Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Flight diverted, communications disaster

When I went out for a breath of fresh air before going to bed early, the sky was crystal clear and the Supermoon high in the sky. Not such an interesting photo to be taken, but in any case I took one, framed by the Hostal Pensimar sign. It took a while to find the best position in which the camera's auto settings wouldn't be totally confused by the street lights. It's not wonderful, but better than nothing as a memento of my overnight stay. 

I slept until five, and the noises of plumbing working told me other travellers were on the move, so I got up, ate breakfast, then switched off my alarm and packed. My taxi arrived on time, and five minutes, later I entered the departure hall of Alicante-Elche (or if you prefer Valenciano, Alacant-Elx). El Altet is situated just south east of the runway end. It must be noisy in high season, but so convenient.

The airport was still relatively quiet, a quarter of an hour later I was in the departure lounge with an hour and a half to wait before boarding, with a cafe solo grande and my remaining travel sandwiches with nothing more to do than watch the sky lighten and the sun to rise.

We flew north along the coast through clear skies, and I caught a glimpse of the Ebro delta, which was less than easy to recognise as the angle of the early sun didn't illuminate the watery surfaces of the many salinas, and rice fields, after harvesting are endlessly brown, intersected at odd angles by roads and water conduits. Happy memories nevertheless. There was fresh snow on the eastern Pyrenees giving the mountains dramatic definition in the early light. On the north side, we entered cloud, obscuring the ground below and partly the sky above, even at a high cruising altitude. The next glimpse of land we had was through the clouds as we circled Bridgend waiting for clearance to land.

The pilot had warned us half way that diversion to Birmingham International might be necessary unless there was a break in the weather around Rhoose, clouds and rain down to the ground apparently. In the end, we flew north east to Warwickshire, where at least cloud was a few hundred metres above the runway, and landed safely. We were bussed into the terminal, and collected luggage. In the meanwhile I'd received an email from Vueling to stay the 'plane had been diverted to another airport and to visit the enquiry desk to find out about repatriation to Cardiff. The email identified the flight, but not the airport arrived at. It didn't identify by name which information desk one was to seek, out of many, nor where passengers might be expected to wait for transport.

The outcome of this was bewilderment for 150+ passengers, who stood with their luggage outside the main entrance blocking the entrance for others arriving and departing. By now it was midday. A few passengers who knew an insider in the airline business 'phoned a friend' to find out what had happened and what would happen next. No airport official appeared to manage the crowd and tell us where to gather and stay. I heard there had been a tannoy announcement about buses coming for us, but didn't hear anything myself, and there was no information displayed on any digital screen I was aware of. 

Then it started to rain lightly, driving some people back into the entrance lobby, and others across the road to bus shelters. Thankfully the first of three coaches turned up just after one o'clock. A resourceful passenger hearing the name of the bus company had called them and got confirmation they'd set out and their ETA. Nothing from airport management. 

While we were boarding, a man and a woman wearing hi-viz jackets bearing the Swissport logo put in an appearance to ensure everyone found a place on a bus. What happened to the two disabled travellers who may not have been able to get up into a coach, I never found out. Swissport is the company that manages all kinds of passengers services for airlines in both Cardiff and Birmingham, maybe other airports, I don't know. My previous experience of them at work has been very positive, so it's hard to know what happened to break the necessary information from from the airlines and airports in question to passengers on the receiving end. 

Technologies are clearly in place which are up to the job, if an email came to my phone as soon as I got off the 'plane. It simply didn't contain enough precise and relevant information to be helpful. And in the end that's down to people managing the system not thinking hard enough about how to deploy their latest comms toys. The transport logistics people were clearly on the ball, for buses to arrive just three hours after the flight had been diverted. I believe they were from a Welsh company and assume that outbound passengers stranded in Cardiff were taken to Birmingham to catch their flight, but maybe by a separate fleet of buses, given that loading passengers would have added another hour to the delay. 

We arrived back at Cardiff International just after five, a two and a half hour trip. Our driver was not so familiar with the airport trip, and missed a turning at one roundabout and needed redirection by vigilant passengers upfront, but it was all very good humoured. I was seated in front of an older couple and overheard snatches of conversation and comments during the journey which took me right back into childhood, as the accent, intonation and turns of phrase used were specific to the district of the Valleys in which I was brought up. I could have been on a bus outing sixty years ago instead of today.

I arrived home at six, glad to have been able to alert Clare about the change of circumstances which meant I couldn't take her to an appointment, or drive her to choir practice, so she was able ot make other arrangements. She wasn't home, but that gave me time to unpack completely and tidy my things away beforehand, and enjoy the welcome home lunch she'd prepared and kept for me, six hours ago.

It wasn't quite the homecoming I'd expected, and as the delays were fairly inconsequential in our case, there was little to worry about, but lots to reflect on. All the best resources were in place, but their use thwarted by the breakdown of the information flow. Human error, perhaps one missed phone call, a key person out of the office, an element of a contingency plan not discussed, and crisis management of any complex situation can unravel. All those bewildered passengers standing around with baggage in the entrance area unsupervised, like sheep without a shepherd, could have been a scenario for an accident, a security incident, or for an opportunist criminal to do their worst. I hope my recourse to Twitter with complaint and comment about this affair will contribute to a review of contingency planning on the part of all those involved in the chain of communication.

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