This is the follow on from my earlier post Stranded half-way around the world due to disruption to UK flights from Iceland Volcano. I was in India on business when the volcano in Iceland left tens of thousands of people stranded all around the world. Fortunately my company backed me up on my quest to get home. They covered the cost of my extended hotels stays (as of course you’d expect), but were also willing to pay a significant amount extra for my flights to get me back with my family sooner than would otherwise be the case waiting for the airline.
This is the story of my journey home from India to the UK.
Next flight 1 week away
After my first flight was cancelled at the start of the disruption to UK air space I contacted Emirates who said that I’d have to wait for a week for the next availability on the return flight. At the time the disruption was only to UK airspace and the press was reporting as though it was only to last a couple of days. It later unfolded that the restrictions were going to be much bigger and longer than the earlier predictions. Although my eventual flight turned out to be later than the first date I was provided by Emirates it now sounds that they would not have allowed me to board that flight anyway.
American Express Travel
Our company travel policy is to always book flights through American Express (Amex) Travel. Normally this is through a web interface and the travel agency charges a fee for every flight that we book. In the past I and others have thought that perhaps this was unnecessary as in many cases it is possible to buy the tickets online without any of the additional costs, although as company policy we of course continued to use them. I now understand the reason for using a travel agent, when there are problems with travel arrangements the added service they can provide more than compensates for the fee charged to flight bookings.
There was one occasion where I was left in a queue on the emergency phone number for an hour before I gave up. There is an office in the UK which is open during business hours, but that doesn’t have a number that can be called from abroad. Fortunately I had a colleague that conferenced me in directly with the UK Amex office. On future attempts to call Amex travel I rarely had to wait for more than a few minutes for the phone to be answered.
In general the staff at Amex travel were very helpful. In particular on this occasion the person I spoke to was very helpful. He tried lots of different routes to find an available ticket. I did turn down an option going via Kenya as I was concerned about getting stuck in Nairobi without a Visa to enter the country. I’d heard of horror stories of people being restricted to the hotel or sent back to their previous airport due to similar issues.
The agent continued to search looking at alternate UK destinations and via points and eventually found a flight going from India to Dubai to Frankfurt to Birmingham for the Tuesday. This flight would cost over twice as much as the normal one-way equivalent price. This was with Emirates with the final hop through Lufthansa. I booked this flight expecting the airspace to be fully reopened well before then. In fact although airspace did reopen on the Tuesday it was far from normal service and I was unable to travel back then.
Weekend in Bangalore
I was then stranded in India for the weekend. I had a colleague over there that was a great help and helped me make the most of the weekend. We explored some of the local sights in Bangalore and Mysore. Some photos from my unscheduled sight-seeing around Bangalore and Mysore in Karnataka India.
Terrorist attacks in India
During the weekend there were terrorist explosions in the Bangalore area around the stadium hosting the IPL cricket tournament. The first of these explosions was only a matter of minutes after I’d travelled past that area and was only a few minutes in car from the hotel I was staying at. This was enough to shake me up a little and with the press reports suggesting that further attacks were imminent I was now more than ever desperate to get out of India. I decided that I just needed to get to Europe as a first step and had Amex travel confirm that even if I was unable to get all the way back to the UK I could use my ticket as far as Frankfurt and then find alternative arrangements from there.
As it happened I wasn’t able to get as far as Frankfurt, but I did at least get out of India to somewhere a little closer to home.
Emirates at Bangalore Airport
Prior to the Tuesday flight I made several phone calls to confirm that the flight was still scheduled to go ahead and that I’d be on it. This was confirmed right up until the time I left for the airport. When I got to the airport I was told that they would not allow me to board as despite the airspace now being open and flights running they were not allowing anyone to board with an onward destination to Europe. I phoned the Emirates call centre again and they once again confirmed the flight was scheduled and that I should be able to fly.
After much discussion with Emirates I finally got someone to agree that I could fly to Dubai as long as I had a hotel booked in Dubai, and then assuming the flight for Frankfurt went ahead I could continue my journey home. A quick phone call later and I had a hotel booked for that night. I specifically found a hotel that I was able to cancel if my flight did go ahead. I was then told by Emirates that one night wasn’t good enough and that I had to get one for 3 nights, so once again I was back on the phone and got a different hotel to extend my stay in Dubai it a further 3 nights (the first hotel was not showing vacancies after the first night). After providing confirmation by email I was then told that they still wouldn’t let me board the plane as long as my ticket had an onward flight to Germany. This was contrary to what they’d said before and was typical of the way that Emirates told me one thing to then go back on their word. I knew that surrendering my ticket then would mean that I was unlikely to get home that day, but Emirates made it clear that they didn’t intend to honour my ticket anyway. I then looked at other alternatives.
Another call to Amex travel and I had an alternative flight to Dubai with Emirates with onwards to London Heathrow the following day with Royal Brunei. Fortunately UK visitors can travel to the United Arab Emirates for 30 days without needing a visa. I had requested that the two parts of the flight to be ticketed separately so that Emirates would allow me to make the flight to Dubai at least. Emirates also insisted that I cancel my other ticket with route via Frankfurt. There were others that were no as lucky as me including someone from Germany that was not allowed to fly because they couldn’t get the email confirmation to Emirates in time and some India nationals who were not accepted because they would have required a visa for staying in Dubai.
I was finally able to board my flight to Dubai. I was escorted to the security checks and then on to the gate as this had nearly taken most of the 3.5 hours that I had arrived in advance of the flight. I just made the plane before the gate closed and then after a four hour flight I arrived at Dubai.
Emirates had since said in the press that they were going to clear the backlog in Dubai before allowing anyone from outside of the area to go through Dubai (or at least that’s my interpretation). So it seams that if I’d waited for the next Emirates flight I would have been waiting for some time in India before I was able to start my journey.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), and in particular the city of Dubai is a popular tourist destination, but with some very strict and harsh laws. This is particularly the case with drugs related offences where over the counter medicines, such as cold remedies and jet-lag pills, and prescription only medicines can land you in a lot of trouble. These are perfectly legal in most countries but are not allowed in the UAE and those found in possession of these face 4 year prison sentences. In fact even poppy seeds on your clothes from a bread roll eaten outside of the country can be enough to gain a 4 year prison sentence (Tourists warned of UAE drug laws). There are also other very strict laws which tourists can fall foul of including the act of kissing in public (British man and woman jailed in Dubai for kissing in public) and even very trivial things such as a 100 AED (£18) fine for chewing gum on public transport (source: The Gulf News 21 April 2010).
You will also want to avoid the country if you are an unmarried couple wanting to share a room, or if you are gay (US condemns UAE gay men arrests).
Fortunately these cases of visitors being imprisoned are very rare, but it does make you wonder whether it’s worth the risk of travelling to UAE when you could innocently commit a crime and end up spending time in a foreign prison.
Still it was not a bad place to get stranded, although I was still missing my family lots and just wanted to get home.
Holiday Inn Down town Dubai
I stayed one night at the Holiday Inn in Downtown Dubai. The hotel had a significant number of stranded Brits. At breakfast I heard that some had received calls during the middle of the night and had gone off to the Airport for their return to the UK.
Unfortunately timing was not on my side with my UK flight booked with Royal Brunei Airlines. Heathrow airport opened the same day that the flight was scheduled, but the decision had already been made to cancel the flight. Unfortunately Royal Brunei were not particularly helpful in providing details of when I could next fly and I was once again in search of another flight. Unfortunately the airlines had all stopped accepting bookings by this stage and Amex travel spoke to Royal Brunei to get them to book me on the next available flight. Amex travel said that I was booked for Friday so I relocated hotels to the Crowne Plaza hotel and waited for news.
I was a little uncertain about my flight for Friday as the status on the web site said “On Request” where I would normally have expected status “Confirmed”. So by Thursday I called them again asking for an explanation. At first I phoned the Brunei office who just told me to call back closer to the time, but they did provide me with the phone number for the Dubai office.
I spoke to the Dubai office. They were very vague and refused to confirm that I was booked onto the flight. It took some interrogating before I established that they were not expecting to confirm me on that flight, but that I was only wait-listed, if they were able to schedule an additional flight or they had spare capacity. They were fully booked on their flights for a month so I was back on the phone in search of a new flight.
Flight booking via Munich
By this point the restrictions had been lifted for the whole of Europe and so some limited flight availability was showing again. I was able to get a flight booked for the weekend flying via Munich to London Heathrow with Lufthansa.
On Friday I also hear that there were some standby seats coming available and that a representative from the British embassy was advising stranded Brits to join the queue for seat availability. By that time I had already confirmed a flight booking so just waited that extra day.
The foreign office run a service called Locate – for the voluntary registration of British Citizens travelling abroad. It’s worth registering with them if you are going anywhere with a risk of terrorism of civil disturbance as they can then make an effort to contact you if they feel the threat is too high.
British Foreign Office – Locate – overseas registration.
Who is to blame?
Once the airspace re-opened the media immediately jumped onto whether there was someone to blame for the problems with European flights. I certainly don’t think it’s possible to blame anyone for the volcano erupting, but did the air-traffic control over-react and was this all really necessary? I’m not qualified to judge whether it was an accurate assessment, but as frustrating as all this has been I don’t feel like someone should automatically be blamed. I think they made the right decision at the start of this to put safety first. Perhaps it took longer than necessary to decide to lift the ban, but I’d not liked to have been the one making that decision.
This was a first of it’s kind, but I very much doubt the last time we will experience similar ash clouds. I expect the volcano will erupt again and when I does I sincerely hope that the air traffic service is better prepared than they were this time. I’m sure there will be a lot to answer for if they are not.
I think that some airlines and in my case Emirates was not very good at dealing with the situation. They provided conflicting information from the call centre even after the airport had been told to refuse boarding. They kept changing my terms of getting on the flight and made me surrender a ticket that I should have been contractual allowed to fly with if it had gone ahead. They also showed that they were prioritising those that were in-transit over anyone else because it was costing them money for hotels. As a non European airline Emirates didn’t have to find accommodation or provide compensation for those that had not yet started their journey.
From what I heard it was far better to be with a European airline which had an additional level of responsibility towards all it’s passengers which the Middle East and Asian airlines did not. After this experience if travelling on holiday I’d certainly be more inclined to fly with a European airline than any other if possible (except maybe RyanAir, although they have now backed down they were the one company trying to escape their legal obligations – Ryanair back down over expenses).
There has been some complaints made about airlines selling some of their seats despite still having a backlog of passengers. It was certainly the case that some of the tickets that I bought (and have since been refunded as unused) were way above the normal cost of the flight. I didn’t jump any queues when buying these tickets, but just to the opportunity to move to a route that did had spare capacity instead of remaining with the routes that were overloaded with waiting passengers.
In my case my decision to avoid the potential risk in India put me in the position of having to surrender my existing ticket and needing to get onto alternative flights. I also know of other people that had difficult decisions to make because of the riots in Bangkok and trouble elsewhere in Asia which they needed to escape from.
Finally getting home
I finally arrived into Heathrow airport 1 week later than I should have got back into the UK. Fortunately my wife and children were there to meet me when I arrived. One thing I realised is that travelling is not as much fun when you have a family at home that you miss. I’m sure that many would love the opportunity to get stranded in a nice hotel in a hot country on expenses, but for me each day was an extra day away from my family.