A Letter from London by Alexia Saoulli
One thing I love about living in London is how easy it is to visit friends and family in Northern Ireland. One thing I hate is the use of budget airlines to get there.
It’s not the ‘no frills’ part of the experience that gets to me, it’s all those rules and regulations. Rules and regulations that often make the whole travelling experience more stressful. Rules and regulations which if broken result in paying through the nose to make up for it.
Not too long ago I had the pleasure of using one such budget airline. The reason was less about cost – given the ticket was not exactly cheap – and more about airport location.
Getting to Belfast International airport from London Luton was no bother. In fact the trip from start to finish was a pleasurable one. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the return journey, even if it did start out with such promise.
I leave the house and get to the airport in good time and pass through passport control ok. The security personnel in Northern Ireland can be a tad on the pernickety side at the best of times. Thankfully the guys at Belfast International are always so much more pleasant than the ones at Belfast City Airport and so I got through without a bother.
I even get to my gate on time. I found an empty seat and wait for boarding to commence. I knew it wouldn’t be long because I could see a man from the airline marching purposefully to the gate wearing one of those bright yellow windbreakers with reflective markings on it. I should have figured something would go wrong when I noticed how particular he was about removing his jacket and folding it away neatly. Unfortunately hindsight is 20/20.
“Speedy boarding and airline membership cardholders first please,” he cried shrilly into the microphone.
That was me. Speedy boarding. I’d paid for seat 2D. An aisle seat and near the front. Not only would I be first on and first off, but I’d also have easy access to the toilet. A facility I nearly always use on any flight thanks to a daily water consumption regimen of at least 2litres.
Paying for your seat also has another advantage. No randomised seat allocation. Can’t think of anything worse than “the middle seat”. Being confined to a small space for more than 30 minutes doesn’t appeal to me on the best of days. Add randoms to the equation and I feel the onset of a panic attack. Such close proximity to strangers just freaks me out. I don’t know why, it just does. Especially if they’re digging into cheese and onion crisps and licking their greasy fingers with gusto and then wiping them on their jeans.
As I made my way over to the man at the gate, I knew I was a goner when he looked pointedly at my wheelie and then at my handbag.
“Miss, you’re only allowed one bag on the plane.”
I started to say that on the flight out at Luton airline staff had let me on with my handbag as well as my wheelie.
“Don’t even go there,” the bald expletive said with his nasal Belfast twang. I wanted to scream.
He then suggested I put my handbag into my wheelie.
“Not possible,” I told him.
“Are you sure?”
“Do you want to give it a try,” he said.
I wanted to say: “Fitting the contents of my handbag into my wheelie would be like trying to squeeze my size 16 derriere into size 8 jeans.”
I didn’t think he’d see the funny side of it though.
I settled for: “I do not want to give it a try. I’m sure.”
Inside I was seething. I know it’s “policy” but it seems to be “policy” whenever it suits budget airline staff. I’ve often flown with a handbag and a wheelie. So have most people I know. To make matters worse the flight was only half full.
When I later rang a cousin to moan she said that it was always this way. If they’re busy or running late they don’t notice. When they have plenty of time to look you up and down, you get caught.
Five minutes later the eager beaver came back over to me and said: “So do you want to check-in your bag?”
I said: “Can I pay you £40 and take it on board?”
The look I got in return was as if I’d asked him if he liked wearing his wife’s underwear.
“Nooooo, madame, you cannot. It’s airline policy that only ONE bag is allowed on the aircraft. So, do you want to check-it in?”
What was I supposed to say, no sunshine, leave it here? Of course I bloody wanted to check it in. The bleeding thing was costing me more than my return ticket but, hell, I had to get it home with me.
Peeved off and irritated with myself as well as the airline’s one-bag policy, and aware that I wasn’t going to get away with this in a month of Sundays, I did what any self-respecting, put-out frequent traveller does and whipped out my AMEX. If I wasn’t going to get away with it, I was going to at least ensure that they lost as much of their cut of £40 as possible.
The Rottweiler then called over his faithful sidekick who dealt with my bag. In the meantime he told everyone that the airline was operating a strict one bag policy and that they were to cram extra bags into their hand luggage, which several people quickly did. The Rottweiler made sure to give every single passenger the once over as they passed him on the way out to the plane.
Once on the aircraft the airhostess came over to my full row and told the three of us sitting there that we could move to a seat in one of the two rows behind us, as all three seats were free. The couple next to me said no thanks. I thought, too right, and proceeded to move. If I was going to pay £40 extra I was going to make sure my handbag got its very own seat, which it did.
Nestled comfortably in my seat, I prepared for takeoff; and that’s when I heard it. The sound all travellers can’t wait to hear: the wails of a teething baby. Wonderful. London Luton here I come.