Friday, April 2, 2010

Parkinson's, Planes and Promises

Being positive, whether with Parkinson's or airlines, has its downsides. Sometimes you set yourself up for failure by believing in what you want to believe in without doing the necessary "due diligence" in advance.

By the time I knew there was trouble it was past 10 p.m., London time, on April 1. I was staring at a computer screen wondering whether this was a time delayed April Fools' Day joke. Before me were two completely different pieces of key information. A phone call would disclose a third inconsistent "fact". I was on the Transavia Airlines website. Having stated that, most of you will already guess at the beginning of my problems. Who or what is Transavia Airlines? Up until that night, the only thing I knew was that it flew the cheapest flight available from London Gatwick Airport to Rotterdam, our next destination on our European adventure.

Our departure time for Transavia flight HV 5196, according to the reservation I had made before we left home, was 7:55 AM, April 2. That was still the time shown as scheduled on the website. However, upon checking in online, and printing out our boarding passes, the departure time showed as 6:55 AM. Given that we needed to be at the airport approximately 2 hours beforehand, and the fact that we were about an hour away from the airport, this minor computerized difference of opinion meant a significantly different waking time. Upon trying to telephone to determine the truth, the only information that was given indicated an HV 5196 departure time of 8:10 AM. Of course, given that our friends were going to meet us in the Rotterdam airport, we could not afford to miss the flight and therefore chose the only reasonable alternative, arising before 4 AM to get there in time for the 6:55 AM departure.

The next problem, was it Gatwick North or South terminal? Nothing on any website disclosed the secret departure point. Okay, leaving a little earlier would allow us time to check out both terminals before we would be late.

We arrived at the airport after a very short, and virtually sleepless, night at just before 5 AM. Luckily, our first choice of the North terminal proved correct. After 10 minutes of searching, we were rewarded with information on one small departure board that indicated there was indeed, apparently, a flight HV 5196 leaving at 7:55 AM. However, the terminal check-in location was not identified, although the check-in counter (wherever it may have been) was declared as not open until 5:30 AM. So we sat, watching the sign like a kettle waiting to boil, for some evidence as to where to lug to our suitcases for check-in and confirmation that we did indeed have seats on the mystery plane.

At the appointed hour the electronic departure board gave up the secret check-in counter location as being in "Section H". Relieved, we arrived at the specified single desk check-in where we were greeted by a pair of tired women, with tired lime green uniforms, who were examining passports and asking typical questions like, "Are you a terrorist?" Let us just say that if I described the two Transavia airline representatives as automobile tires, there was not a lot of tread left on them. My first mistake (okay, so it may not have been my "first") was to try and explain the difficulty we had encountered with the confusing departure time information. One airline appointee, Dorothy, simply stated, "Oh yes, I keep telling them about that mistake." My "second" mistake was to innocently ask, "Is the plane leaving on time? Before I was finished the question, she fired back as if I had just asked her age, "We are always on time." I was tempted to ask, but did not for fear of being taken off the flight manifest as a potential subversive, "Do you want to tell me what the departure time is now or wait until the plane leaves?" Instead, I asked the number of the departure gate. She said to watch the departure board and the gate would be announced shortly. I wondered whether that meant that my flight did not have a departure gate because: (a) there was none and this was all a cleverly disguised front to cause me to believe that there was in fact a departure; (b) Transavia had not paid for it yet but was hoping the check would clear the bank "shortly"; or (c) our plane was waiting in some "pay as you go" lineup for a nod and wink from "someone" so that it could slip in, load its passengers and slip out before the real airlines noticed. Being an optimist, I was counting on the latter. In any event, I was beginning to speculate as to whether this was someone's idea of a European Easter egg hunt.

At exactly 20 minutes before the supposed scheduled departure time, the departure board blinked its clandestine code beside flight HV 5196, “Gate 16”. We hurried to the departure lounge along with a ragtag group of other "budget" travelers who could best be described as looking like an international gathering of gypsies. Upon arriving at the gate we were greeted by the same two semi-retired, lime green clad airline agents, barring the runway to the plane door. Amazingly, the wait at the departure gate was short as a disheveled young fellow wearing a vest with reflective stripes poked his head through the runway door and announced, "Okay, let’s board everyone." None of this, "Would all disabled persons, women and children go first please." There was a less than dignified rush towards the plane entry door as if everyone was trying to get into an open seating rock concert.

Getting seated in 6A, I was about to admit that the Dorothy had been right about the departure time, when the captain announced in Dutch, and then in Anglicized Dutch, our flight would be late in pushing back due to…. This announcement was made several times until 8:25 AM when the plane actually left the runway. I wondered whether there was a money back guarantee on any one of the three website departure times.

With discount airlines, as with cures for Parkinson's disease, it may pay to be a little skeptical and ask some serious questions before pinning your hopes on them getting you to your desired destination, on time that is.

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