Do you know the way to escape San José?: A Christmas travel nightmare

Do you know the way to escape San José?: A Christmas travel nightmare
The Man Who Pays His Way: People are deeply invested, emotionally and financially, in Christmas – during disruption, they deserve hour-by-hour updates

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

“Everything went wrong that could go wrong.” No, not the story of my life so far, but the assessment of a miserable Christmas (non-) travel experience by passengers I met at Gatwick this week.

Geir Olafsson and his new bride, Jo Mitchell, had been due to touch down at the Sussex airport on the morning of Christmas Eve. But they finally emerged from international arrivals on Boxing Day afternoon.

Two weeks earlier they had made their way to Costa Rica for what proved to be a marvellous honeymoon.

“We visited some incredible places, saw a lot of wildlife, beautiful beaches,” Geir told me. “It’s been fantastic. Brilliant people as well.”

While they enjoyed a final day beside the Pacific, over the Atlantic the British Airways (BA) plane coming to collect them suffered a cracked windshield.

The Boeing 777 landed safely at San José international airport but was in no shape to return.

The airline’s duty officer, engineers and pilots came up with a smart solution that involved combining two Christmas Eve flights back from Jamaica to free up a replacement aircraft that could be flown on to San José.

The process didn’t go as smoothly as hoped. The rescue team (together with a spare windshield) had to overnight in Montego Bay.

This is a time of year when keeping to schedule is of the essence. People are deeply invested, emotionally and financially, in Christmas. But just at the time when passengers needed hour-by-hour updates, they were infuriatingly uninformed.

“No information at all from BA,” said Geir. “Not through the app, not through email, phone calls. Nothing. No one spoke to us.”

Only when they created a Twitter account and started sending social media messages did they get any response from the airline. Their plane finally took off, 50 hours late, in the closing hours of 25 December – after yet another 90-minute hold-up due to a problem with the passenger manifest.

When I met Geir and Jo after their journey, they were remarkably sanguine – and offered some advice for British Airways.

“Just send an email,” said Geir. “You know who’s on your flight. Communicate with your passengers. That’s the least you could do.

“People would have been a lot less upset if we’d had clear communication. If they’d told us we weren’t coming back until today, we could have had at least a night out in San José.

“As it stood, because we didn’t know anything, we just sat in the hotel room for two days – waiting to hear when we might be leaving to go home.”

BA promises it will learn from the San José snarl-up. “We are already taking the necessary steps to understand why information didn’t appear to be forthcoming when that is what we expect at British Airways,” a spokesperson told me.

“On their journey to London we made a full apology and reassured our customers that we would be offering each of them a full refund and payment for any expenses, as well as the regulatory compensation [£520 in cash] they are entitled to.

“Although the gesture itself will not recover the precious time we know these customers lost over Christmas, we hope it will go some way to restore their faith in British Airways.”

Air travel goes wrong in all manner of unexpected ways. Whatever may cause the next unwelcome unravelling of travel plans for BA’s passengers, I hope the airline will be better shape to share the story as it unfolds.

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