of traffic cones across the road blocking my path. I could see Heathrow, but these small, bright orange plastic nemeses were keeping me from reaching it. Dutifully, I followed the diversion signs. I followed them back onto the M4 motorway, past Heathrow to the next junction, round the roundabout and back onto the M4 again, where I drove past Heathrow again, onto the M25 motorway, past the other side of the airport, where the signs directed me to turn off at the next junction, double back on myself AGAIN, drive back past Heathrow AGAIN, and take the next exit. I found myself back at the exact same spot where I had started, the line of traffic cones still taunting me, and the bright yellow sign still instructing me to follow the diversion. Realising I must have missed something, I set off again. In my defense, there were a lot of yellow signs for a few different diversions and directions to new housing estates (who decided it was a good idea to make those signs in yellow as well?). On the next junction, below the diversion sign that I had followed the first time, I noticed another teeny, tiny sign that was tilted back and had a light shining on it, making it almost impossible to read. Luckily there were no other cars about at 2.30am, as I had to stop the car dead in the middle of a four-lane roundabout to see what was written on it. I could barely contain my excitement when I read those magic words – ‘Heathrow T1, T2 & T3’. Twenty minutes later, after driving right the way through the middle of the airport (well, they’d already taken me around the outside twice, it would be rude not to take the full tour) I eventually found my way to the long stay car park.
Apologies if I’m ranting by this point, but I really do feel that I need to get this all out. Please feel free to skip to tomorrow’s post if you want to read about beautiful scenery in Austria.
My nightmare journey didn’t end there. As I was only visiting Innsbruck for a few days, a direct flight was out of the question. Usually, I fly there via Munich or Franfurt, both very well organised business-orientated airpiorts where I encounter very few problems. (There was an incident at Franfurt once where my boarding pass set off all the alarms as the gate and I thought the desk clerk was going to rugby tackle me to the floor, but I’ll forgive them for that one). This time, I was diverted via Vienna. I’ve visited Vienna city before, but this was my first encounter with the airport. I accept that it is a relatively big, international airport, the Austrian equivalent of Heathrow really, but… well, it’s Austria. You expect things to be reliable and extremely well organised and efficient to the last minute detail. Because that’s what Austrians are good at.
Our Austrian Airlines flight (they’re part of the Alianz group along with Lufthansa) was put in a holding pattern above Vienna. My suspisions about the communication we were being given arose when the pilot announced in German that we would be delayed for ten minutes, then repeated the same message in English, only the delay was now 5-7 minutes. I figured he was either taking into account the different perceptions of British and European passengers, or he was just making it up and didn’t expect anyone on board to pay attention to both languages. As we came in to land at Vienna, the flight attendant informed us that the passengers connecting to the Innsbruck flight would have to go straight to the gate so as not to miss the connection. Now, I know I’m not great at maths, but see if you can figure this one out. Vienna airport apparently allows for a minimum of 25 minutes to get between connecting flights. Had we landed on time, we would have had exactly 25 minutes between landing and taking off. There were 5 or 6 of us trying to make the connection to Innsbruck, and all of us ran through security and to the gate. By the time we got there, the plane had already left. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Usain Bolt, but I can run a 5k in under 32 minutes. How is a person of average fitness supposed to make it to the gate in time?
None of the Austrian Airways staff at Vienna seemed at all surprised that we’d missed the flight, which lead me to believe that this happens a lot. I then overheard another passenger informing the customer service desk that she had made it to the gate whilst it was still open, but hadn’t been allowed on to the plane because she wasn’t on the flight manifest. Could it be that they never intended to put us on that Innsbruck flight at all?
I understand that there are a lot of problems that occur in airports. I used to work in airports a lot when I worked in the travel industry. In fact, I worked at Innsbruck airport and Austrian Airlines was one of our suppliers. However, having worked in the industry, I also know when someone is fobbing me off. The staff at Vienna gave us all sorts of excuses, and eventually came to the conclusion that it was the airport’s fault and not theirs. The only time we got an apology was when one of the other passengers complained that no-one had said sorry.
I did discover one advantage to flying via Vienna, especially when you encounter a delay. In the seating areas, they have these cool beds/sofas where you can relax and have a quick nap if you need to.
Three hours later than scheduled, I made it to Innsbruck. Unfortunately I had to endure a very turbulent landing first. I always used to make fun out of my guests who complained about the landing at Innsbruck. ‘It can’t be that bad’ I used to tell them. That was until I had to actually land at Innsbruck myself. This landing was definitely one of the worst. Had I been on a British flight, I think the pilot would have taken one look at the clouds and said ‘Not a chance, we’re diverting to Munich’. Austrian and German pilots are pretty hardcore, I’ve seen them land in full-on thunder storms before. I felt so sick that I was convinced the apple that the flight attendant had given me for my snack was going to make a reappearance. Luckily it didn’t, and I got there in one piece, relieved that I had booked my return flight via Frankfurt.