By Rachael Gillett
IN THE LATE 1980s there were just two airlines with direct scheduled flights from the UK to Cyprus – British Airways and Cyprus Airways – and they fixed the prices between them shamelessly and ruthlessly.
Cyprus Airways and its check-in desk at Heathrow airport was my very first introduction to the island when I moved here in August 1987. And in those early years, Heathrow airport was the location of many tearful goodbyes with family as yet another annual summer holiday back home came to an end.
But before the farewells had come the Cyprus Airways check-in. Back in the days before the snaking queue, it was a process fraught with tension as you fought to keep your place in the line. Inevitably, some large, elderly woman and her myriad relatives would try to muscle in and push in front with trolley upon trolley of suitcases bursting with the spoils of days spent shopping on Oxford St.
The frustration of checking in would be offset by the knowledge that Cyprus Airways’ weight allowance was always an approximate value. There was never a question of paying for excess baggage, a fact that the large, elderly woman and her myriad relatives abused with gay abandon.
The stress of travelling Cyprus Airways did not start at the check-in, however. A few days before flying, there was the tortuous process of trying to contact the airline to reconfirm your flight back to Cyprus. Quite why a flight that had already been booked and paid for had to be reconfirmed was never made clear, and Cyprus Airways never made it easy.
In the days before the internet and mobile phones, it meant calling the airline or finding a travel agent to do it instead. The lines would be constantly engaged or you would be kept on hold for ages.
I remember one particularly stressful day trying to call Cyprus Airways from a pay phone in a Yorkshire village pub. When I finally got through, they kept me on hold as my stock of coins diminished rapidly, only to disappear completely before I could speak to a member of staff.
The flight experience was equally challenging. The air stewards never seemed to accept they were really just glorified waiters and so could be outrageously rude and arrogant, but this was offset by the liberal quantities of free alcohol they would serve and their total acceptance that smoking was an inalienable human right.
And the clapping of the passengers – the large, elderly woman and her myriad relatives among them – as the plane touched down at the old Larnaca airport never failed to bring tears to my by then tipsy eyes.
After years of deserting Cyprus Airways once the duopoly was finally broken and cheaper airlines arrived going to more conveniently situated airports, I travelled on the CY Heathrow flight again last year. The memories flooded back. Times had changed. The alcohol no longer flowed so freely and smoking on board was a shocking and distant memory.
The staff had become remarkably polite, the politeness factor apparently increasing in inverse proportion to the airline’s fortunes.
But there was one lingering holdover from the old days. As the plane touched down at Heathrow, a smattering of elderly passengers put their hands together and clapped, which brought tears to my stone-cold sober eyes.