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Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Future; Nostalgic on Tour 2010: Part 2 - I'm in the UK, Get Me Out of Here!

Well, that was a pleasant surprise, the TV early morning call system actually worked. What wasn't such a pleasant surprise was that we'd had to set it for 03.45. I hadn't realised my watch did 03.45!

A quick coffee in the room then we're heading down for our 4am early breakfast, then back to Stansted to be met at the Special Assistance desk by the same staff we'd encountered the previous evening, who greeted us with all the warmth of something they'd found floating in their bath.

The guy allocated to assist us through the airport this time looked like he'd be assigned punishment duty, and I do wonder how much training he's had in pushing wheelchairs as he appeared to have two speeds - 90 miles an hour and stop; he also seemed only able to make right-angle turns, so it with some relief that we reached the airline check-in desk relatively unscathed.

Cue the first argument of the day - when your disabled passenger has checked themselves in, is it a good idea to (a) wait until they've put their paperwork back in their carry-on bag before setting off, or (b) start wheeling them away from their bag as they reach out to put the paperwork away? Suffice to say, he won't be making that mistake twice!

In all fairness, I ought to point out the one advantage of transiting through an airport with a disabled person in your party, namely that you get to skip the queues for Check-in/Security/Immigration/Customs checks and go directly to the head of the line, you have assistance through the checks themselves, and you are collected after they've taken place. In theory.

After whisking us through Security, Mr Surly hurtled off in the direction of the departure Gates, and speaking of Stansted’s departure gates – when you get airside there is a little sign stating all Gates are 12 minutes from this point. Ignore it. It's fibbing. They’re not. All Gates are much, much further than 12 minutes from this point, they may be 12 minutes from this point if you were, say, an Olympic sprinter or perhaps a cheetah, but even as an able-bodied Human Traveller Mk1 you’ll be going some to get to the Gate in 12 minutes.

And then there are the Departure boards. They also fib. As we discovered on our first trip through Stansted a few years ago, what is displayed on the Departure boards bears little relationship to reality – on that trip, the gate allocation for our arriving aircraft resembled a game of bingo with numbers popping out all over the place; the gate changed four times in the space of five minutes, and I still have visions of the aircraft waving its wing in the air and shouting, “House!”

Once that plane had settled on where it was going to stop, the Departure board display read as follows: "check-in call" all within the space of 30 seconds. I kid you not. That first time, we did the whole thing without the benefit of assistance and arrived at the gate puffing and blowing like championship Woodbine smokers.

This time however, Mr Surly headed off in the direction of Stansted's (dreaded) Transit System. That's a two-carriage driverless train type thing to you and I. BTW, I should mention here that requests to stop for bottled water airside, or to visit the facilities prior to boarding the plane were silently ignored (Yes, you. Remember me now, do you?). The transit system could only take us halfway as it turned out, the remainder of the journey being made through the maze of back corridors of the airport until we shot out of an anonymous-looking door onto the tarmac reasonably adjacent to our aircraft. All at 90 miles an hour without a word being said.

Thankfully, a medi-lift was already in place, so we were soon aboard the plane for our flight to Bratislava. Our aircraft it turned out, was one of those formerly owned by a certain Eastern European airline (which sadly went bankrupt in 2009) and came with a Slovakian crew. This made things much easier as the current operator of the aircraft insists on disabled passengers sitting in row 2ABC (make a note of this bit, it will all make sense when I describe our journey home), but yours truly doesn't bend in the middle like that (or at all, come to that) so there was no way I was getting into my allocated window seat. Problem? Not a bit of it. With a Slovakian cabin crew aboard it was absolutely no problem for us to be seated in row 2DEF, the extra legroom seats directly behind the forward galley and, incidentally, the same seats allocated to us by the other airline which flew us from Newcastle to Stansted (make a note of that bit too), as long as I didn't occupy the aisle seat. Thanks very much, that will do nicely.

It was a very pleasant flight, of around 1 hour 50 minute's duration and the extra legroom seats were very much appreciated as I was able to travel without my knees being up round my ears, a familiar sensation for travellers in budget airlines’ cattle, err…economy class. Also nice was the communications system fitted to this aircraft, which allowed for the use of mobile phones and other electronic equipment during the flight, like cameras.

Dawn is just about breaking over the wing of our plane.

Before long the pilot came over the PA system (though he had to time his announcement to fit in between the "hard sell" of airline products, food, duty-free, smokeless cigarettes and scratch cards) to inform us we were cruising at around 35 000 feet somewhere to the south of Rotterdam. This handily coincided with a break in the clouds, so I had a vague idea of what I was photographing.

Our first view of Rotterdam, apparently.

Our on-time arrival at Bratislava was greeted with the cheesiest pre-recorded PA system announcement, complete with fanfare, that we had ever heard. We just looked at each other and burst out laughing; I'm sure I glimpsed the cabin crew roll their eyes at the PA system. I can only presume the Chief Executive of the airline thinks this is a good idea; IMHO it just makes the airline look silly.

Anyway, returning to the story. There we are on the tarmac at Bratislava airport, having followed the "Follow Me" car from the end of the runway to our stand, an icy stretch of exposed concrete in case you were wondering.

After letting the remainder of the herd stampede bleating down the aircraft steps, we began to cast about for sight of a medi-lift, or something. Nothing. Shortly afterwards however, I got that sinking feeling again when two burly guys dressed in red paramedic uniforms carried a rather too familiar looking chair up the aircraft steps. Gulp.

I needn't have worried though, as a closer inspection revealed a lack of electric stairclimbing attachments, but did reveal handles on each end of the chair. The penny dropped. Gulp. Many hand signals later I was strapped into this contraption, very securely as it turned out because breathing was a bit of an effort, being cut in half as I was by the straps. Next thing I knew, I was hoisted into the air and experienced, rather than enjoyed, an interesting view as I was carried down the aircraft steps. I found chanting quietly, "They will not drop me," over and over seemed to help as I swayed from side to side.

Released from the chair, I was transferred to a wheelchair, hoisted aboard the airport bus (mind your ankles!) and whisked to the terminal, where the Special Assistance person, who spoke better English than his Stansted counterpart, helped us collect our bags before taking us through to the Check-in area where we were to wait for our final flight to Poprad-Tatry airport that evening, pointing out en-route which Check-in desks we would use for our final flight of the trip.

The Check-in Hall at Bratislava airport
Photo © All rights reserved.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men? I figure I may need a word with those mice as you may well be wondering whatever possessed us to spend nine hours in Bratislava airport. Well, I'll tell you. The original plan had been a lunchtime flight from Stansted to Bratislava, a couple of hour's wait, then the connecting flight to Poprad-Tatry however, about a month before we traveled, the airline which flew us from Stansted emailed to say they'd changed our flight to an early morning departure (nothing whatever to do with their having broken a plane the previous week when it skidded off an icy runway in Scotland), which meant something like a 9 hour wait in Bratislava. Marvelous.

And so, we settled down for a very long wait. At least we got to keep the airport wheelchair.

I’ll pick up the rest of the journey in the next installment. Right now, I need a coffee…



Josie said...

Regarding all airport notices that fib, I'm reminded of Eddie Izzard's sketch about toasters that are liars ;-)

*Someone* pushing your wheelchair sounds like he is in urgent need of developing a caring and considerate attitude.

Love the photos.

PostMuse said...

I've traveled extensively in Slovakia. Looking forward to reading more of your travels :-)

Sam said...

Josie - Yes, there's certainly an element of similarity there. ;) And the best thing about Stansted airport? Leaving it! Thanks for those kind words about the photos - it's the first time I've been able to take pics out of the plane window.

PostMuse - I had a feeling you'd visited Slovakia, I'm sure I saw a Slovakian postcard or two on your site shortly before my vacation. I hope future installments will illustrate how much I like Slovakia and how wonderfully friendly the Slovak people are. :)

Anne Tyler Lord said...

Oh my, I must say that you are a more patient person than me. But what can you do at their mercy. That 90 MPH or stop scene with wheelchairs is too familiar in the airports. But not stopping for water or the bathroom - now that is criminal!

I'm so glad you made it and I hope you were able to relax during those 9 hours after that first broken leg of the trip.

R.E. Wolf said...

Wow.... just wow.

With my knees, I've done airports on crutches, with a cane, and in a brace from hip to ankle. I've kicked myself - and been derided as "too proud" - for not using a wheelchair, because it "seemed" so much easier to get around. Appearances certainly do deceive. About the time someone proposes carrying me off the plane? I should think I might just stay on board until it gets back to Stansted. I hope the rest of your trip was overwhelmingly wonderful - by this point you've earned that and more!

Marisa Birns said...

9 hours waiting in an airport?

Surely Dante has written that in somewhere...

"Two burly guys" is a great title for a story, heh.

Enjoying this travelogue. Er. Not your discomfort, of course. Just the re-telling.

Sam said...

Anne Tyler Lord - Ah, but Anne, I was only patient because I knew I would be blogging this in all its glory, the guy pushing the wheelchair...didn't! ;) The trip becomes much more relaxed from the next installment, thankfully.

R.E. Wolf - To be honest Ryan, Stansted is a blip (OK, quite a big blip) in my travelling experience. Generally speaking, I have found travelling through airports by wheelchair to be relatively painless ('scuse the pun). Newcastle, Poprad-Tatry, Bratislava and Krakow airports all handle the disabled traveller much, much better than Stansted does.

If I'm honest, I felt safer being carried by the two Slovakian guys than I ever did using a C-Max chair. It's just how they do things at Bratislava - a good dose of Slovakian practicality.

The rest of the trip, once we reach our final destination, is indeed overwhelmingly wonderful. I hope you stay tuned to read the about the rest of it.

Marisa Birns - Aye, I'm not quite sure which circle it is, but Dante really has something to answer for! ;) Feel free to have that as a title if you so wish - my compliments.

So pleased you're enjoying the travelogue, they say getting there is half the fun, not sure I entirely agree! Slovakia itself is definitely worth waiting for though.

unhalfbricking said...

It's journeys like that that make one wish for the 'old days' when an investment in a sedan chair and four subservients to carry you was seen to be standard. :) Maybe try that next time? Better than the idiosyncracies of airline staff I think! Gulp. Look forward to hearing more! xx

Laura Eno said...

Oh, Sam, tears are rolling down my face from laughter at your trip down the stairs with the burly guys (but only because you lived to tell about it). I love your descriptions and can't wait for more! You must have the patience of a saint...or lots of holes in your tongue from biting it.

Sam said...

unhalfbricking - Ooh, now there's a thought! A sedan chair would have made things so much easier, as long as the subservients didn't expect me to pay for them to fly to Slovakia too. ;)

Laura Eno - Oh yes, never a dull moment when we're on the road! Credit where it's due though, I felt safer with the burly guys than with the prospect of another trip on a C-Max chair; it's just how things are done in Slovakia and I do believe that, even though their equipment is a bit basic, they do care about the passengers they transport, unlike Stansted.

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