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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 2 : Cologne

Cologne is open again. Crewing has everyone ready to go for 9am departure, except that Mike is being replaced by Steve, one of the training captains who is affectionately called "Napoleon" for his ability to command authority from a height of 5'1". To add to the irony, he is paired with Ivan, our 6'5" First Officer. All we need now is a dancing horse and the Christmas panto cast will be complete.

Buses are at the hotel to pick up the passengers at 530am. Servisair have a bag drop running for the luggage that went to the hotel and ICTS is re-scanning the bonded bags at transfer search. I pull the cash float and head out to the aircraft on the crew bus. I'll make my way back on easyJet this afternoon. The passengers are already filtering their way to the gate. The snow is picking up again. The Servisair dispatcher is waiting for us with bad news. Gatwick is closing for snow clearance. At least an hour delay. My heart sinks. Sussex Police have proactively sent a couple of armed officers down to our gate following last night's drama. Thank you Sussex Police. I brief them first and then break the news to the passengers. Oh dear. The natives are extremely restless. I leave a poor Servisair girl to deal with them as I go back to the aircraft to consult with Steve.

For a change, airfield operations were accurate with their estimate. The airport opens an hour later but now we have to de-ice again. It will be 45 minutes wait for a truck. We start to load the passengers and hope for the best. Unfortunately, we have a child running around the gate area who trips over someone else's carry-on and cuts herself. The parents get in each others' face and start yelling. Paramedics are called. The kid is fine but now we've lost our departure slot. Another 40 minutes wait. Meanwhile, poor Luc is at checkin trying to deal with the passengers due to depart on today's flight. We are running just under 24 hours behind and yesterday's flight isn't even moving yet. Steve is watching the precipitation on the wings carefully but he is satisfied enough to accept our clearance to Germany when it finally arrives at almost 1130am.

Meanwhile, Lothar has relieved poor Daniel at Cologne and is presently under Bundespolizei protection. The Africans and Turks have been swapping horror stories during their overnight delay and have decided to combine their frustrations and target him as the only visible airline manager. After 20 minutes of valiantly protesting that he has nothing to do with Pegasus Airlines, he admits defeat and slinks back to the Bundespolizei office.

As we make our way across a frozen Netherlands, Ivan comes back to have a quiet word with me. They are in the middle of another blizzard at Cologne and conditions are borderline CAT-III. The airport is still running... for now. Steve is confident of getting in but the unspoken challenge is going to be getting out again. Not for the first time this week, I wonder what sins of a past life are coming back to bite me.

We are finally established on the ILS. The cloud base is very low and visibility is almost zero. When we finally break through, there is a gasp from the passengers when they see the conditions on the ground. A few seconds later we touch down on the only clean patch of grey concrete in an ocean of white snow. In the terminal, a cheer erupts from the passengers. Lothar can show his face without fear again! On board, there is a hushed silence as we taxi our way to the terminal. If it wasn't covered with snow, you could be forgiven for thinking it was Dubai with all the Emirates diversions sitting around. I count at least 4 of their widebodies, together with another dozen or more from other carriers.

We pull onto a stand at Terminal 2. The glass and steel structure looks especially resplendant in the gloomy weather. The doors open and Lothar greets me with the warmest handshake he can muster. He has arranged train tickets with DB for the disembarking passengers to get back to Dusseldorf. As they stream off in silence, the passengers seem quite stunned by the severity of the weather. Even our American friend from last night comes up to me rather sheepishly, shakes my hand and says "you've done well".

I go into the terminal. The mood is buoyant now. We start passenger boarding. One passenger has elected not to travel so we have to find her bag and offload it. That takes a while as we are using manual bingo cards today. The tags were printed in Dusseldorf and the local BRS systems are not compatible across airports. (Ed note : EU regulations still permit airports to hold monopolies on BRS services which severely handicaps the ability of airlines to implement BRS/DCS linked IT solutions. Please lobby your MEP!).

Meanwhile the snow is getting heavier. It is barely afternoon, but it looks like night outside. Winds are gusting up to 45 knots and you can feel the jolts when standing on the jetway. An empty LD3 container goes skidding across the ramp and upends itself in a snow bank. The handling agents call their staff back in. These are nightmare conditions and it is not safe to be out on the ramp. Steve's jaw is set grimly as he stands on the bridge and surveys the disaster zone below. He looks at his watch. I get the upspoken message. With the present flightplan, we have to be airborne by 1428z to be legal with max discretion.

P brings us some steaming coffee in styrofoam cups. She has the ability to produce a fake smile on command, but even she is struggling right now. The AHS supervisor joins us. He is sending a ramp team out again as the dangerous gusts have ceased, but the storm itself shows no signs of abating. The fuel truck shows up. I suit up in winter gear and head down with the fuel numbers. The conditions are far worse in person. I have to use hand signals to communicate as the wind is too strong for normal conversation.

Tick tock. It is now past 1230z and Steve is already into discretion. The loading is almost done. I ask for a deicing truck. The AHS agent radios for one. There is a reply in rapid-fire German on the radio. Lothar's face turns white and he mutters "sheisse". Ok, even my high school German understands that. The AHS agent pleads. No dice. He turns to us and explains. "Unfortunately, some of the deicing trucks have been damaged in the recent wind. There are only 3 trucks operational now and we are number 15 in line. They are estimating a wait of up to 6 hours."

Jack Bauer is a lucky guy. He gets 24 hours to save the world. I have just over 100 minutes to find a solution and save Christmas for my passengers. I call Thorsten. He knows someone who knows someone who can arrange something at any airport in Germany. He says to give him 15 minutes. He calls back in 5. The problem is that the Emirates A340s need all 3 trucks to de-ice them due to the short holdover times and they have priority over us for now. I tell him to cut a deal if neccessary. He calls back in 2 minutes this time. His contact says that there is someone who might be amenable to be "incentivised" to help us skip the que. I do not hesitate. "Do it. US Dollar cash at the plane."

We wait. Assuming a 20 minute deicing procedure, we have to have the truck spraying by 1400z if we are to make our times. The passengers are restless and demanding information but Steve can only tell them that we are "waiting for the de-icing trucks". At 1330z, the truck shows up. I go down to the ramp and talk to the driver. He has been briefed by Thorsten's contact. He is out of fluid but he will return to us immediately he tops up at the depot. I hand over the first installment of his "Christmas bonus".

I start to walk back to the aircraft and disaster strikes. I slip on a patch of black ice and my knee twists under me. I lose my balance and fall against the deicing truck. My cheek strikes the side of the truck with a sickening crunch. I fall onto the ice and scream in pain. I can feel something in my mouth and I spit it out. The snow turns red with blood and I realise that I've lost some teeth.

The next thing I remember, it is 10 minutes later and I'm back on the aircraft sitting on the mid-galley jumpseat with a blanket wrapped around me and P kneeling by my side with a look of concern. My mouth feels strange. I try to stand up and I can manage to limp a few steps at a time without too much pain. Nothing seems broken. P has wrapped the knee in a sports bandage from the First Aid Kit and given me two painkillers. Looks like I'll survive. I check my watch. 1350z. Time is ticking and the snow is still falling.

Our friend the deicer pulls back up at 1352z. He has bad news. Due to the short holdover times using their current mixture, we will need at least 2 trucks for an aircraft our size. There is another one finishing on the Pegasus 737 next door but he's off to an Air Berlin next. Is he open to being "incentivised" as well? Is it all going to be in vain? Steve looks grim again. I look at the faces of the 169 passengers who just want to get home and make my decision.

It's time to play the "nuclear option". I tell Lothar to call the Bundespolizei and inform them that if we don't get this deicing started in the next 8 minutes, there will be 169 irate passengers stuck here for the night. If they thought the 100 African passengers sleeping at the airport last night were a problem, I can promise that the terminal building will have been burned down by morning if they are stranded another night. Lothar makes the call. I don't understand what he is saying but the drama and fear in his voice are real. 1356z. The truck has finished with the Pegasus and is ready to drive off to Air Berlin. Our "incentivised" driver flags him down and they start to negotiate. 1358z. The Bundespolizei promise that they will make the calls and sort it out.

1401z. We're out of time. The deicers are still talking. No sign of the Bundespolizei. I slump back onto the jumpseat. It's over. Or is it? Steve says we have another 9 minutes because we will be using two rigs simultaneously instead of just one. 1404z. The deicers stop talking and listen to their radios. Our friend gives me a thumbs up signal from the ramp and rushes back to his rig. The Bundespolizei have delivered. 1405z. I pass along the deicing instructions to our friend together with the rest of his "bonus" and a "little extra" for the other rig driver. He grins. "You are welcome back to Cologne anytime my friend!".

1406z. Doors closed. P gives me a quick hug before she closes the door and admonishes me to "get that knee looked at!". 1407z. Jetway off. 1408z. Rigs in position. 1409z. Spraying commenced. 1416z. Spraying complete. I can see Steve strumming his fingers on the console impatiently. 1418z. Rigs clear. 1419z. Ivan calls the tower for pushback clearance. It is immediately granted. 1420z. Push and start. Two clean starts. 1421z. Pushback tug clear. The ramp agents holds up the gear pins and waves. Ivan waves back but Steve is already in the zone and throttling up to taxi. 1422z. Taxi direct runway 02L threshold. 1424z. Cleared takeoff runway 02L.

I stand with Lothar and the Bundespolizei supervisor in the terminal. The Rolls Royce engines power up and churn up clouds of snow from the sides of the runway. Steve is standing on the brakes to heat them up. The distinctive high pitched whine grows stronger and the snow clouds grown thicker. We can barely see the aircraft through the gloom now but the flashing beacons confirms she is still there. She is straining desperately against her restraints. Finally the whine turns into a deep growl and she leaps forward with the enthusiasm of a spring that has just had its tension released. Less than a minute later, the beacons are quickly swallowed by the low clouds. The bird has flown. 1426z. We have won this battle with 2 minutes to spare but we are still fighting the larger war.

I call Luc at Gatwick. They are putting today's passengers into the same rooms at the Europa that yesterday's passengers just left. This is going to be a nightmare. There are only 3 days till Christmas and we are probably going to have to scratch a flight and ruin some passengers' holidays. Lothar gets me a coffee as I desperately sketch out scenarios on the back of a napkin. There may be one other option but it is going to be a challenge. I call our CEO and explain. She asks about the costs. I give her a ballpark estimate. She doesn't hesitate. "If you think we can get everyone home for Christmas, you have a green light."

I call Operations and give them the rough schedule. It's ambitious. We will have this aircraft in the air for 65 out of the next 75 hours. We have two critical points. We will need to ferry the aircraft back to London from Africa tomorrow afternoon to start catching up the schedule. And we will have only a 1 hour buffer to get out of Dusseldorf on Wednesday before the night curfew kicks in. Operations is cautiously optimistic. They pass it on to Crewing to crew the extra sections. I brief Lothar. He'll be in charge of the Dusseldorf turn on Wednesday. After today's drama he understands the stakes are high.

Now I need to get back to London. I call our ticket desk at Gatwick and ask them to book me on the Easyjet. They deliver the bad news in a cheerful tone. "Oh, Gatwick is closed again. All Easyjet flights are cancelled." The shoe is on the other foot. I'm now a stranded passenger myself! I scan the departures board desperately hoping for options. There is a Lufthansa to Heathrow leaving immediately and a Germanwings to Stansted in a couple of hours. Lothar helps me limp to the Lufthansa ticket counter. "Sorry, the London flight is completely sold." Down to Germanwings. Yes, they have seats available. The girl looks at me very suspiciously. I don't blame her. I am wearing an airline uniform with blood on the collar, no checked bags, no carry-on bags, speak no German, buying a one-way ticket to London on the next flight and counting off US hundred dollar bills from a thick wad. Lothar explains something in German and she nods in understanding. A few keystrokes and I have a boarding pass. Lothar says she has blocked a whole row for me. I flash her a painful semi-toothless smile. "Danke schoen!"

I take Lothar's leave and head down to the gate. Unfortunately, passport control doesn't like the fact that I haven't got an entry stamp in my passport. Oops. We were so caught up with the departure drama that I forgot to legally enter Germany. I ask them to call the Bundespolizei supervisor who had helped us earlier. A phonecall is made. A few minutes later, the Bundespolizei supervisor arrives with an entry stamp that he stamps my passport with. The other officer then affixes an exit stamp a few seconds later. Auf Wiedersehen Deutschland! I think they just wanted to get rid of me quickly and forget today ever happened!

Mixed news. Gatwick has reopened but Stansted is now closed for snow clearance. CFMU has ground holds on all flights headed there. We are looking at a further 3 hour delay in Cologne. I'm past the point of caring. Germanwings decides to board the flight anyway and hope for a slot improvement. I find my row, seatbelt myself in and curl up immediately with my jacket as a pillow. Next thing I know it is 3 hours later and we are about to land in Stansted where the local time is just after 10pm.

I stand up and my leg just gives way. I have never felt such horrendous pain in my life. I try again but I can't put any weight on the leg. The Germanwings crew rush to help. I struggle to the door but can't go any further. A wheelchair is ordered. I feel helpless as I am wheeled to Immigration. The lady looks at me quizzically but wordlessly. I show her my airline ID and simply say "Long story!". She smiles and stamps me into the UK. Thank God for the British sense of understatement!

I ask the wheelchair guy to drop me off at Boots where I buy myself a knee brace and the strongest OTC painkillers they have. I can move again under my own steam, albeit very slowly. I have to decide between a taxi back to Gatwick or taking my chances with the trains. I ask the taxi company what the roads are like. The Dartford Tunnel is closed. Ok, easy decision then. Downstairs to the Stansted Express. Ride to Liverpool Street, Tube across to Victoria and then the Gatwick Express. On the way, my phone beeps with the information that the aircraft has left Africa on its way back to us. It has taken me longer to get back from Cologne than it took them to get to Africa and turn around!

My good friend Geoff, the Iceland Express station manager, has offered to help us out this morning until the reinforcements arrive. Moses is flying up overnight from Africa to backup the troops here. Geoff is just coming in by the time I get to Gatwick at about 3am. He's prepping the bag drop for yesterday's delayed passengers who will be coming in from the Europa shortly. We are hoping to have them out by 8am and the aircraft ferried back by midnight or so to send today's passengers out with "only" a 12.5 hour delay. I need a hot shower desperately so I retire to the Hilton for a few hours.

7am finds me riding the crew bus out to the aircraft again with my knee tightly taped up and in its brace. Today's captain is Dave, a grizzled veteran with a reputation of being absolutely unflappable. I can personally vouch for his nerves of steel after an eventful Lagos trip a few years ago, but thats another story for another day. He is paired with Achilles, one of our younger FOs whose last attempt at getting home with Alex on Thursday night didn't get very far. Geoff has everything organised at the gate so I just take a seat at the podium and help out by making the PAs for boarding. Some passengers are unhappy and vent their frustrations at me. (Note to self : Must check with mom if those nasty things they said about her are true.) Hey, thats what I am here for you ungrateful ba$tard. I should have cancelled your flight and left your lousy arse in London for Christmas. Snow's a b1tch init?

Anyway, off they go "only" 22 hours late after a short wait for deicing. Job done? Nope, today's passengers are already checking in. I swear it never ends. If the other end can turn it around in 45 minutes for the ferry, we could have the aircraft just after midnight. Do we put the passengers at the Europa again? It's a difficult choice. If we want to be ready for a quick turn at midnight, we need to pull them back out starting 8pm for transport and bag drop. The rooms won't be ready until at least 2pm anyway. Is it worth "wasting" 100+ already scarce hotel rooms at Gatwick for only 6 hours of daytime passenger use? Executive decision is made. Passengers will get LRVs (Light Refreshment Vouchers) for lunch and dinner and we'll keep them at the airport for 13 hours. I'm not going to be popular and I have to pray that nothing more screws up as there won't be any hotel rooms to fall back on later tonight. I leave things in the able care of Luc and Moses and retire back to the Hilton for a while to ponder my personal circumstances.


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