Advantages At least the plane didn't crash
Disadvantages 33 hour delay
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In May 2001 I flew with Excel Airways from London Gatwick to Heraklion, Crete. Sadly I was supposed to be flying to Santorini some sixty miles north of our arrival point so I imagine you can tell this isn't the start of a glowing recommendation.My girlfriend and I arrived at the airport at 4am for the 6am flight. Just after checking in we were told there was going to be a two and half hour departure delay and handed a letter of explanation along with some complimentary airport vouchers. We thought that giving out vouchers, albeit only four quid’s worth (not enough for breakfast anywhere in the airport) seemed quite generous, until we read the letter that is.
This informed us that the Greek air traffic control had revoked Excel Airways' permission to land its new 767 at Santorini airport just some 2 hours earlier and because of this we would have to fly to, and I quote;"...the near by island of Heraklion."
My geographical knowledge of the Adriatic isn't that hot but I eventually discovered that this was actually the name of the airport in Crete we were flying to, the fact that the company flying me there thought this was an island in its own right worried me a trifle. Anyway this change in our destination was the reason our departure was delayed.Or so we thought. At about 8.45am with the plane fully loaded, the captain made an announcement apologising for the delay, explaining it was due to cabin crew having their legally required break before departure. Things began to get a little suss from this point on.
To make up for the delay all passengers were issued with free headphones so they could listen to the in flight entertainment. Sadly the most entertaining part about the flight was the first officer's announcement which stated that the headphone socket required 'jiggling' to work fully. I was left wondering what else on the plane needed jiggling to work fully. Landing gear? Oxygen masks? Cabin crew? The headphones would only work if you kept them firmly pressed into the socket with your knee at all times which had the added effect of continually flicking the reading light above your head on and off. Considering the film in question was 'Miss Congeniality' I decided I didn't want to draw attention to the fact that I was watching it and opted for entering the 'guess the foodstuff' competition served with the meal. (I made that bit up)So, four hours later Excel Airways' inaugural Boeing 767 touched down safely in Heraklion, Crete. The 280 or so passengers who wanted to be in Kamari, Santorini were told their holiday reps would be waiting outside to take us to the port. At this point I still quite cheerfully imagined a quick island hop and we'd be on the beach by teatime. Sadly after getting on board coach devoid of reps or Excel staff we found ourselves taken to a nearby hotel for lunch.
Here we were told by a rep that the reason we had to land on Crete was that the airport in Santorini was closed due to high winds. As you can imagine this didn't go down too well and one or two passengers started getting irate, complaining about the third different excuse they'd heard that day. After much confusion and lunch an operations manager from Excel arrived at the hotel to explain that the ferry would sail at 7pm (by now it was about 3pm) and coaches would arrive to take us to the port from 5pm onwards. What he didn't explain was that these coaches would be on a first come first served basis and would arrive full of passengers fresh from a Manchester flight in exactly the same position as ourselves!In the ensuing melee our luggage was put onto a coach and spirited down to the docks whilst my girlfriend and I were not. Things were not going well. All the while Excel Airways staff were no where to be seen. We actually left the hotel about 40 minutes after our bags did and found them safe and sound, abandoned in the ferry port car park. We had now found out Excel Airways' grand plan was to use the ferry to transport all 550 Gatwick and Manchester passengers the three and a half hour trip to Santorini with the ferry scheduled to leave now at 8pm.
If anyone is left reading this by now I'm sure you will have probably guessed the ferry didn't go anywhere. But don't worry, Excel Airways were very good and told us that they accepted it was their responsibility to get us to Santorini and would do so as effectively as they could. Well d'uh. This ferry of course now had 550 passengers on board that it wouldn't usually cater for so when Excel said we'd all be allocated a cabin what they didn't say was we'd be sharing it with total strangers. As it turned out they were perfectly pleasant total strangers, but total strangers none the less. Some people weren't even allocated cabins. This did strike me was a very cheap way of putting up a lot of people that it would be very expensive to find hotels for, maybe I'm being cynical.So there you go, the first night of everyone's holiday spent upon a motionless ferry. Oh did I mention the luggage? That was taken off us as we boarded and left in the cargo hold unattended (leaving luggage around must be an Excel policy) so no one had anything to change into unless they hunted through 550 suitcases for their own- which we did.
Well the night passed and the ferry still remained firmly in dock the operations manager refused to accept that it was Excel's responsibility to provide food for their passengers, which seemed strange because as soon as we were taken back to the same hotel we waited at the day before we were given breakfast. Of course it would be cheaper to use the hotel than the ferry to do this...We were then told that a smaller plane would be operating a shuttle service around lunchtime from Heraklion to our final destination in Santorini. As there would have to be about 5 flights the operations manager promised an increasingly angry crowd that the priority would be given to the elderly, those with children, those with only one weeks holiday (fast becoming five days worth) and then the rest. Naturally this didn't happen.
The coach drivers refused to take bags off the coaches that had brought people from the ferry. You would assume about now Excel would say something as long the lines of; 'Do you want to get paid?' Instead they acquiesced and told everyone who had bags left on coaches from the ferry-hotel trip to get back on board and get taken to the airport for the first flight to Santorini. From this point on there was a now familiar mad dash for a seat every time the coaches going to the airport arrived and instead of prioritising the flights as they promised, the best I witnessed any representative from Excel manage was to tell a crowd of about 60 people there were 6 seats left on the coach.Finally about 3pm through fair means or foul (all right it was blind luck) my girlfriend and I arrived at the airport for a 3.30pm flight. We were rushed through the check in process and then a woman from Excel told us to get through passport control quickly. Well of course she would say that wouldn't she? There were then armed guards separating us when we found the flight was leaving at 5.30pm!!
I know this is a rather drawn out account but then this was a rather drawn out experience. To cut a long story short (ahem) we were due to arrive in Santorini at about midday 1st May local time, instead we arrived at 9pm one day later after spending 33 hours not knowing where we were, what was happening or when we were likely to start our holiday. Excel Airways couldn't change the circumstances that caused our diversion but then the situation shouldn't have arisen at all. More importantly the whole ordeal would have been a lot more bearable if we'd just been told the bare rudiments of truth.Life's too short don't ever fly Excel Airways!
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