Friday, 4 September 2009

Slow Going At Iberia Airways

I read only yesterday that demand for Iberia Airways had slowed. How serendipitous it was that I was sat in Barcelona Airport enduring a delay at the hands of the same airline.

The two things may have been an unfortunate happenstance but taken with my experience of flying out with people over-packed in a small departure area at Gate 11 in Heathrow Terminal 3, getting onto a heaving plane and taking off an hour late, perhaps it is the norm for the airline. On board, everything is chargeable and although the flight attendants are invariably polite, handsome or pretty, it doesn't make up for the fact you are shelling out a whacking €2.50 for a tomato juice.

The return journey had all the hallmarks of a smooth event. I arrived early-ish to see if I could get on the earlier flight. Iberia is one of the few airlines who actually will try to get you a seat on an earlier flight without laughing in your face and asking you to pay a bank bail out figure for a new ticket as BA does. They tried, but the flight was full. I thought to myself that the Telegraph clearly does not know what it is talking about when it comes to demand. But the Barcelona-London route is incredibly popular.

In the week, I had to arrange a flight to Barca, then on to Madrid and back to London. Iberia came out as over £900 for the itinerary. I costed it up using Easyjet for the out and inbound legs and it was half the price. Iberia clearly have a price problem as they are competing against budget airlines but trying to pass off their service as premium.

So sitting at Barcelona airport yesterday I noted that all the Easyjet flights got away on time and that many Iberia flights were half empty to destinations like Lyon and Bordeaux. So when a London flight was called, I duly queued only to find that in fact I was in the line for the earlier flight to London which should have taken off two hours before and was turned away for obvious reasons. Reassuringly, our flight was called next and it seemed to be maybe just a few minutes late only. We got aboard the bus to take us, having had our boarding cards torn or the copies taken, passports were checked and on we went. The bus did a languid circuit before arriving at the plane and the two pilots could be seen doing their checks in the cockpit. The bus stayed outside, doors firmly shut and pumping humid air into the passenger compartment. The notion was dawning that something was wrong. A lady in a yellow jacket walked down the steps, muttering into her walkie-talkie, struggling to put on her sunglasses to look more officious and conferred with our driver. Without a word, he nodded and we were driven back to the gate and the doors opened and, like condemned sheep at the slaughterhouse, we disembarked without a single word uttered to any of us. When inside the gate we learned that the pilot was not actually checking his instruments but more likely barfing into a bag as he had come over all sick. Or perhaps it was a ruse as he had tickets to a bullfight or whatever, or was on a promise.

We were told that a new pilot would be found - relax, they are an airline after all so they should have plenty. We sat back in our places and waited a while. Then the chaos started.

An announcement told us that the flight was now delayed until 18.45 which was over a two hours delay. People were disgruntled but slowly began to disperse and I went upstairs, found a bar and sat down with my paper, a packet of peanuts and a frothy cerverza. I had munched the bag of peanuts and taken two sips of the amber nectar when an announcement, barely audible above the hub-bub, told me that the flight was now delayed until 19.00. I sat back and sipped my beer, called my wife and tried to chill out.

Minutes, later, maybe half a pint's worth, an announcement told us that the flight was ready for boarding. It seemed we were getting away no more than an hour late at this rate. I gulped down the half of beer I had left, picked up my bags and went to the gate where a small throng of people had accumulated but was suspiciously, and markedly, smaller than the original number that had tried to get on the flight. After several more sweaty minutes, the buses arrived and we had the daft charade of staff trying to work out who we were from the remains of our boarding passes; the security guys just wafted us past without looking at our passports and we got on the bus. Someone told me that a pilot had arrived from Madrid and was, I assume, about to knock off but was told to take the plane to London and back. It's hardly the same as asking a taxi driver to do one more fare, this was a 4-6 hour round trip. I didn't even think about whether his inbuilt tachometer had enough hours left, the instinct to get home was strong. We all boarded and there were chaotic scenes as a family seated around me found that there were already people in their places. A farcical game of musical chairs was played and the poor chap who lost just stood there like a lemon holding his boarding card stub with a face like a slapped backside thinking, 'What about me?'. He was duly whisked off the business class which he seemed consoled about until he realised it was two small rows at the front with a curtain behind it.

Amid all the confusion, three things struck me. One, my row was empty except me. Two, there seemed to be far less people on the flight that had originally queued and three, a rather annoying tape of music was playing of really drab music sung by the likes of Katie Melua. An announcement proclaimed that indeed, passengers had dispersed across the acreage of Barcelona airport and many could not be found - we were 24 short and could not take off without them. The tape whined on, louder if anything.
We waited with increasing agitation for the missing people as the tape played on and you could feel a Monty Python Cheese Shop sketch brewing. People arrived and there was more confusion as another family arrived to try and sit exactly where the first family had displaced the original occupants of the rows around me. Once more there was a game of musical chairs ending in the bizarre situation of one family being split by the other - how they could not have been rearranged simply so that each sat together seemed beyond the pretty airhostesses, but organisation was not to be their strength.

The first fuse blew a few seconds later, as a pompous grey-haired Englishman threw down his Blackberry in rage and screeched for the music to be turned off. He had peaked too early - the pilot simultaneously announced that due to the late arrivals we had missed our take off slot and now had to wait until 19.40 to get away. Given we had started to board at around 18.15, this was a long time to spend on the plane in the turgid heat, listening to the moaning music. Tempers were starting the fray.

The pompous man pressed his call button for the first time and the hostess arrived swiftly. He demanded to know why we were late. She explained in clipped English that passengers had thought that the plane would not take off until 19.00 and so had gone to eat and clearly had not heard the new announcement. Fortunately, everything was running so late that when they came down to board for the time they thought they had to, we were all waiting for them. He was particularly dissatisfied and started a rant about the fact that no one had offered any free drinks or a sandwich, which was a fair point, and it may be sensible to crack open the bar with some freebies to keep the punters happy. She smiled sweetly and said she needed higher authorisation and the man replied, 'Who? The bloody Pope?'

This final remark was returned with a frosty glare and his card had obviously been marked. I mentally noted to myself that if I were him, I wouldn't order a sandwich tonight as visions of 'Road Trip' and french toast came to mind. He chanced his arm at one last thing before the hostess retreated - could she change the damn tape as it was driving him crackers. She smiled and said yes and left. She did not change the tape, if anything, I could have sworn it got louder as some fool droned out a cover of 'What a Wonderful World' for what seemed the nth time.

We sat and waited for the take off slot and mercifully the captain managed to get the air conditioning to work and an ominous vapour appeared above the overhead lockers as fresh, cool air was pumped into the stuffy cabin. The pompous man started nattering his complaints to a general audience, none of whom spoke back or looked at him. He was now openly declaring it would be the last time he flew on Iberian and I could feel the share price almost plummet as he spoke. And the tape was now, he made clear to us all, 'Doing my bloody head in.' He had a point - the damn thing was now playing, for at least the third time, a saxophone version of 'Hark the herald angels sing' which was highly inappropriate, and awful, given the stifling humidity of the cabin. I realised that I had heard the very same tape on the flight over and the whole jigsaw of why Iberian were suffering lower passenger manifests was now dawning on me. The service was rubbish and the music was crap.

At precisely 19.15, for no apparent reason and without warning, the captain started his engines and we trundled off from our position. He came on the intercom and said that we were still on for a 19.40 take off but he would hold at a point to wait his turn at the end of the runway and it might be useful in case we were given an earlier slot. I liked his style while mentally trying to calculate how much precious fuel that might burn in doing so and approximately what tonnage of CO2 we might be unnecessarily pumping into the atmosphere but erased the thought as the lure of getting home and having a cold glass of wine and a shower was far too strong.

We got to our holding point and, as if the pilot had seen a gap in the traffic, we rapidly turned onto the runway and, again without any warning, we gunned our engines and we were hurtling down the runway at a rate of knots, giving the air crew just enough time to stow their accessories from the safety demo and get to their seats. We were airborne in short order and still the music droned on above the scream of the engines as the plane sought height with the City lights to our left, the sea to our right and turbulence all around us. The skipper announced he had got clearance to go - which was a relief to us all as I had visions of some other captain shouting into his radio, 'Oi, stop that man. That's my take off slot,' or worse - and he said that the expected flight time would be one hour and fifty minutes but he would see if he could shorten that. Whether his Sat Nav allowed the selection of shortest and fastest routes, I don't know, but maybe he knew a short cut across the Bay of Biscay or he was just going to keep the throttle at maximum. I opened my book while nervously hoping that he was keeping a close eye on that fuel gauge after all.

The inflight service is rubbish on Iberia. I actually bought a sandwich combi which included a beer. The beer was fine, the sandwich dry and tasteless and all for €9.50 which would have made Michael O'Leary slather with excitement. The pompous man was moaning about free drinks but did not mention the Pope again, although he did once more ask if the tape could be changed or turned down. Again the staff smiled and nothing further was done about it. The families around me snored quietly despite the bumpy ride and before we knew it, we were descending toward Heathrow. Of course, as we had evidently nicked someone else's slot across France, we had arrived early and we were sent to detention in a holding pattern somewhere near Croydon as we flew repeatedly over the 'twenty pence' building by the station at East Croydon. The music had been turned up as part of the landing preparations and now the pompous man was scrunched up in his seat with his eyes shut and fingers placed in his ears. Every now and then he would take them out and shout, 'This effing music is doing my head in,' to which a lady near by said, 'Just effing ignore it like the rest of us.' The retort was a mistake as clearly he wanted to engage someone in the argument and he berated her for the poor service, delays, and rubbish music as if the lady owned the airline. She took it all pretty well before calmly saying, 'I hope you feel better for getting that off your chest. Sadly, for you, I can do bugger all about it so just shut up.' I was waiting to join in the round of applause but there was none so I just pretended I was clapping along to the music.

When we finally got on our approach, the plane was blown all over the place with the engine pitch going up and down like a dentist's drill. Looking out of the window I was sure we were being blown off course or would land upside down - if we had any fuel left. But as always, just feet above the runway, the air seemed clear but it did not stop the captain from putting down the plane with a huge thump, on one wheel. As soon as he got the second down, the nose went down with a mighty bang and the brakes were applied very heavily. The music went up several decibels and we were back at someone's monotonous version of 'Clouds' which the pompous man screamed at.

More chaos ensued as the plane stopped short of its parking position and several Koreans leapt to their feet to retrieve their bags from the overheads. One locker opened and a laptop bag, complete with laptop inside, dropped out and bounced off the side of a man's head. The Korean was unrepentant while the man rubbed his head in bewilderment - if only it had been the pompous man. It was clear several people had connecting flights to places like Korea, New Zealand and Australia but there were no announcements about priorities or that there were staffing waiting - it was every man for himself. Duly, the pompous man bellowed into his phone that his driver was to take him for an 'effing curry' and he got his bag and started barging his way down the plane. At this point, I had had enough as he was distressing an Indian gentleman who was trying to herd his kids in the cramped space ahead of me. I made myself 'big' which is difficult for a small chap but all those years of rugby finally paid off. The man attempted to get past but I just stood my ground.

'Some of us are in an effing hurry,' he said, possibly to whoever was on his Blackberry as he still had it to his ear. I ignored the comment. He then began pushing, while still jabbering into his phone. I stood still - the kids were delaying us all but I didn't care as I deliberately waved people ahead of me to carry on. Pompous man lost it. 'I said I was in an effing hurry,' he said to the back of my head as if I cared.

We finally got off the plane and as we were on the jetway, pompous man tried to overtake. I blocked his line skillfully and he really got angry as he told whoever was on the phone that he would call back. 'What's your problem?' he demanded of me, as he tried to struggle past. 'The kids on the jetway don't need to get run over by people like you or listen to your language, mate. Just grow up and wait your turn,' was my terse reply.

He wasn't impressed, then again that wasn't the aim. He waited for his opportunity at the end of the jetway and then stormed past mouthing something to himself which clearly made him feel better. The glorious moment came when we got to Passport Control. There were literally thousands of people in a massive queue going back out of the hallway. Pompous man barged his way through to the Fast Track lane and he literally sprinted down it. We all slowly made our way into the normal section where a sign said '25 minutes wait from this point'. Minutes later, pompous man was being led back in angry conversation with an immigration official who was telling him that the black restrainer he had ignored was to show that Fast Track was closed. As pompous man tried to blend into the queue way ahead of the end, a rather burly bloke next to me put an arm out and said, 'Go to the end, smart arse - I've had enough of you for one night.' In splendid slow motion, he was led away by the official toward the back of the huge queue stretching all the way back almost to our jetway. It was the last I saw of the idiot.

But my focus on the pompous man served a purpose. I could have been pompous man with great ease. I usually get very uptight about airline service and delays - more specifically the lack of information. In this instance, the information had not only been lacking but the little that did come out was conflicting, causing further, unnecessary delays. Iberia should have laid on a few drinks or food vouchers, there were a lot of kids on the flight and they must have been hungry and thirsty by the time we took off, some three hours late. There is no excuse for poor or no communication and it is the single most irritating thing about air travel. You expect it of Ryan Air and Easyjet as they have the mind set that 'what you don't pay for, you don't get' and with them service is certainly that, respect is another. But Iberia are not low budget and they are not cheap.

So if Iberia Airways has a problem on demand then last night's performance will not have helped as there were many on the flight who vowed never to use them again - I dare say pompous man was one and I was certainly another.

One last comment on the joys of international travel - what on earth was happening at Terminal 3? Going out on Wednesday was bad enough as the terminal was crowded to the gills and the departure gate seating far too small for the manifest of people for the aircraft which took an age to check through. But passport control was a shambles coming back last night, with at least a thousand people queuing and very few positions manned. When they did, eventually, open up a couple more positions, the staff then blatantly took an age to check each passport, almost inviting the inevitable rudeness they got from several people. The queuing system was shambolic as well with people shoving and moving around and no actual lines formed. Contrast this to somewhere like the US where there are regularly large volumes of people to be checked, there are always well organised lines and people to direct you, however officious and sour-faced they may be.

Heathrow is decending into a mess and depsite a brand new terminal being built to ease the loads on the others, it has got far, far worse. It is not a pretty sight for foreign travellers arriving, it's chaos for EU arrivals and it has nothing to do with more rigorous checks - it is simply lack of staff at peak times and slow systems that take around 30 seconds to check a home country passport.

That, at least, cannot be blamed on the luckless Iberian Airlines.

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