Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Why our 'friendly' airline has lost me as passenger

I went to London for a short holiday in July, relaxed and looking forward to the break. I travelled by Aer Lingus and it was my first experience of Terminal Two, that vast extravaganza, costing us a wasted fortune and now, in cool and indifferent splendour, presided over by our own airline.

The airline is changed, becoming more authoritarian and rigorous, as I was to discover. I took the bus from Dalkey having ascertained the journey would take 50 minutes, bringing me to the terminal between 10 and five minutes before the hour, 45 minutes before my flight at 14h40.

Early afternoon traffic slightly delayed us and at Terminal Two I entered my automatic check-in number only to be told to go immediately to the late-flight-desk.

On the way I found myself behind a traveller who was looking for Solpadeine. The single official on duty was telling him that he could get the drug on the floor below or on two floors above. In the vast space around us it was, on the official's side, a lyrical set of instructions. Three times I tried to interrupt and get to my gate. Three times I was told to wait my turn. Eventually I got through and hurried to the late-flight desk.

There I was told I was too late for the flight. It was then 10 minutes past two, half-an-hour before the scheduled departure time for my flight. The girl told me I could buy a ticket for the next flight, assuring me there were seats. She pointed towards the ticket desk nearby. I was behind three other passengers and it was 2.20pm when I got to the counter clerk. He checked his monitor, looked across at the woman who had sent me there with a faint expression of surprise, but said nothing. He issued the ticket and a boarding pass, charging me €75.

I had time to kill and considered whether to explore the Solpadeine trail, perhaps needing the drug to calm me down. Instead. I went directly to the departure lounge two flights up, under the vast architectural canopy that was also vastly echoing and empty.

I joined another queue, quite a short one, and checked through my small bag. It was 14h40, departure time for my original flight. I checked the monitor out of idle curiosity, finding to my surprise that the original flight I had booked was still shown as 'boarding' at gate 409.

The gates were close to the departure lounge so I decided to check if I could still get on my booked flight. There was a queue still boarding at gate 409, perhaps 30 people. I went to the head of the queue, explained what had happened and, when asked, showed my boarding pass to the later flight.

I got the first intelligent response that day from an Aer Lingus official whose immediate concern was with passenger care.

The young man told me to sit down on a seat beside the queue. He shortly returned with a new boarding pass inviting me to join the queue. He tore up the one for the later flight.

I was the last passenger to board. It was 2.45pm, five minutes later than the scheduled time for departure. We did not move out from the stand until 2.55pm and were airborne by 3.05pm, 25 minutes behind schedule.

How was it possible that the flight was still open when the woman at the desk had said it was closed nearly an hour before? Aer Lingus gained for themselves a penalty fee of €75 and lost a lifelong passenger.

When I returned home I took up the matter with the company. It is not easy to telephone Aer Lingus. The idea of the discussion of complaints is not facilitated.

I did eventually get through to an extremely polite man who took me carefully through the details as they are set out above and as recorded in notes made at the time.

I gave the sequence, adding the time spent at different desks and other locations on my way from the airport coach to lift-off.

Much of the 15 minutes this encounter took was 'on hold' and occupied by me listening to truly appalling music. It was interrupted from time to time with further polite queries. Eventually, the man confirmed that all my details were correct. The flight had done what I said it did, my timings were accurate.

The second ticket and the second boarding pass had been checked against the passenger list for the second flight and, indeed, I had not been on it.

He told me, however, I had been late on arrival and Aer Lingus were not prepared to refund my €75.

This is the new Aer Lingus, trying to be more like Ryanair than Ryanair is and doing it with an entirely new frigid determination.

This was evident in the first man I met, who engaged in a lengthy disquisition with another passenger about the airport locations for medical products, costing me valuable and, as it turned out, expensive time.

The woman at the late-flight was wrong to say the flight had closed. It was she who had closed it, on a technicality.

She put new company policy above the needs of her passenger, breaking the first universal rule for travel -- to help the traveller. Her action in sending me to buy another ticket represented no possible attempt to facilitate me in the easy matter of getting on to the flight I had booked.

I sensed that the man on the ticket desk realised this.

I HAVE flown Aer Lingus to and from the UK and US and elsewhere for the past half-century, coming to a reasonable understanding of Aer Lingus's kindly and essentially flexible approach in the past, probably at a cost to the airline but creating a distinguished travel culture in which the whole country trusted.

Clearly, it is no longer there. Aer Lingus has become a brash and frigid replica of Ryanair while still failing to meet Ryanair standards in terms of punctuality of take-off.

So goodbye Aer Lingus -- hello Ryanair! Or British Midland, or ferry boats and road travel, or a coach and horses, or just a horse, and I'll start all over again.