The Err is Human…to Communicate is Divine

I write this from my hotel room in Riyadh which is, by direct efficient flight, around 8hrs travel from London. However if you travel by Gulf Air be prepared for it taking 48hrs from checkin at London Heathrow.  Well it did for 5 of us setting off 6pm Thur and reaching the hotel 6pm Saturday last week.  And it took a mere 28hrs for the 2 who set off 6pm Fri and reached our same hotel 10pm Saturday.  Never fly Gulf Air…unless you need to raise your blood pressure or test your zen like ability to be patient in a state of communicational chaos and silence.

Excuse my offering details but it is cathartic for me, and source material for others:  Around 7pm Thur last, we passed through security and necessary Heathrow queues, had a last pint and a meal, and were ready to board our 10pm flight by 9pm.  At 9.30pm in the departure gate lounge we were advised the plane was cancelled/delayed and would leave in the morning around 9am.  We would all be taken to hotels.  That was the last formal announcement we got officially (save shouts and individual staff guessing answers and sharing their confusion) for 18hrs.  In the meantime we were herded in silence down tiny corridors back into the baggage hall, told to take our luggage and ourselves to outside WH Smiths where the next bit of instructions would follow.  200ish people and 600ish pieces of luggage and trolleys headed for the airport exit area, milling around as ground staff tried to find out what Gulf staff were planning. Gulf staff tried to remain calm as they had clearly never been given a Plan B for when this might happen. Hotel agency staff tried to find coaches and hotels anywhere in London.  Parents tried to keep children occupied. Old travellers tried to stay standing…because no one seemed to think it might have been a sensible part of Plan B to keep us seated in the departure lounge, kept regularly informed, and given some free tea or water. That would have been too logical surely.

The chaos of an immersive theatre airport experience where none of the audience/customers know what is happening may give Punchdrunk officianados pleasure, but is my worst nightmare.  And when joined by my creative team of theatre directors it was torture…especially for the amazing Ellie Jones who decided that if no-one else was telling the assembled flock what was happening then everytime she found out a piece of information she would advise everyone loudly that there was a new titbit of news, or just no news.

Eventually one coach was sent. It took women and children first to an unknown hotel (ok the dads went too).  We expected more coaches, but no…too obvious. The same coach then returned 1hr later to take the next group.  It was 11.30pm by now and we were packed on the pavement outside the terminal completely blocking the entrance for travellers attempting to find their checkin. Clearly there was no part of Plan B that thought where Gulf should gather its flock.

We then found the name of the hotel and decided to grab a taxi with our mass of bags and headed for the Sofitel where we found a snaking line of customers moving painfully slowly to checkin. Then another coach load arrived behind us. No-one seems to have thought to check how many people to send to the Sofitel. There were around 140 we think plus us for what we learned were 60 rooms available.  The Sofitel staff were brilliant and patient and doing their best with this unexpected sea of tired humanity and luggage.  Let me add that there was not a Gulf person in sight and there had been none around for hours.

Once all the rooms were filled, there were around 38 of us still in the foyer, and Ellie had continued to fulfil her role of head information provider to the queue. We were advised there would be no space but at 1am we could find a lounge area chair and rest there.  No formal idea when we would be heading back to the airport – a vague announcement there would be a coach at 7.30 for the 9am flight…which seemed totally ridiculous.  We settled down to rest.

Around 2am an extra few rooms were released with real bookers not turning up, and we were offered a big room for us all (well 4 of us because one had wisely headed home to central London to crash on a floor she could call home).  Our small band of UK/Arabic creatives, mixed ages and genders, headed to a single room to navigate allocating the one bed (2 x F), one sofa (oldest M) and one floor (other M).  Clothed and knackered we slept and snored and tried to relax till we chose to go get a taxi again and at least know we were getting to the airport on time.

On arrival at Gulf checkin for our next attempt to fly London to Bahrain and get the quick flight over to Riyadh, there was no queue and we were swiftly through  to the departure area with no flight on any departure board.  The 9am flight turned into a 10.45 flight and then as we headed to the Gate for that we were told it was delayed till 5pm…and on arrival we would have 8hrs to wait for the connecting flight.

My memory of the wonderful airside pods at YoHotel Gatwick made me look to see if Bahrein had anything similar for when and if we ever got there.  Although we had been in constant contact with our Company Manager in London and our Local Vendor/Travel Handling agents in Riyadh no-one seemed to have any solutions and so we knew we were going to lose a 2nd night’s sleep.  Wonderfully the Bahrain Airport hotel is airside and books rooms by the hour.  So I booked single pods and rooms for the 5 of us from 1am to 7am in time for our 9am flight to Riyadh on Sat morning.  A bed to look forward to.

Of course our 5pm flight then got delayed on the tarmac for 90 minutes with absolutely no word from Gulf air as to why.  But in the end we lifted off and made good time to Bahrain.  Just as we set off Gulf Air sent a note getting us on a 3.45am flight to Riyadh.  Good scheme … except we arrived at 3.40am from London.  We were told by Gulf staff to run…not helpful communication but at least an instruction…even though we knew that our luggage would not be running anywhere.  Through a different transfer security system we got to the gate to be told the flight had left (surprise !!) but that it was also full and so we wouldn’t have got on it anyway (thanks Gulf air for joined up systems).

So at 4am we reached our airside pod beds and extended to 8am to walk to the departure gate for 9am. Easy. Catch the flight we had been expecting to catch that Gulf had texted us about 24hrs earlier.  We arrived early and the ground handling staff said that whilst they could see our names on the system we still had to go see the Gulf Transfer desk… another journey to another place where Gulf staff seemed to be bemused to see us, and confused with what should happen to us. [Who knew that your flight time changes, but the date of the flight on the system remains the same date…so we were booked for the flight on a date which had passed 24hrs ago].  Lots of shouty customers by this point from all nations attempting to get any sense from Gulf.  

Then we found that the 9am flight, like the 3.45am flight the night before was full, and we might be able to get on the 1pm flight.  Then we were told that was unlikely and we had a 5pm flight again – and we definitely had tickets/boarding cards. More waiting around with a single voucher for a cheap snack at the Food Garden (the voucher of course only allowing pepsi from a spray and not a bottle of fruit juice] Eventually we got on the 5pm flight

We cheered up and I caught up with a movie whilst we waited, and waited, and waited.  Then an announcement that the Gulf plane had an engine fault and we needed to disembark.  Go back to the Gulf Transfer desk and try again. And another 100 people got off another f***** Gulf plane.

At this point we were quiet, tired, slightly tearful and/or hysterically giggling.  A mere 3 or so hours later we were on a new plane and heading to Riyadh airport. We bonded through the pain and I can’t wait to hear the first draft of Gulf Air The Musical Tragedy.   One glorious wit correctly suggested that “gulf air” was a term to describe the space between passenger expectation and airline delivery. The gap can be bridged by communication…but not in this case.

Oh did I mention that my two colleagues who were flying out 24 hours later also had their plane cancelled and a partial night queuing for a hotel room, no communication, mixed information on when a plane might or might not set off, and then a run across Bahrain airport with 15 mins to spare to catch the connection.  They were participants in Gulf Air The Musical Tragedy – junior edition.

To Err is human – mistakes happen, planes break down, customers need to be moved around.

Communication is divine – just tell us what’s going on…including saying “we haven’t got a f**** clue but we will get back to you in 15 minutes with an update”

And breathe

Thanks to CGO Blog and Facebook for offering rant-space, and material to return to when drafting scripts, songs, and memoires in years to come.

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