For non-UK residents, it can be hard to believe how badly we deal with any amount of snow in this country. It doesn’t take much more than a light dusting to leave our road and rail links in disarray. In January, when my cousin from Colorado and my friend from Canada visited, we had quite a heavy snowfall for the UK. They spent the first day smirking as we ran around like headless chickens, layered up fit for the arctic, failed to make it into work and talked non-stop about the weather. But after a time, they came to notice our great disadvantages in dealing with the white stuff: Our roads are tiny. It only takes one accident or broken down car to snarl up the roads for hours. When this happens, there is no way to get a gritter or tow truck through to clear the problem. We are not used to driving in icy and snowy conditions. We don’t have the right equipment for dealing with the weather as it doesn’t often strike and so there’s not much cause to invest in any. Our electric trains rely on a live rail which provides them with power, but is vulnerable to freezing over.
These weaknesses have never been more apparent than in the last week and a half where most of the UK has experienced heavy snowfall, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades. Our roads, rails and airports have ground to a halt leaving thousands of people stranded, in some occasions overnight in trains and cars which weren’t going anywhere. Schools have been closed, much to the kid’s delight. Hotels in London have been fully booked where commuters have been unable to get home. Offices have been conspicuously quieter as many couldn’t make it in to work.
Our flight to Morocco was due to leave at 7:10 last Saturday morning. By the evening of the previous Wednesday, we were starting to get concerned that the weather was going to put a spanner in the works. Gatwick airport was closed as the snow was falling faster than they could clear it. We decided to book into an airport hotel for the Friday night to save anyone the hassle of driving us to the airport early on Saturday through potentially treacherous conditions. Overnight on Wednesday 8 inches of snow fell over Gatwick leaving the 45 diggers, ploughs and gritters 150,000 tonnes of snow to clear before the runway could be declared safe to use. We watched nervously throughout Thursday, waiting for some sign that the weather situation would improve and we’d be able to travel on Saturday. But it looked bleak. Even though the snow had let up on Thursday, the below freezing conditions were still causing havoc with the roads and train lines. Even if the airport were to reopen, we weren’t sure we’d be able to get there.
Friday rolled around with the promise of (slightly) warmer weather and no snow forecast for the weekend. Gatwick airport was open and some flights had departed. Things were looking up a little, yet we were still trying to manage our expectations. We had planned to meet at the station after finishing work to get the train from London Bridge to Gatwick. However, at about 3pm I was checking the train line pages once more only to find that they intended to stop the trains running after 7pm due to the likelihood of temperatures falling drastically once again and freezing over the live rail. After a quick pleading with my boss I was allowed to leave work at 3:15pm instead of 5pm. I rushed home and threw all of my things into a bag and we walked back out the house to meet the others at the underground station.
We arrived at London Bridge station, found the platform we needed and rushed onto the train, breathing a sigh of relief. We later learnt that we’d caught the last train leaving from London at 18:33 all the rest were cancelled. Perhaps the fates were smiling down on us after all.
A friend of ours happened to be at Gatwick trying to catch a flight to Spain. It was while we were defrosting in the shuttle bus to the hotel that she called to say that all flights to Spain, Portugal, Egypt and Morocco were cancelled as the Spanish Air Traffic Control workers had just staged a walkout. It was looking less and less likely that we were going to be going anywhere in the morning. We decided to enjoy our trip to Gatwick just the same and indulge in a surprisingly good meal from our budget hotel. The stress and the uncertainty of the evening compared with a couple of bottles of red wine made us all ready for sleep soon afterwards.
We set our alarms for 4:30am, giving us enough time to get to the airport, but still expecting to find our flight cancelled and to be back in bed shortly. Except, it wasn’t. Despite all other flights to Spain, and through Spanish airspace reading as cancelled, ours was still on the board as scheduled. It seemed so unlikely that we would be going anywhere that our temptation, at this point, was to go back to bed. But, when by 5:30 our flight still looked good to go, we had no choice but to drag ourselves downstairs and jump on the shuttle back to the airport.
As we arrived, we found ourselves surrounded by the queues of those whose flights had been cancelled as they tried to rebook their flights. We checked with the staff and they confirmed that our flight was still scheduled to leave. We sheepishly made our way to security, feeling the eyes of those who had been disappointed following our movements. Apologetically, we glanced backwards once before handing over our boarding passes and going airside.
With only an hour until we were due to start boarding, we went through the usual routine: buying bottled water, stocking up on sweets and magazines and getting ourselves some breakfast. Throughout this we did our best to remain sceptical and to not get our hopes up. But this got more difficult when our gate number was posted and we were instructed to ‘go to gate’. This certainly suggested that they had the intention of putting us on a plane and sure enough, as we arrived at the gate there was a plane there with a pilot in the cockpit and it was being refuelled.
Despite our best intentions, we were starting to get hopeful. When we were called to the gate to begin boarding, it became nearly impossible to keep our expectations in check and we started to creep towards anticipation. As we shuffled down the jetway to begin boarding, we skirted dangerously close to Our seats selected, our baggage stowed and our belts buckled, we started to let ourselves look forward to landing in Morocco. We imagined the warmth of the sun on our skin, the sights and smells of the souks and the intense tastes of tagine and cous cous.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We apologise for the delay, there’s been some difficulty up here this morning. Currently, the Spanish ATC have given us a take off slot of 09:30; about two hours from now. This may move forward at any time, so I’m going to instruct the cabin crew to prepare us for departure and full away from the gate. I’ll keep you update when I know anymore.”
We pulled away from the gate and taxied to a standing point. Several minutes later:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, once again, this is your captain speaking. Unfortunately, we’ve just received word that all flights through Spanish airspace have been averted as all air traffic controllers have walked out. Currently, we’ve been given a new take-off slot of 16:42, but it appears that all flights have been given the same one. The company is trying to work out an alternative flight path around Portugal, but it’s not clear how many other flights will be attempting the same thing. I’ll let you know more as I do.”
Another several minutes later, the door to the flight deck opens and the captain takes the mic as he looks back towards us.
“This is your captain speaking. Unfortunately, I have some bad news. The company have not managed to find an alternative flight path and so they have made the decision to cancel this flight. We’re now waiting for buses to arrive to take you back to the airport. We apologise sincerely for this.”
So that was it. Our holiday was over before it have even begun. We’d actually made it through security, onto the plane and out onto the tarmac; further than we’d believed we’d get, but still not as far as we’d have liked. And the real kicker is that it wasn’t even the snow that cut short our trip, but a wildcat strike over terms and conditions of work for the Spanish air traffic controllers.
Disappointing though it was, we were able to get all of our money back and easyjet’s customer service throughout the whole thing was excellent. There were also many people who had it far worse than us, such as people whose wedding plans were in tatters. We will rebook for next year and hopefully that trip will go ahead!
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