Sunday, November 14, 2010

Song of the day

"Four Hours In Washington", by M. Ward. If Ward had called this song "Seven Hours In Tullamarine", it would have very neatly encapsulated what happened to us last Monday.

Having travelled to Melbourne for the weekend in order not to miss Adrienne's dad's 80th-birthday Yarra River boat ride, we dutifully arrived at Tullamarine at 3pm on Monday for the return leg, leaving at 4.10 and arriving in Canberra at 5.15pm, in time for bath night, dinner, and The Goodies at 8.05 on ABC2.

Or so we thought.

We checked in, made our way through the elaborate and officious security apparatus at Terminal 4, and into the rudimentary departure "lounge" (accurately described by a work colleague as the "departure compound") of Tiger Airways to await our flight. Presently, we were called to the departure gate. Where we waited. And waited. And waited. Until a voice over the intercom said: "Due to operational reasons [sic], flight number whatever has been delayed. The new departure time is 5.15pm, with a boarding time of 4.45."

So we took ourselves and our bags (and Adrienne's sister from London, who was coming to stay with us for a couple of nights) and colonised a few empty seats, breaking the boredom with a cup of coffee and a flick through a few magazines at the newsagents.

It wasn't long before 4.45 arrived. Some time after that, because of "operational reasons" (maybe, or maybe not, the same ones), the departure time was moved to 7.15. At that point one of our boys, perhaps not the one we would have expected, burst into tears. Murmurs went through the crowd, and a curious camaraderie developed. Fleeting but strong friendships were made. The renowned Australian sense of humour came to the fore: "Of course there is nobody from Tiger that you can talk to; you have to pay extra for that." [Explanation for overseas readers: Tiger is a rock-bottom budget airline. It has planes, a bit of terminal space, a few pilots, and not much more. Pretty much everything, except your seat on the plane, that you would expect to get with another airline, you have to pay extra for.]

Jules got friendly with a family from the south coast, who had bought, from the newsagents, a Bakugan toy, and started using it as the ball in an impromptu departure-lounge soccer game. Interestingly, and in a good advertisement for the Bakugan company, the thing survived a jolly good kicking intact.

Meal vouchers were handed out, reducing by roughly one quarter the airline's profit on each ticket. The food, of course, was overpriced crap, but it was the only food we had. (We discovered, too late, that the south coast crew had ordered in pizza.)

In due course we were revisited by Mrs Operational Reasons, who informed us that our flight was delayed until 10pm and we could, if we wanted, get a full refund on our tickets or agree to be moved to the 4.15pm flight the following day and be put up at an airport hotel for the night (thus plunging Tiger's return on the tickets into the red, one would imagine).

At this point, poor Stanley started to get a little bit stressed out, on account of having two non-negotiable full days of work ahead of him, and staring at the possibility of heading back to Geelong until the next available evening or early-morning flight (with another airline, obviously) and meanwhile working from the Melbourne office of his employer (which he could have done but in three-day-old clothes). Poor Stanley doesn't like being thrust out of his comfort zone. In addition, the 12-year-old, who has autism, and who is on considerable quantities of medication (which we had now run out of) and a restricted diet (ditto), also needed to be considered. (We have played the autism card before when travelling, but this time it wasn't going to work, obviously, because there was nobody to play it to.)

Meanwhile the rumour mill was saying that if enough people pulled out they would cancel the flight anyway, assuming there was actually a plane coming, in which case we would all be stuffed.

Our decision was to stick it out. We tried to get blankets and pillows for the boys, but of course there weren't any, even for those prepared to pay extra for them. I ended up reading most of a Philip Pullman book to the boys to help pass the time. Fortunately he is always very readable. Second meal vouchers were handed out. (How much money was Tiger actually going to lose in order to get us home?) This time we sensibly exchanged them for bottles of water, and ice creams all round (to hell with the restricted diet).

Gradually we were able to piece together, in a reasonably believable fashion, that there was a plane for us, it was coming from Brisbane, and when it had flown us to Canberra it would be flying some poor buggers from Canberra back to Melbourne on what was supposed to be a 7.15 pm flight.

Around 10.30 pm, I noticed some people who could conceivably have been disembarking passengers walking past a couple of glass doors some distance from where I was sitting. Fifteen minutes later, we were again called to the boarding gate (at which point cheers went up around the departure lounge), and some time later we were let through into a covered walkway, where we stood, in the chill night air, for some 10 or 15 minutes more. At this point the 12-year-old became convinced that we were never going to get home, and that, even if we did, our suitcase would surely not be coming.

Eventually they let us onto the plane. The pilot helpfully and comprehensively explained the reason behind all this messing about: "We had some issues this morning." Thanks for that.

We arrived in Canberra at 12.35 am. (Our suitcase arrived, too.) There is not much happening at Canberra airport at that time of the day. If we had had trouble getting our car out of the car park I don't know what we would have done. But all was well. (Six days later we are all still recovering, though.)

During the course of the week, and of course we have been relating this story quite a bit, it has emerged that pretty much everybody who has flown Tiger has a similar story to tell. It seems as if the date and time of your flight is, as they say, "indicative only". They will get you where you want to go, but when they will get you there is something you will find out when it happens. The other thing we have discovered is the large number of people who have flown with Tiger once only, and will not be doing so again. I suspect you might be able to include us in that category.