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Great Escapes: Our worst airline trip ever

You can have uncomfortable seats, long delays and bad food, but that doesn’t quite match two strike-hit flights, stolen seats, lost tickets and the threat of arrest by air marshalls as Jimmy and Sue encountered on their first “romantic” flight together.

We were talking the other day about bad travel experiences and it got to the worst flight (or flights) ever. For that we have to go back a way, which may just be an indication of how much air travel has improved in the last 30 years.

The travel arrangements were tricky to begin with.  Sue and I had met in New Zealand a year earlier and we were on our way back to the UK to get married in her home town in Essex (yes, she’s an Essex girl … but not that kind).

Because we had met when we were both in separate mid-circuits of the globe, and as a result had disjointed tickets to use up. We were going to fly back to the UK on Qantas via Bangkok, take separate flights out of London to Fort Worth in Texas, then join up there for the final leg back to Sydney, via San Francisco and Hawaii (I think).

More Bangkok for your buck

We flew “non-smoking” (remember that?) and problem number one occurred when we got to Bangkok and Qantas workers went on strike (remember strikes?).  We called up the emergency contact number and they told us they’d get in touch as soon as they could get us flights on to London.

“Hang on a minute,” I said before the irritated Qantas rep could hang up.  ‘Under IATA regulations, aren’t you required to provide accommodation?”

“I suppose,” she sighed heavily and directed us to an airport hotel where we would be billeted, fed and watered until they could find us seats for the onward journey.

This wasn’t so bad.  The hotel was a bit better than the one we’d been staying in and our only complaint was that we wouldn’t be able to get to the UK to “post the banns” in time for the wedding. BTW: We got Sue’s Dad to do it so, technically, I suspect we’re not officially married.

Thai-ed and tested

The flight out was on Thai Airlines via Mumbai.  A man who joined the flight in India and took the seat next to mine was an American misanthrope who, among other “angry man” actions, stuck his knees into the back of the seat in front to stop the passenger reclining. Even when the steward was fiddling with the seat mechanism, he sat resolutely knees up, looking innocent.

We got to England and the wedding went well. After a trip up to Scotland to visit my folks, we carried on.  I was on United or American to Dallas/Fort Worth and Sue was flying Pan Am (remember them?) via New York to join me.

My flight was diverted via Chicago and then delayed due to a violent storm somewhere but I was making progress, although slower than I had thought.  Sue got to New York and Pan Am went on strike and she was stuck there for a night.

While there she managed to cause a stramash in the hotel breakfast buffet by refusing to pay for the contents of her plate as individual items, rather than the set price, because she hadn’t taken bacon.

The individual items cost a bit more and the desk clerk was insisting on adding them up.  All Hell broke loose, apparently, when other guests said they hadn’t had the bacon either but had only been charged the “big breakfast” lower price. The cashier insisted they come back to the till and pay the extra.

Texas arranger

Now, these were the days before mobile phones so the only way we could keep track of each other was by calling via landlines to our friend Barry in Texas, with whom we were due to be staying.

But finally we both arrived safely and we had a terrific time, including my first and only July 4th in the USA which, because this was Texas, was bigger than Ben Hur.

The first hurdle on the way home was when we tried to leave DFW.  The tickets back then were carbon backed slips of flimsy paper in a booklet (remember them?).

‘I’m sorry, honey,’ the check-in lady said to Sue. ‘I can fly you from London to here but I can’t fly you from here to anywhere.’ Clearly someone in London had torn out the wrong slip from the booklet.  A few tense phone calls later and the staff member nodded and smiled, we were free to travel.

Unhappy landing

There were a couple of stops en route to San Fran, one of which was Laramie, where we were told we had an hour to kill so we could get off and stretch our legs if we wanted.

We did – who doesn’t want to take a rare opportunity to set foot in a legendary cowboy town? – but when we got back on the plane, someone had taken our seats. Not only that, they weren’t moving, literally holding determinedly on to their seats so we couldn’t shift them if we wanted to.

The stewardess told us we had to get off the plane.  I refused.  She said if we didn’t, we’d be arrested by air marshalls for failing to obey the instructions of a crew member, which was and still is a serious offence.

Back at the gate, one of the ground staff was telling us that there were no seats on the flight so we would have to wait for the next one, several hours later. We explained that we had a connecting flight to catch so that wasn’t feasible. And anyway, it was their error so they had to fix it.

Meanwhile a guy at the immediately adjacent desk was talking into a microphone:  “Would passengers Williams and Thomson please make their way to Gate 13 where their plane is awaiting departure.”

“Listen to your colleague,’ Sue said. “He’s calling our names.’

‘Don’t tell me who to listen to, Ma’am,” she said.  “You should be listening to me.”

“OK, listen to this,” I said. “Our luggage is in the hold of that plane and if it takes off without us, the airline and you will be committing a Federal offence under IATA rules.”

Now, I had no idea if the International Air Transport Association had any such regulation – or if there was any such federal crime – I was making it up as I went along. But mentioning IATA did the trick in Bangkok and it worked here too. 

A few minutes later we were sitting the jump seats usually reserved for crew members, en route for San Francisco, Hawaii and home.

Sitting pretty (angry)

That should have been it, but the mischievous gods of air travel weren’t finished with us yet. The plane landed in Hawaii and filled up with a lot of military types.

A stewardess came up asked Sue if she would mind moving seats so that a father and daughter could sit together.  On reflection, they probably saw two different names on the manifest and decided we were probably not travelling together.

They should have checked.  This turned out to be the last straw for my blushing bride who turned her steely gaze on the stewardess and said: “I am on my f****ng honeymoon, and I’m not moving for you or anyone else.”

That was 35 years ago in July, despite the strike-hit flights, stolen seats, lost tickets and the threat of arrest she’s now an award-winning travel writer and we are still married.  Well, almost.

Read more of Jimmy’s travel writing HERE, writing HERE and HERE on Flat Chat

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