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Monday, 1 March 2010

Future; Nostalgic on Tour 2010: Part 1 – South by North East.

The story begins with the Future; Nostalgic posse ensconced at Gate 19, Newcastle International Airport, awaiting the Special Assistance people to arrive and take us to the aircraft for our flight to London's Stansted airport and an overnight stay before traveling onward to Slovakia.

The first time we did this trip a few years ago, all was well until we boarded the plane only to be told it had a fuel leak and we'd all have to get off again. Not to worry, the airline was sending a spare plane up from London, so we should still make our Stansted connection. We didn't. In fact we watched our connecting flight taxiing to the runway as we ourselves taxied to the gate, so it was with a certain sense of deja vu that we watched the Arrivals board at the gate click over to "Delayed" next to our flight. Oh goody. Here we go again.

Thankfully the delay was only an hour and we were soon aboard a very nice little Airbus something-or-other winging our way south. We began to relax. Silly us! Arrival at Stansted was bang on time. Shame the arrival at our plane of Stansted’s Special Assistance people wasn't. After around fifteen minutes of waiting, the ground handler finally managed to raise someone on the radio and shortly after a guy arrived with the dreaded C-Max stair climbing chair.

A word to the wise here. Being mobility-impaired, yours truly has personal experience of said stair climbing chair from my last transit through Stansted, and there’s no way I’m doing that again. The C-Max is an electric contraption that wouldn't look out of place in the arsenal of a modern day Inquisition IMHO; the last time I had cause (ie: no choice) to use one of these things I ended up flat on my back in excruciating agony for the next two days, popping painkillers like Smarties. I declined and asked for my pre-booked medi-lift which, apparently, wasn’t available. Funny thing that, the medi-lift not being available, as during our transit through the airport, Future; Nostalgic’s skiing correspondent spotted a number of medi-lift vehicles parked up on the tarmac. Hmmm.

Representative pic of an airport medi-lift.
Picture courtesy of SOVAM S.A.S, France.

To cut a long story short, during which our pilot played a blinder on our behalf for which I will be eternally grateful (and confirmed that he’d personally radioed ahead to ensure the availability of a medi-lift), and a further fifteen minute delay saw us finally aboard a medi-lift and, we thought, headed for Arrivals. Silly us. If you'll indulge me here for a moment, let's have a quick compare-and-contrast moment:

Newcastle International Airport - medi-lift meets passenger at Gate 19 and drives them to the plane, jacks itself up hydraulically and deposits said passenger by wheelchair through the plane's forward galley door. Reverse the procedure for inbound passengers.

Stansted Airport - medi-lift attaches itself to the plane's forward galley door, passenger has to make their own way onto the medi-lift where they are met by a wheelchair. Medi-lift lowers itself hydraulically before the passenger is wheeled straight through onto the tail lift of the vehicle and dropped down onto the tarmac to continue their journey to Arrivals accompanied by a Special Assistance person pushing the chair. Again, reverse procedure for outbound passengers.

Which do you think is the better system? Answers on a postcard please.

In our case, we were allocated a particularly disgruntled Special Assistance person, and were then routed through the gate we would have disembarked at had we all been able-bodied. At the gate stood a planeload of people waiting to board our aircraft, now around thirty minutes delayed - the profusion of black looks with which we were met was not lost on any of us.

Bags were collected from Arrivals (eventually – they’d been pulled off the carousel and stacked next to the Help desk as potentially discarded baggage), then off to the Special Assistance Desk to make a complaint. Forewarned as I was by our pilot, it came as no surprise to me at all that Special Assistance blamed the airline for not requesting the appropriate offloading equipment, but what was a surprise was their telling me I ought to have called them the day before to book the medi-lift. ‘Scuse me?

Well, I checked my airline paperwork (booked months earlier and including a wheelchair assistance on/off the plane request), and nowhere within it was there any indication of me having to telephone Stansted myself (or any other airport for that matter) to make my own arrangements. I mentioned this, which went down like the proverbial lead budgie. Nevertheless, my requiring a medi-lift was booked into the Special Assistance diary for the following morning and for our return trip a week later, and I was kindly provided with their direct telephone number in case I needed it in the future.

Since this is not the number Stansted airport publishes on the Special Assistance section of its website, if you happen to have the misfortune to transit through London Stansted with a disabled passenger in tow, you might like to drop me a line so I can give you the correct number for Special Assistance; and don’t forget to ring them the day before you travel.

Bearing in mind we were now around an hour behind schedule, and had yet to reach our hotel, eat, shower, or sleep before returning to the airport at 5am the next morning for our next leg of the trip, we cut things short and headed down for the shuttle bus to the hotel, thankfully accompanied by a rather more reasonable member of the Special Assistance team. Just as well - Stansted is a warren and without her help we'd probably still be wandering the halls even now.

So there we were, shivering in the rain on the dark, windswept expanse of concrete that is Stansted's coach park and guess what, yes, that's right, we'd just missed the bus; another one along in 30 minutes. Eventually we reached the hotel and checked in, only to be given the wrong room number on our electronic key by the receptionist. Funnily enough we’re not surprised, this is the UK after all; just wait till I compare it with the service you can expect in Slovakia. Once that was sorted out and we finally found the correct room, it was a pleasant surprise - a spacious and clean room complete with disabled facilities. Nice.

Dinner was a bit basic, a read-the-menu-then-order-at-the-bar sort of place, this hotel. Never mind, the food was reasonable, though whoever thought it was a good idea to serve mushy peas, and rather dried out mushy peas at that, with scampi and chips ought to have their chef's qualifications checked.

We figured we'd better find out about breakfast before retiring for the night, and see if the hotel could rustle up a couple of extra pillows. Breakfast it transpired, was served from 6am - we're leaving at 5am. Not a problem. Oh, goody. There was an early breakfast available from 4am. Even better. Hang on a minute though, if the full breakfast, which was available from 6am, was a continental breakfast, whatever in the world could the early breakfast be? It turned out to be coffee and cereal. Cosmic.

Bearing in mind we'd had a good look at the restaurant setup while waiting for our evening meals, and waiting, we wondered just how much of a stretch would it have been to put out a tray of croissants (or similar) at 4am, since the rest of breakfast service would appear to consist of switching on the coffee machine, the cereals, milk, jam and butter being already in situ in little racks.

Extra pillows? No, we don't have any extra pillows (he looked like we’d just asked for his firstborn). But you're a hotel, aren't you? I'll see what I can find. Thanks. With hindsight, we really wished he hadn't bothered as it took him an hour and a half to find one and we were just dropping off to sleep when there came a hammering on our door.

And then there was the issue of an early morning call - not, I would have thought, beyond the scope of your average hotel. Apparently they didn't do early morning calls, guests had to organise their own through the TV in their rooms; and if there had been instructions, that would really have helped!

Anyway, we eventually dropped off into a fitful night's sleep, looking forward with some trepidation to another visit to Stansted airport in the morning.



Josie said...

Blimey. I don't envy you that beginning. However, I'm very glad that such things as medi-lifts exist and are available ... let's hope Stansted dares to learn from this experience. Good on you for speaking up - hopefully it will also improve things for other disabled passengers.

R.E. Wolf said...

WHat a thoroughly exhausting first leg of your trip! You're a better man than I, Sam - I'd have knocked some heads together by this point. And I think they based that C-Max thingy off something from one of our insane asylums. We have a saying for this: "Not just 'no' - more like 'oh H*LL no!'"

Sam said...

Josie - Oh, it's never dull when we travel! ;) Likewise, I am very grateful for such things as medi-lifts (C-Max chairs, not so much) when they are made available as they should be.

Having traveled through Stansted more times than I care to think about (ie: four times, and that was three too many) I reckon I'd not be too far wide of the mark to say that, this being the UK, nothing will change without someone going to law over this issue. I do however, hope that other disabled passengers may be forewarned as to what to expect based on my experiences. :)

R.E.Wolf - Yes Ryan, exhausting is definitely the word, but it isn't over yet - the next installment of my tale involves the next morning's transit through Stansted on my way to Slovakia.

I'm inclined to agree with you about the C-Max, and your sentiments about such things, in fact I did tentatively suggest the guy who brought it to the plane might like to shove it somewhere; I have a feeling that's why they found me a medi-lift!

Anne Tyler Lord said...

Whoa, that is quite an exhausting first leg. I am getting a little nauseous reading it, remembering some of my own travel nightmares.

I'm so glad they got you the life, geez, you wouldn't think everything should be so hard. But it always seems that way traveling, when we are at their mercy.

Can't wait to hear more, but I hope you have better times ahead.

Sam said...

Anne Tyler Lord - Oh yes Anne, better times ahead, though more of the same in the next episode as we transit through Stansted again.

That reminds me, another (entirely personal) reason I don't like Stansted is that first whiff of jet fuel you get as you exit the terminal onto the tarmac - turns my stomach.

I guarantee things improve once we reach Slovakia. :)

Marisa Birns said...

Not an auspicious start to a holiday.

It's horror enough for people who can get around on their own, but it's absolutely unconscionable how difficult it is made for disabled people!

Adding insult to injury? We all get to pay big bucks to the travel industry for these experiences in hell.

I felt so sad reading about you and your family standing cold, wet, tired, and miserable out in the rain. And mushy peas? *sniffle*

Well, I'm hoping that the next part of your travel diary will bring easy news, but somehow I'm thinking that the saga continues in same vein. :)

At least I know how it ends: you back home safe and sound!

Sam said...

Marisa Birns - Too right, not an auspicious start at all, though at least this time we didn't end up stranded in the airport (still in the UK)...I really must post the diary of our first ever trip to Slovakia.

I get the sense I ought to elaborate a little on the subject of mushy peas. When done well they are a lovely accompaniment to fish 'n' chips and are something of a British classic, however they are most definitely not a suitable accompaniment to scampi; under any circumstances! Here's a link to a pic of what mushy peas should look like:

There will certainly be an upturn in fortunes once we leave the UK shores, but you're spot on about it being more of the same when I recount the next part of the saga - another transit through Stansted airport.

Laura Eno said...

OMG...I'm exhausted after just reading this. I would have liked to shove the lead budgie up their...never mind. I'm not sure how you escaped without beheading any of them. And the hotel! Arghhh!

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