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Plane Time

Plane time works only one way. It works in favour of the plane. If the plane is on time you have to rush, check in on time, allow 20 minutes to go through security, maybe allow 15 minutes to walk to the Departure Gate. The Gate Number might only be revealed to you 30 minutes before take-off, so while you’re walking for those 15 minutes the Departure Boards will indicate the Gate Number for a few seconds. They will then flash “Gate Closing”, and then, long before you have arrived at the Gate, they will display “Final Call”. So you break into a run. You even run on the moving walkway, bouncing along wondering if it would be quicker to sprint along the solid floor beside the moving walkway.

And if the plane is delayed you have to wait, you and hundreds of other people. You know that any display of annoyance could be interpreted as a sign of Air Rage, even before you are allowed onto the plane. So you suck it up. If you’re stuck at the Departure Gate you might be grateful that you’re not stuck on the plane itself, unable to leave your seat.

I was once stuck for two hours on a non-moving plane at Minneapolis St Paul International Airport. I had flown in from London Gatwick and was heading towards Salt Lake City Utah, en route to the Sundance Film Festival. We had already been delayed for a few hours, but I spent that time playing pinball in the Terminal so was happy enough. It was January. There was snow all around. As soon as our Utah-bound plane was ready we were hurried onto it. The engines were running while we waited for a clear runway, but after two hours the pilot wasn’t sure that we had enough fuel for the onward flight. So we disembarked, waited another hour or two in an empty terminal building (no pinball this time) while the plane re-fuelled, and we were eventually allowed back onto the plane. The inconvenience to me was relatively minor. There were other people who had been stuck at Amsterdam airport for 24 hours before making it Minnesota. They were 24 hours worse off than me.

In 2011 we had a vivid illustration of the two ways that time works in favour of the plane. The four of us (my wife and I and our two children, then aged 6 and 4) were travelling back from Spain, where my brother lives. We had checked in on time, just, had a bite to eat, and got to the Departure Gate to find about 20 people milling about, in no hurry to get on the plane. It appeared that we had plenty of time after all. We all went to the loo one more time. We waited some more. Eventually I went up to the Gate and asked when we were boarding. We weren’t. It was 20 minutes before take-off but we were too late. All those other people at the Departure Gate were waiting for the next plane, the details for which weren’t even displayed yet. The boards were still showing our flight number, destination London Gatwick. Our names had been called, apparently, we hadn’t come forward, and now it was too late. Our bags were being unloaded. We could see the little truck heading for the plane to take our bags off. They had time to send a truck to the plane, sort through all the baggage and remove our bags, but they couldn’t use that same allowance of time to transport us to the four empty seats on the plane itself, which would surely have been quicker. And we couldn’t just make our way out of the Departure area. We had to wait, because we had already passed through security, and then wait for our bags, and then wait some more to book (and pay for) four more flights back to the UK. We had to return the next day (for the start of the school term) and although the exact amount we paid for our flights will remain a family secret, it was a 4-figure sum, beginning with a 1. The price we were quoted initially was in Euros. I did a quick calculation: in Pounds Sterling it equated to a 3-figure sum, beginning with a 9. Just over 200 quid each. Could be worse. Only when I handed over my credit card did the sales clerk inform me that it was worse: whoops (or the Spanish equivalent), the figure she quoted should have been in Sterling not Euros. A 4-figure sum beginning with a 1. Looking on the bright side it meant that we had an extra night with my brother and his family (and at least we didn’t have to pay for a night in a hotel).

So, the next day we were at the airport in plenty of time, checked in, passed through security, and made our way to the Departure Gate nice and early. And I’m sure you know what happened next. The plane was delayed, by 90 minutes. And we had to suck it up. The same Departure Gate staff who had denied us access to the plane the previous day were entirely unapologetic for our inconvenience. Not their fault. No, of course not. Plane time: it always works in favour of the plane.

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