My airport nightmare that lasted for days

SIOBHAN MORTELL, a College Language Teacher at UCC, relives a gruelling experience at an airport in June, as she was trying to get back to Cork from the continent
My airport nightmare that lasted for days

DELAYS: Siobhan Mortell endured a hellish experience on the continent

Countdown begins: 24 hours to go

I go to check for my return flights after a week in Germany for work.

I had been booked on flights from Munich to Amsterdam, then on to Cork. I find the Munich-Amsterdam leg is cancelled and think about what to do. I book a new flight, Munich to Dublin, for the next day, check in online, and go to bed happy.

15 hours to go

I get up, pack last things, and go to catch the train - I have to leave three hours earlier due to the new booking so I miss out on gift-buying time.

12 hours to go

The train pulls into Munich airport, I head to terminal 2. I have one check-in bag but somehow miss the fact that by going through security (no queue), I cannot check in after that. So I have my small suitcase with me, which might still be too big for carry-on.

11 hours to go

I find a quiet spot to read my book, doom-scroll on Facebook, stare into space, observe people, pass internal judgement on the clothes the youth of today actually choose to wear, and let my thoughts wander.

9 hours to go

I check the departures screen to see which gate my flight leaves from, and find it is cancelled, along with about two dozen others to all sorts of places. Since my outward flight, Cork-Amsterdam, had also been cancelled, I know what to do. find the service desk and stand in line.

8.5 hours to go

I find the line. It is hard to miss, and I stand at the end of it, behind a young man called Lucas, who is studying in Toronto. He has just flown in from Vancouver and his connecting flight on to Italy is cancelled.

This is his first time travelling alone and he is meeting a friend in Italy. He is very sweet and lets me use his internet as I can’t access it on my phone.

He sees if my settings are OK but mine is android and his isn’t, so it isn’t very fruitful. We discuss what to do, aside from stand in the queue a bit longer.

8 hours to go

Lucas asks me to watch his bag while he goes to the rest room. While he is out of the queue, a Lufthansa workers comes and talks to the people in front of me. Turns out Lufthansa staff are on strike, on top of the general chaos across European airports, hence this queue is about 200m long.

Lufthansa policy, today at least, is for all passengers to domestic destinations to go by train. Lucas comes back and I fill him in. Neither of us know at that point the queue is as long as it is, as it snakes around a bit.

I tell Lucas there is a train station at Munich Airport and lots of Intercity and Eurocity trains stop there - Naples is probably a minimum 15 hours from Munich, but if the route include the Bernina Expresss from Zurich to Milan, across the Alps, that might help. I did that route in 1988 and it is worth it. Lucas opts out of standing in the queue and leaves.

7.5 hours to go

I listen to an announcement for the sixth time in German and English ‘urgently advising’ us to continue our journey by train if possible, keep receipts and get reimbursement from customer service later. I weigh up this option - train to a point I can get the Eurostar to London, train/bus to Fishguard/Holyhead, ferry to Rosslare/Dublin, ask my husband to drive three hours to collect me? Or stand in the queue a bit longer. A family ahead with a breastfeeding baby and two small kids leave the queue.

7 hours to go

I eavesdrop a phone conversation by the guy behind me in the queue, a young Spaniard, who complains he has no idea what is going on, as no- one speaks Spanish. When he comes off the phone, I explain the situation to him in Spanish (my job has its uses).

He is going to Madrid and a train is an option, especially when he hears there is a station in terminal 1. He leaves the queue. I enjoy the opportunity to speak Spanish again and am surprised at how easily it comes. This will not be last time I speak Spanish in the next seven hours.

6.5 hours to go

There are police all over the place, with guns. Yikes. Is this just to keep order? I have visited the restroom, gone for a walk, and gotten something expensive to eat. I have to commend Munich Airport cleaning staff for making the restrooms an actual pleasure. I am not joking.You could eat your dinner in there.

Siobhan Mortell's suitcase
Siobhan Mortell's suitcase

6 hours to go

Unable to use internet on my phone, I can’t download the Lufthansa app to see if they have automatically rebooked my flight, so I have to stay in the line a bit longer. I overhear the mother of a family ahead of me say she is going to look for a socket to charge her phone, and we get into conversation. . They are from somewhere near Washington DC, also on their way to southern Italy.

Their Lufthansa app tells them they have been rebooked onto a flight that leaves at about nine, but it seems unclear whether it is 9pm tonight or 9am tomorrow so they are staying in the queue a bit longer. Mum is optimistic and comments that a year from now we will laugh about this.

4.5 hours to go

Staff are now going up and down the queue with plane trolleys full of snacks and bottles of water.

We have been on our feet for four hours with no prospect of arriving at the top of the queue, and no idea where we will be spending the night. I see a young woman with a toddler and two boys under five sit down on the floor at the side. I feel for her.

4 hours to go

I am still only 6ft beyond where the mum and kids have settled. It is evening now. Not far from kids’ bedtimes. I ask the mum how she is and if she needs anything, say she is doing a great job. She bursts into tears. I really, really feel for her.

3.5 hours to go

The family going to Italy check the screen and find their departure gate displayed. They leave the queue. With no internet, I have to stay a bit longer. Now a group of Latinos are ahead of me and an elderly couple behind me, they are French, going to Toulouse, and their bags are somewhere in the depths of the airport. They have a hotel booked tonight, not sure how, when they haven’t gotten to the top of the queue. Also, not sure why they are even in the queue, as they seem to have been rebooked by Lufthansa also. They stay in the queue a bit longer.

I wonder how they can still be standing after five hours in the queue. They must be 70 if they are day. They are stoic. In fact, everyone is staying remarkably calm.

2.5 hours to go

I arrive at a bit of the queue, fairly close to the top, where there are aisle separators where you have to stand in line. Just at the point where that starts, there are also three machines for checking in or maybe printing boarding passes There are always a few people hanging around here, trying to talk the staff member who is there to help with the machines.

Two young women arrive and join the group ahead of me. A woman behind me indicates she thinks they might have skipped the queue, and I should ask them. I say to one of them that I think I was here before them. They had been there before, gone off for a walk and come back again.

The queue has changed so much that I really don’t know.

2 hours to go

I move into the section where the aisles are marked and feel very privileged. I am in the elite now! It is 9pm. The queue is very slow and there are only four staff behind the desks, and a supervisor still giving ‘urgent advice’ about taking the train. Literally every five minutes.

A family at the top of the queue with a baby in a sling shout at the desk staff because the closest flight available to wherever they are going in North America is three days away.

1.5 hours to go

I am bored. I can see the French lady of the couple behind me is really struggling, so I drag over a chair for her. I don’t think they have eaten.

1 hour to go

Another announcement. Not the ‘Urgent Advice’ one, something different. So many announcements. I translate it for the French couple in Spanish and English, they wish me well, thank me for the help, and leave the queue. After 7.5 hours.

It’s all becoming a blur. We are down to three desk staff now. The supervisor comes out and explains about the Lufthansa strike, the delays with dozens of flights, all with knock-on effects, cancellations across many airlines, staff have been working 12 hours and are legally entitled to stop, 60 staff phoned in that morning as they couldn’t face the stress. We are told in no uncertain terms that all desks will be closed at 11.30pm and adult tantrums will not change that. Please, please, let me make it to the top of the queue by then.

0.5 hours to go

A kerfuffle further back. Queue-jumping? Two policemen with guns stand there. It diffuses. More accusations of queue-jumping near me. The supervisor tells a lady who appeared in front of me a couple of hours earlier she has to go to the end of the queue. I think he’s right.

So now I am at the top of the queue. It is strangely anti-climactic.

11.10pm

I AM CALLED!! I don’t feel joy or relief, just exhaustion. I sympathise with the lady at the desk - we have all had a very hard day. None of this is her fault, she is doing her best. She rebooks me for a flight the next day and gives me two taxi vouchers and a hotel voucher. I get in a taxi, barely able to speak, arrive at the hotel, have a shower, and can’t sleep.

Next day

I go for breakfast, but still can’t get my phone to work. I want to be prepared in case my flight is cancelled again.

I have to hold back my tears. I go back to my room and have a mini-meltdown.

Then I get in a taxi to the airport, I go on local roads as the G7 summit is taking place in Garmisch and the Autobahns are full.

I decide I cannot go through again what I went through yesterday, and talk to someone at the boarding pass machines who is outraged she has had to wait in a queue one whole hour already! One hour!

Since my departure gate is not listed yet on the screens, I stand in the queue. It is all I know how to do. The ‘Urgent Advice’ announcements are not being given today. It is a very different airport.

I finally arrive in Dublin at my sister’s house at about 5.30pm. I keep wanting to have my suitcase next to me at all times, including at the kitchen table.

She sits me down and hands me a Cuba Libre. It is over.

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