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 open...boarding...final 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 © airport-taxi.cc. All rights reserved.
Photo © airport-taxi.cc. 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…