27 January 2012

Lessons from a missed plane

For the first time in my life, I missed a plane this week. But it was a chance for a little moment of growth.

I was booked on the 15:40 bus from Stratford (London) to Stansted. Normally this takes 45-50 minutes, so I arrive over two hours before my plane departs at 18:40. I don't mind leaving early as I generally have lots to read, and this way I have a nice margin of safety.

Ha. The A12 was closed due to a potential suicide (try not to read too many of the comments on that article, as the stupid may make your head explode) and every road in and out of East London was pretty much blocked solid. The bus which arrived at 15:55 was actually the scheduled service from 15:10, so the Irish man sitting next to me who'd got on at Liverpool Street was already looking very nervous about his 17:00 departure to Dublin.

As we crawled up Leytonstone High Street, a German passenger approached the driver. He wanted to get off, because he knew that he had no chance of making his flight, so he preferred to get the Tube back into town rather than make a fruitless journey to the Cambridgeshire/Essex border and back. The driver was reluctant ("elf 'n' safety"), and I was half-expecting a shouting match, but to my surprise he took up the German guy's suggesting to call his depot and he was given permission to let people off at the next bus stop.

After this, we carried on, well below walking pace, for what seemed like forever, while 50 kilometres to our north, gates were closing and planes were taking off without us on board. A man aged about 30 was sitting across the corridor from me and asking the driver if he, too could get off.

I asked him when his flight was; he told me the time, which put him in the "unlikely" bracket - towards which my own departure was also starting to slip. I suggested that he stay on the bus anyway, as I intended to do: you never know, I said, the flight could be delayed, and if you get off the bus and later find that the plane was an hour late, you'll kick yourself. He though about it for a moment and seemed convinced. "Driver", he announced, "I'm going to follow this gentleman's suggestion, and maybe I will make it to my plane".

The two of us, seated in the front rows of the bus, chatted to the driver for the rest of the journey; he seemed pleased to have non-hostile customers between him and some of the more nervous-looking people behind him, on what he said was his worst-ever journey in five years as a bus driver. (During the last ten minutes of the trip, he over-ran his maximum 4.5 hours of driving time. I don't think that he would have pulled over and taken his mandatory 45-minute break anyway, but perhaps our input helped. Mark, mate, you did a great job.)

We arrived at Stansted at 18:50, ten minutes after the scheduled departure time of my flight. To my surprise, it was still up on the departure boards, saying "Check-in closed". No other flight with a departure time within half a minute was up there, so I realised that it was most probably delayed. I didn't have a bag to check in, so I headed straight to security, which took far less time than usual. Into the departure area, the flight is still up... "Gate Closed". Yes, but... maybe they're still counting boarding cards. No gate number, though. I asked somebody whose job wasn't to know this sort of thing (you have to pick up a phone, as there is no information desk at Stansted; presumably it would take up valuable selling-you-stuff room), and she guessed a gate number. I ran down there, getting extra directions on the way from people in Ryanair uniforms. Got to the gate... damn! The plane was sitting there, the door had just closed, and nobody was to be seen.

I trudged back the whole length of the terminal - about a kilometre, I reckon - calling Mrs Brown to ask her to get me a ticket for the next day's flight before it filled up. Then we had some fun and games to get back "landside", through some secret doors, and I bought a bus ticket back to London.

I slept all the way. When we arrived, I grabbed my bag and walked to the Tube station, right next to the bus stop. I felt a tap on my elbow; it was the man who had decided to stay on the late bus, who had come back at the same time as me. I said, "I guess you didn't catch your plane, then". He smiled and said "No, but I don't regret having stayed on the bus. I might have caught the plane, and I know I did everything I could. Thank you." And he shook my hand.

It didn't stop missing my flight from costing me over a hundred pounds, but I think the world was a very slightly better place than it otherwise might have been.

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