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Disclaimer : The below narrative is based upon a true story but names have been changed, abbreviated or withheld for various reasons. Some details may have been withheld or modified to protect the privacy of individuals and organisations. Any resemblance to actual events or organisations should neither be assumed nor is implied.

Part 1 : Mid-December
Part 2 : Cologne
Part 3 : Christmas
Part 4 : New Year
Part 5 : Togo and Algeria

PART 1 : Mid-December

And so it came to pass that my Monday afternoon meeting was interrupted by one of our dispatchers knocking on the conference room door with a slightly scared look on his face. His hands were sweaty and clutched a faded dot matrix printout with the letters EGKK emblazoned on the first line. The TAF for tomorrow morning was in and the Gods were primed to unleash their wrath upon London Gatwick. This was especially unfortunate for me as I was part of a team supposed to be heading to Dusseldorf tonight to host an event celebrating one year of our service to Germany. The team was flying via Gatwick with a connecting flight on flyBE, so any delays could throw our entire carefully planned itinerary out of synch.

I sent a text to Roger who was scheduled to be our captain tonight asking if he had seen the TAF. He replied a few minutes later with a few choice expletives. The die had been cast however. The tickets had been sold and 160 crazy souls had forked over their hard earned cash to leave the African sunshine behind and venture into the harsh British winter. Our mission was to deliver them safely to their destination.

At the crew briefing that night, we pass around thick stacks of weather reports and high level wind charts for Western Europe. Whereas the earlier TAF seems to have been especially alarmist, the latest one was obviously generated by a statistician. It was peppered with PROB40 qualifiers, which in layman's terms basically means "it may happen, but there's a good chance that it won't happen either" and is about as useful as a chocolate teacup for flight planning purposes. Roger is finally satisfied. He passes a fuel number along and mounts his trusty steed for the 6h28m flight north. The RB211s fire up and off we climb into the tropical darkness.

London the next morning is nowhere near as bad as the TAF predicted. There has been some snow, but for the most part it's just fricking freezing. The flyBE flight over to Dusseldorf is allegedly on time and our team trudges off to their checkin counters. Part of our checked luggage today is 60kg of fresh pineapples intended as giveaways to the attendees at the event and this elicits a bit of envious laughter from the flyBE staff. They have spent the morning readjusting the bucket behind the ticket counter to catch the drippings from the leaky roof. I am tempted to offer them a pineapple each but I get distracted and forget. There are 4 others on the team with me today - two managers from our sales department and two cabin crew who have been selected for their ability to look pretty and pose for PR pictures. Our CEO has gone directly there from another engagement and will catch up with us at the hotel in Dusseldorf.

At baggage claim in Dusseldorf, our pineapples fail to appear. I head over to the baggage services office and they confirm that there were no pineapples offloaded from the aircraft at Dusseldorf today. Houston, we have a problem. Well, Gatwick actually. I call over to James at Gatwick and task him with finding the pineapples in time to make the next flyBE flight. He jumps right into it. As we head off to the hotel, I get a call back. The pineapples have been located sitting at the bottom of the oversized baggage belt. Hmm. Maybe I should have offered the flyBE folks the pineapples after all? Nonetheless, they are being rush-tagged and will be with us at 830pm. We might just manage to pull this one off.

The party itself goes fabulously well, despite the crappy weather. My only regret is that I have to dash out in the middle of dinner to go meet the flyBE flight and rescue the fruit. Thankfully, the wonderful baggage services supervisor was already wheeling them out to the curb just as we pull up, enabling us to be back at the event no more than 25 minutes after we departed. The pineapples are handed out to the attendees amid much glee and then we pack everything up and head back to our hotel. After a few rounds of Altbier and a 1am trip to find some Doner Kebab, it is time to retire for the night. The return journey goes smoothly the next morning. We connect at Gatwick without any hassles and soon I am back in the African sunshine where snow is but a distant nightmare. Distant perhaps, but a nightmare nonetheless. My week was about to get much much worse.

Thursday night. The snow falling upon London seems a world removed from the muggy atmosphere I find myself in. Our demons from Monday night have not gone away, but are just waiting for a new opportunity to strike. We have 169 passengers tonight - a full house - and James is busy herding them to the gate where their ride awaits them under the command of Captain Alex. Departure time is 1110pm, making us one of the last flights out of Gatwick for the night. At 11pm, my mobile rings. Caller ID displays Alex's name. My heart sinks. This can only be bad news. They are shutting the runway at Gatwick for 30 minutes to clear some snow. My heart sinks even further.

1130pm ticks past and soon we are at midnight. Passengers are now on board and getting a bit antsy. I'm frantically working the phone with everyone from the handling agents to airfield ops to a witch doctor who lives down the street. Nobody has any information beyond the usual "we're optimistic but...". I talk to Alex again. He has been researching on his iPhone. He is not optimistic. I pull up a satellite image and I understand why. There is a second front right behind this one which is going to be far worse. But the TAF didn't forecast this!!! Somewhere in a basement in Exeter, a shrivelled old wizard is cackling away in evil glee.

Contingency plans. In reality, this weather front is not likely to clear until around 6am. Airport will maybe be open for 730am. Crew have till 3am before they run out of hours and then won't be able to go again until the afternoon. I call Crewing and beg them to find me a replacement crew for 7am reporting. What can we do with the passengers? There are no concessions open at the airport so no point offloading them into the terminal. We can try to hotac them but by the time we offload baggage and take them through customs, it will be time to check them in again. Not to mention the road conditions are getting worse and there will be no way to get them to the hotels. I talk to the Purser and to Alex again. We decide to serve the hot meal to the passengers immediately while James tries to figure out what to do with them. He calls Terminal Operations. We are not the only ones in this situation - there are 4 other aircraft who are also stranded.

Coming up on 130am now. Terminal Operations have only a skeleton staff overnight but they have finally conceded that we can put the pax into the departure lounge overnight. There are a horde of late Easyjet inbounds that are diverting so that will mean corresponding cancellations tomorrow morning and lowered throughput. Alex breaks the news to the passengers who strangely enough take it pretty well. We advise them to take pillow and blankets from the aircraft with them. Its a slow process but eventually they are all safely huddled on the benches by about 3am. James finds a chair at the info desk and settles down with a spare pillow for a nap himself. He has a pile of vouchers to hand out for breakfast at 6am. Alex and the crew secure the aircraft and head off for the Hilton.

Meanwhile, Eric at Crewing has worked his magic and conjured up a whole new set for 7am. We set departure for 815am subject to all services coming together. They don't. At 630am, James calls me to let me know that Gate Gourmet can't do a hot meal in time for 815am departure as they are short about half their staff due to road conditions. We have leftover breakfast boxes from last night's flight and they can maybe get us a few boxes of frozen chicken pastries for a second snack. I tell James to go ahead with that, but to also give all pax a second voucher and advise them to buy something from the terminal for the flight. Meanwhile, we are awaiting updates from airfield ops. I don't want to start re-boarding until we know the airport is up and running again. Finally at 830am the go ahead is received. We call the flight to the gate and the passengers trickle aboard. With ATC restrictions and de-icing it is past 10am before pushback clearance is received and almost 11am before they are finally airborne. James is exhausted. I tell him to go home and that I will fly up tonight to cover tomorrow with Luc.

Saturday morning finds me back at a Gatwick airport that is slowly limping itself back to normalcy. Despite the airport's new ownership, the infrastructure is still older than me for the most part and doesn't really hold up in bad weather. The baggage belts are usually the first thing to collapse, especially under the weight of the huge trunks that the average passenger heading to Africa for Christmas lugs with them. Sure enough, there is soon a sickening crunch-thump sound followed by the high pitched whiny beep that can only signify something mechanical is not doing what it is supposed to. After watching the check-in lines grow progressively longer for 20 minutes, we move to plan B. This involves physically dragging every single checked bag manually to the oversized belt. With 165 passengers and an average of 2.1 bags each, this is not a pleasant task but we get on with it. I'm absolutely beat by the time we are done with this and heave a big sigh of relief when the aircraft pushes back just 47 minutes late. Has another bullet been dodged?

At 11pm, I find out that although we may have dodged the bullet, it has ricocheted and hit us squarely in the back. Dusseldorf airport is snowed under and Eurocontrol's CFMU has a ground stop on all traffic destined for there. We wait. And wait. And then the crew run out of hours to do a multi-segment day so there is really no point waiting any more. We dispatch to Gatwick with the Dusseldorf passengers on board and pray that we can crew change in the morning and hop over to Germany. As the aircraft gets closer to Gatwick, we rack our brains and pray for a break in the weather. Checkin is running at Dusseldorf even though the airfield is still closed. Thorsten is on the phone every 30 minutes with updates from there.

Aircraft is now on the ground at Gatwick and Dusseldorf is still closed. We've got an almighty problem on our hands. We have passengers going to Germany stuck in the UK and passengers going to Africa stuck in Germany. We deplane the Dusseldorf passengers and send them through Flight Connections with Transit cards and meal vouchers. We ponder alternatives. There aren't many. Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Brussels are snowed under. CFMU has slot restrictions for all UK southbound traffic so we can't even skip Germany and go straight back to Africa. The new crew shows up. Mike is the captain. He used to fly for DHL in a previous life. He suggests flying to Cologne instead. Evidently they "never close". I call Thorsten in Dusseldorf. He thinks it might work. He needs to round up buses for the passengers though. The Autobahn is also pretty dire so that is easier said than done.

It's all a bit too much for one of our young passengers.

Things begin to come together. AHS in Cologne can provide handling. Thorsten has found a bus company but they estimate at least two hours to get between airports (usually about 30 minutes) due to the weather. I tell him to get moving. We call the passengers for boarding. One of us needs to go with the aircraft to coordinate things in Cologne and hop back on the late Easyjet. James hasn't brought his passport, so I draw the short straw. Everyone aboard now, doors closed and jetway off. I go up to the cockpit and Mike has a sheepish look on his face. Uhoh.

"Remember when I said that Cologne never closes?"

I call Thorsten. The buses are already on the road taking passengers from one closed airport to another. Daniel is driving to Cologne from home to meet the buses and oversee the departure. We try to call him but he's not answering. AHS Cologne calls. They are confident that the airport will reopen by 2000z. I do the mathematics. The crew will be barely legal using max discretion if they can get into Cologne and pull off a 45 minute transit. It's Mike's call. The weight of the four stripes is heavy on his shoulders.

"Can we get hotels here?"
"Can we get hotels in Cologne?"
"Probably not, that entire area has been shut down all day so we're late to the party."
"Then I'd rather be stranded here than take our chances timing out in Cologne and having to sleep on the plane."

He's right but we still don't like it. James has been watching this discussion through the cockpit windows from his vantage point at the gate. I signal to him to get the jetway back on. He holds his head in his hands. Mike steels himself and gets on the PA system. As expected, the passengers don't take the news well. Not for the first time, I am extremely grateful for the reinforced cockpit door that stands between us and the mob.

Removing passengers from an international flight is known in the airline world by the wonderfully euphemistic artificial term "decontrolling". All passengers have to be processed through immigration, collect their luggage and then proceed through Customs before we can even start getting them into hotels. This is complicated by the fact that half the passengers on this aircraft were never supposed to be in the UK to begin with. We scan the APIS details and find 8 passengers who are visa nationals but do not hold UK visas. I call the CIO at Immigration. He agrees to grant 24 hour emergency landing permits on a case by case basis.

The ticket desk has managed to snag enough rooms at the "Europa Hotel", a nearby fleabag. I'd personally never stay there voluntarily but it's the only establishment that had enough rooms available for a group this size in a single location. I'm not taking chances with splitting the group up in this weather. Servisair has organised 3 buses for the passengers but luggage is going to be a problem. I call Customs and get approval to place unclaimed checked baggage in bond overnight. Next call to the porters. They will have a group at the baggage belt to help haul things.

The phone rings from "PRIVATE NUMBER". Strange. It's Sussex Police. Some of our disgruntled passengers have decided to take a diversion from the prescribed path to arrivals and are now holding a sit-down protest to barricade a cancelled Ryanair flight from disembarking its passengers. Quite what they are protesting nobody is really sure. They need me to meet them there immediately to sort things out. Just perfect. I head there and find a veritable riot brewing. Gatwick Security have placed themselves between the two groups of passengers (ours and Ryanair) but there is a lot of shouting and abuse being hurled from each side. To my misfortune, I seem to be perceived as the common enemy and they redirect their mutual loathing of airlines at me. The Gatwick Security folks form a cordon around me but I am beginning to get a little anxious. I am very glad when Sussex Police show up a few minutes later.

Thank God for Police with submachine guns. They have the ability to make even the most argumentative and irrational passenger shut up. All except one guy. He's a recently naturalised US citizen (as he keeps informing us while he waves his passport in our faces) and somehow thinks that this entitles him to immunity from weather disruptions. "How can you do this to me? I'm a US citizen! Look here, United States of America!! How dare you do this to me. I will call my Embassy to protest. What a worthless country. This would never happen in the USA!!!". One of the Police Officers pulls him aside and whispers (presumably) threats in his ear. He stops yelling and calms down. Well, he stops yelling at least.

Down to baggage claim. It's a zoo. There are about 20 flight cancellations all trying to retrieve their luggage. To make things worse, many passengers from various cancelled flights are not claiming their bags and simply walking out through Customs. The floor between the baggage belts is full of abandoned luggage from flights throughout the day. I start helping our passengers locate their bags on the belts. We have a platoon of Servisair staff and the porters helping out as well. I relax for a minute. Then the phone rings again.

It's Immigration. One of our passengers is being denied entry to the UK. I go back upstairs and am not surprised to see (hear) my American friend screaming again. The CIO explains that when he approached the desk and was asked what the purpose of his trip to Germany was, he replied sarcastically that he was going there to seek political asylum. When he was told not to joke about those matters otherwise he would be denied entry to the UK, he lost his temper again and began yelling at the Immigration officer how stupid Europe was and that they wouldn't dare deny him entry as he was a US Citizen. They dared. Now he's going to have to spend the night sleeping on the floor of the transit lounge. Karma's a b1tch.

An hour later and everyone (sans one!!!) is safely ensconsed in their hotel rooms for the night. I call Daniel in Cologne and he sounds like he's not having a pleasant evening. Thorsten has only been able to find 1 hotel room at Cologne and there are almost 100 passengers. Daniel offers the room first to a family traveling in Business Class (who decline in favour of going home) and then to another family with a young baby who accept. Now the rest of the passengers are rather vociferously voicing their disapproval of his choice. I advise him to go hide for a while to let them calm down. The airport has set up a humanitarian relief operation handing out bedding and coffee to the hundreds of stranded passengers from all airlines. That's the best we can do for now. The German passengers love quoting EU regulations about hotel accomodation but last I checked the EU didn't have a magic spell to help us pull hotel rooms out of our arse in a snowstorm.


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