Please note: This article was initially published on my previous blog, called Arrogant and Condescending, on 15th January 2010. I’m not sure I would re-write this with as many expletives or insults if I were to re-write it, but anyway, here it is.
Sometimes traveling just doesn’t work. Maybe it’s the weather, or you’re just under it (the weather, that is), but overall, sometimes it fails miserably. Most people have pretty good experiences when flying because it’s so occasional, but when you start flying nearly as often as you drive a car, well, the same way you sometimes take that stupid right turn because someone wouldn’t let you merge, you happen to forget your wallet in the car that brought you, and whose driver will be unreachable until they reach the French border.
I didn’t want to have my mum to wait, because I knew the drive ahead of her would be tolling, so I just scuffed her away as soon as I could. The problem is that my wallet forgot to get out of the passenger door-pocket, maybe it fell asleep due to my gentle driving, or maybe it just couldn’t be bothered to get on yet another plane.
I don’t know why I put it in that specific pocket, even though I said to myself “I’d better not forget I put it there”, and as soon as the lovely (sic!) Ryanair clerk told me to go shove a Sasquatch in a fashion that is probably banned by the Geneva Convention; I knew I was in trouble.
I tried pleading my case with the Facturacion department, but other than telling me I’d have to pay a few hundred euros and that “no, even though I did warn them an hour before my departure that I wouldn’t be making the flight, they don’t do free transfers” they weren’t really helpful. Missing my flight? €14. Need to get on another flight? €100. Need to check-in luggage into that other flight? €100. Luggage is in excess of 15kg? €80. My original return flight cost me exactly €32, now, it’s up tenfold.
You’d be stupid to believe that they don’t use these usual cons, if they want to be a viable company, considering the prices they offer when you’re Mr. Perfect – the money has to come from somewhere; I just wish it were in lesser amounts, and for less ridiculous things. It doesn’t take two hours for a fairly under qualified goon to print my ticket, and my luggage would be handled exactly the same as all other passengers, so why those prohibitive prices?
I’d love to open a pub or a taxi-cab shop just across of Michael O’Leary’s house. If he came in for a pint, I’d charge him two pounds for the beer, then two pounds for the glass, five pounds for the air he’s using, eight pounds for the table and chair, and three pounds per person he’s talking to. And no, you can’t use the loo until your glass is empty. And yes, those items are for unique use, if you come back ten minutes later, they’re extras all over again. In the same fashion, I’d have him pay a subvention for the very inefficient car I’m using to drive him around, and he would have to foot the bill for the inexistent taxes. Michael, you’re a genius, but god damned, you’re a cheap bastard.
It’s the second time in a single trip that I’ve missed a flight. Nothing to be seriously proud of, but it does get me slightly worried. I’m not usually a knob when it comes to traveling, as I explained in a previous article, but why now, that I have to prove myself so much, do I mess up so much? Wasn’t the whole move to Australia enough of a challenge just on its own?
I’m about to call on a boycott of Ryanair all together. Yes, the sheer number of followers of my blog will make O’Leary tremble, I’m sure of it, but I honestly believe it is the correct thing to do. They are mistreating their customers and getting away with murder, and claim amnesty under the cheap-airline flag. The thing is that it’s no surprise the clerks and stewards behave like shit. They’re underpaid and treated like shit themselves. When people pay twenty quid for a flight, they don’t expect a great service, so they behave like obnoxious pricks. Because the parent company doesn’t provide things such as flight transfers or real customer support solutions, the only people the clerks get to deal with are pissed-off customers who are hemorrhaging money out of their pockets.
Usually I shy away from statements such as “corporations are killing the world”, but in this case, it truly is the case. It’s not the people who work for Ryanair who desperately want to ruin your journey or day. It’s not the travelers who want to feel like squashed cumquats and cattle just after or before hugging family and friends. In this very specific case, it is the company’s policies that screw up the whole deal.
Maybe Ryanair can get away with it in a day where people are unrealistically out-of-sync with the world around them, and keep feeling they don’t have any money (as that is the only thing TVs seem to say these days), so they keep getting sucked into the low prices advertised on the main website.
When I started writing this post, it was Tuesday. It had just dawned upon me that I wouldn’t be making my flight, and every ten minutes I’d be calling my mum’s phone to try and get her to turn around. At some point, she picked up, turned her car around in front of the Mossos d’Esquadra and set off to pick me up. All is well.
Then came Wednesday. I had paid the price and had a flight the next day, awesome. So we set off again to try and reach the beautiful world of Gerona-Costa Brava airport. This time, we thought, we’d learnt our lesson. Nobody leaves the airport until I’m safely through security, ready to embark. Right. I sat down in the airport lounge, after having bought some cigarettes (more expensive in a Spanish duty-free than flying back from the US), and set out reading one of the excellent books I’d received for Christmas. The flight was a bit late and people were growing impatient; but this being Ryanair I wasn’t too muffed. I blew it all off as people started shouting and yelling at the staff (see paragraph above), but then some alarm went off. The screens around the gate went from the usual yellow text on top of grey backgrounds (seemingly this still is the 80s) to a more worrying white on flashing red, reading: “CANCEL”. Oh you are shitting me.
They told us to stuff some more lovely fruit in violation of the Geneva Convention, and then let us out through the back exit. As we were walking outside to get our luggage from the carousel, I saw four different planes unloading their passengers as well. So I waited again for a bit, but knowing that I couldn’t ask my taxi to turn around once more, I just hired a car and drove off.
Before driving off though, I jumped the queue of boiling passengers with the lamest opening line ever (So guys any news on what’s happening, do we know if there are any other flights), and gotten myself a ticket for the next day, at least this one was free of charge.
As the flight was late in the evening, I left around six in the evening. Rain was pissing down as I loaded my stuff in the car, and a lot of people were shouting on the radio as I set off towards Spain for the third time in three days. The family called again, warning me that the sister had seen cars covered in snow come down from the mountains. I decided I might want to listen to what the shouting people were saying on the radio, and as I did, they announced that France was being invaded again, but not by Germans, just cold weather. I was heading towards the Autoroute and the tollgates were guarded by wet Gendarmes denying access to anyone who wanted to go to Spain. I knew talking to them was useless, so I drove across both sides of the triple-lane highway towards the local Autoroute control centre. I ran out of the car, and saw some woman rushing back inside, I knocked on the window, and as she mouthed that she didn’t have any time, I mouthed back “JOURNALISTE”. She opened up and explained that the border was closed; trucks had slipped out of control and were clogging up everything. She then asked to see my journalist credentials, at which point I ran off and took the b-roads.
I drove up to Le Boulou which is the last significant town before Spain, and also the last place you can get on the Autoroute before crossing the border. The tollgates were closed there, too, so I decided to listen to the radio again. They explained that indeed the Autoroutes had been closed, but the b-roads seemed to still be in working order. Off we went then. I should mention that at this point, between Perpignan and Le Boulou, it had started to snow pretty harshly. You could barely see ten meters in front of the car, and Catalan people don’t really know how to handle a heater, let alone drive in snowy conditions.
There’s a reason the English word for “small and dangerous” roads is “b-road”: in a mountain-filled area, any road except the main highway seems to be circling around the whole without ever reaching your destination.
Combine the above fact with thickening snow and incompetent drivers and quickly realise that the slow pace at which you are crawling is actually hurrying you towards the seventh layer of hell itself. Anyone with more grip than an old lady on a frozen lake sped up and took over any and all cars they could. Obviously, the truckers had been listening to the radio as well, and they too knew that the only way to get through to Spain was through this very specific road. Some people were turning around, most people were spinning out of control, and some BMW SUV owners suddenly understood why the Range Rover’s club laughed at them hysterically while pointing at things such as locked diff and low-range gears. I didn’t know if the rental car had snow tyres so I just squished the Seat behind a big bus that definitely had snow tyres and was carving a nice safe track into the snow, and started the comfy unending inching towards Spain. But that would’ve been too easy.
Over the next few kilometers, quite a few cars managed to get stuck. The Romanians (inhabitants of the bus) popped out every ten minutes to push a car out of the way (or at least get it back going forward). When we arrived about one kilometer before the entrance of Le Perthus—a small town that lies right atop of the Franco-Spanish border, famous for its cheap booze and cigarettes—right before the main bridge that leads to it, things started slowing down pretty badly. The car in front of me (the Romanians had taken off at some point when I was explaining a poor woman how to drive in icy conditions) was sadly driven by an incompetent woman, who was scared, panicked, and being yelling at by her husband who was aimlessly pushing at the car to try and get it find some magical grip. To top it all off, on the other side of the road (mountain-side), a truck had slipped out and was stuck in a V shape as the main car was being pulled backwards by the weight of the load. After about five to six minutes of pushing at the car, the mob that was being held up behind boiled over and decided to push the car away, off the road, onto a big patch of thick snow. I couldn’t stop the mob of some fifteen-odd people (and judging by the look of rage on their faces, I’m happy I didn’t try to be heroic) and started driving away. As I pushed forward, I understood why the poor woman was having to much trouble. Not only was the road going up, and leaning to the right, it was covered with at least an inch of rock-hard ice. After wiggling the car around for a minute or two, I managed to escape from the icy devil, and then drove on towards Le Perthus. I arrived maybe ten minutes later (because of the road block with the truck and the big lob of ice the road was covered with a dozen centimeters of snow) at the next road show. Now this was the entrance of Le Perthus (which locals and alcoholics will recognize as quite slope-y), and movement was fairly quick, yet, I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of cars were coming down.
This was a pretty good sign. Cars coming through from Spain meant the Spanish side had been taken care of, and they were well prepared. Just a hundred meters to go, maybe a couple of though spots due to the inclination of the road, but I was there. At this point, I might still catch the flight towards Gatwick if I broke the speed limit on the highway. However, as the cars were driving down, one of them opened the window, and yelled “ILS ONT FERME LA FRONTIERE, LES ESPAGNOLS NE LAISSENT PASSER PERSONNE” (They’ve closed the border, the Spaniards don’t allow anyone through). Now I had just driven up, and hence knew how difficult it was; even though the car handled beautifully and offered a lot more grip than most other cars I was seeing around me, I also knew that there was no way I could drive down.
As I was smoking a decisive cigarette, a snowplough appeared behind me, a couple of cars down. I jumped up in front and told an Audi driver to get out of his car while I got his useless S3 couple dozen meters further, walking down, I told everyone to move to one side of the road. What we needed was for that snowplough to get through, as it would make everyone’s job a helluva lot easier. I pushed some cars to the side, helped them out again. How is it possible to have such hopeless drivers concentrated on one single road?
Finally, I got to Le Perthus. A Gendarme told me to park the car as far as I could to the right of the road, and that there was a shelter higher up in the town. I got my scarf and beanie out of the car, then proceeded to check out this much famed five star shelter I had heard so much about over the past two minutes.
It wasn’t much. As I walked in, some sixty-odd people looked up, every single one of them sharing that look of despair on their face, every smashing of the door lighting the fire of hope for good news. You could almost see them swearing at themselves for falling for it again. Some woman told me coffee was underway and told me to go and get a seat. I didn’t, obviously.
I asked her where the fire brigade was; she pointed me to a pimply-faced youth who didn’t look old enough to watch some of the movies shown on French TV on Saturdays. He assured me that he was a Pompier Volontaire, which somehow was meant to make me feel any better. Nonetheless, I recruited the kid, figuring he might be useful at some point, and told him we were going to walk down towards the car that had been pushed off the road. I wanted to make sure everyone would be aware of this shelter, instead of staying trapped like idiots. He asked how far it was, and when I told him a kilometer or two, his blood blanked. He mustered up some courage (well actually, I just pushed him through the door), and off we went.
Walking down, we told everyone we saw that there was a refuge, that they should park their car as far off to the right as they could, and go spend the night there. We told them the border was closed, and wouldn’t open before quite some time. We told them that if they could, they ought to try and turn around and go down; the Autoroute might open a lot sooner than this passage. People were extremely grateful for our efforts. They didn’t bark back at us as they did when I was a simple motorist. Now, I was the guy walking down the mountain to offer help, and bringing a bit of good news. I was offering alternatives and answers rather than simply letting people in the cold, depending on solely their gas tank. A trucker offered me a sandwich and a cup of coffee, but didn’t do the same to my mute colleague, so I kindly declined. As we reached the crash site, the situation had worsened. Now, instead of just one truck immobilized across half of the road, there were two. The small passage left by the first truck I had passed initially (passage which was proudly covered by ice, remember) had been enough hope for an insane FOURTY-FOUR TONNER to try and get through. With each and every try, he was slipping to the right, until finally the driver gave up, and went to drink coffee.
The issue with this was that now the whole mountaintop was cut-off civilization. The gap between the two trucks was barely wide enough to allow a regular-sized American through, so cars were quite simply out of the question. When an ambulance showed up, explaining that they had an emergency to attend, the truck drivers knew they were going to be seriously in trouble. You see, any truck over eleven tonnes was banned from this road since around 5PM; and these puppies were weighing in around 44 tonnes and 35 tonnes each. I explained the situation to the Dutch truck driver, and told him that if he didn’t get himself out of this mess, he was facing a prison sentence if the person the ambulance was here for died. This didn’t make him budge at all. Then I told him that if he didn’t move, they would probably ram his truck off the road. This, on the other hand, did struck a chord with the bloke. About ten minutes later, he’d given up on going up, and decided to use reverse and left a gap wide enough for cars, ambulance and snowploughs. I helped the Gendarmes coordinate a bit for the next half hour, and helped a long queue of cars to either get own of the snow, turn around, or just abandon ship and walk the ten minute walk to the shelter.
After about two hours outside, I was started to be really cold, and was having a very hard time talking and forming my thoughts. It was one of the strangest feelings ever, not being able to hold a thought for as long as you want to. I decided it’d be best to go back to the shelter and get some warmth in me. The woman who’d welcomed me the first time couldn’t believe the state I was in. My jeans were completely soaked, and most of the lower leg covered in sticky icy snow. My coat had become more of a sponge at this point, and had a dirty beige look, rather than the usual dirty black, my t-shirt, jumper, shoes and socks hadn’t so much changed colour as they had appeared to have slurped up a lake. As long as the water was frozen, this is usually all right, however, my body heat was now high enough to defrost water, and the room temperature was just cold enough to ensure a nice and nasty cold. I drank up some hot coffee and chocolate, ate a boudoirand went to see the fire brigade to see if I could help.
The truth is, asking that question was kind of pointless. They would’ve been more relieved if I told them what to do. So I did. The main issue at this point was with the big lumps of raw ice that had formed on the road. These were the biggest danger and clogging up the roads. Snow is pretty much fine as long as you have a tiny bit of inertia, and don’t accelerate like an idiot, but ice will send your car going sideways without any remorse if it is thick enough. I told the fire brigade to go empty a wheelie bin and fill it up with salt. They didn’t understand. I explained to them that as long as the queue of cars was blocking the snowploughs, the roads would be in a bad state, and as long as the roads were in a bad state, the cars would be blocking the snowploughs: The only way forward was to allow the cars to move out of the way, and the easiest way to do so was by salting the road manually, and for that, wheelie bins are the best tool. The mighty brigade thought the idea was brilliant, and went all off in different directions, all before anyone had made a plan. What we ended up with was a bunch of idiots coming back with empty bins from around the small town (I’m suspecting some inhabitants must’ve had quite a surprise in the morning, discovering rotten tomatoes staining the pearly-white snow). The problem was that they hadn’t figured out where to get the salt from, and one of them was running around screaming he had to get on the radio to ask permission from his Captain.
Surprisingly enough, we made it through the night. The temperature inside the refuge was horrible, a lot of people started coughing and sneezing, and even though the Loonies Brigade asked for reinforcements from neighbouring cities, there wasn’t enough food, nor hot drinks, and even less heating or blankets. People were being stupid, covering every single heater with their wet clothes. The only thing they ended up with were mildly warm soaked clothes. Again, I forced people who were seemingly in charge to go around the hall and tell people off. As I did, I honestly saw fear in the poor women’s eyes. They were scared to ask people to stop being selfish. And they were very right to do so. When I first went round, people simply ignored me. When I came round a second time, with a hi-vis vest and a flashlight, and shone it right in their angry faces they cooperated a lot better. I told people to work with the staff, that we were in this all together. It’s amazing how people will sheepishly give in when you force them, rather than ask them nicely.
People react exactly like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings; “My Precious, mine”. But give them a kick in the shingles, they’ll reply: “But Master is our friend”. It’s a fucking shame people are such bastards, even when in a situation which could definitely use some friendliness.
Every hour or so, Kevin, the only firefighter left (everyone else had gone home) turned-temporary-best-friend and myself would brave the storm and check the status of the surrounding roads and go bring some coffee to the guys on the border (coffee or hot chocolate seemingly being the best way to bribe Spanish officials during a cold night into sharing some information). Around six in the morning, the roads were pretty much cleared up, and the snowplough’s driver explained that it was safe to go down. Kevin ran up to the refuge, wanting to yell out the good news. I actually had to throw a snowball at him to stop the plonker. I explained that we first needed to go and clear the FrogBus from the surrounding snow, so that the biggest load of people could leave first. We still had no information regarding neither border nor Autoroute, so we couldn’t send out anyone who was heading to Spain. In essence, the only people we could send home were those who were going back to France.
We went back to the fire station to pick up some equipment, and then set off to clear the bus. We went and got the driver, told him to go warm up the bus, and ready himself to leave for Perpignan. We tried to do it quietly, we didn’t want everyone leaving at the same time; the roads were still slippery like fuck, and overall, all but one car was stuck in the snow, mine. We allowed one car to leave every ten minutes, that’s how long it took to dig the cars out, and teach them how to drive if they got stuck again. On a couple of cars, we actually let out some air from the tyres as they were nearly driving with slicks.
I don’t remember when I left, and I don’t remember that much of the drive home. I do, however, very clearly remember thinking “Oh my, there’s something wrong with the steering, the car keeps going left and right even though I keep the steering wheel straight on”. It’s only the next day that I retrospectively understood that there was a huge amount of wind that was pushing the car around; the steering was fine. Thinking of it now, I can’t believe how tired I was: I don’t remember coming home, I don’t remember getting into bed, I don’t remember what time I woke up. I do remember being very irritable the day after.
In the end, I managed to fly back to the UK on Saturday evening. It was a shit flight, everyone was fed up and everyone had had enough. I saw a few Brits that were at the refuge the other night. As I was driving towards the airport, I was thinking about the article I’m writing now. I had started writing it on Tuesday, and was very pissed off with Ryanair. Then I had continued writing it on Wednesday, and was even more pissed off with them. Since then, I’ve been writing at this on Saturday, and maybe a dozen other times ever since. Now? I’m flying from Sydney to Brisbane, and snow is just a bad dream now. I hear China is having a pretty bad streak, but I don’t care. I’ve done enough in one night.
As I was thinking about the article, I was thinking I shouldn’t be pissed off. People are doing very hard work, and it’s not because management is incompetent as a whole that the whole company should be shitcanned. Then I changed my mind again. Fuck it, yes; the whole company should be sacked. Kill the bastards, every single one of them. I will never, EVER, fly with Ryanair again. I did send them a very eloquent fax asking them for a commercial gesture, saying that I had been a pretty regular customer of theirs, as was my family, and that this streak of bad luck could surely be taken care of. I received a phone call not even twenty minutes after I had sent the fax. The person presented herself as head of Customer Satisfaction for Ryanair; three hundred billion Indians must introduce themselves like that in a call-center near Mumbai. She explained quickly that snow was my fault (why yes, of course). That, had I had subscribed to their insurance, I would’ve been covered (she later retracted that). That, had Ryanair not canceled the flight I couldn’t claim anything.
I asked if I could speak to her manager. She said he was already on the phone (no surprise there) and couldn’t take my call. I asked her if he could call me back, she answered she would pass the message. I asked her if there was any chance I could get the money back based on all the extra luggage allowance I had to pay for. That I didn’t understand how the clerk could have estimated the weight of my hand luggage considering that she weighed it at the same time that my main luggage was on the scale as well. She wouldn’t bulge. I gave up. Still waiting for the manager’s call.
Ryanair is a con. Hidden under the low-price flag, they con their customers. They milk the cow, and abuse every single consumer law. They charge in euros when they should be offering the choice between euros and pounds (legal requirement for transport between Eurozone countries and exterior countries). They have the lowest limit of luggage allowance, and demand a humongous overpriced amount of money per excess kilogram (20 euros per kg). I just flew from London to Brisbane with the exact same bags and nobody even questioned me. Price of the flight to Brisbane? Less than double what I paid to Ryanair last week to go from Girona to London.
Anyway, ‘nuff said.