Fun fact, Manchester Airport was originally called Ringway Airport. During World War Two, it was used as a location for repairing damaged aircraft and training parachutists. In the late sixties & in to the 1970’s, before flying became a transport for the masses, coach companies from working class, industrial towns in the north would have coach trips for people to come to the airport and watch aircraft come & go. Yes, for our younger viewers, it isn’t that long ago that visiting an airport was a pleasurable activity that people chose to do even if they weren’t flying… I know, difficult to believe eh? There even used to be a public viewing gallery that you could go on to to watch flights come & go.
Slightly off topic, probably the best part of twenty years ago, we visited my aunt who lives not far from Gatwick Airport. Gatwick also had a viewing area for the public to watch planes come and go. One evening during the week we were with Liz, I had a phone conversation with my mum. It went something like this:
Mum: “What did you do today?”
Me: “We spent the whole day at Gatwick Airport, watching planes come and go”.
Mum: “Oh, poor Elaine, she must have been so bored”
Me: “POOR ELAINE???Poor me! It was her idea, she loved it. I’ve been bored stupid!”
At one point, we grabbed something to eat, probably a KFC or some other over priced junk food. There was a huge window. I really wish I’d had a camera, because there was a kid, about five years old stood with his hands against the window, in a classic police ‘spread ’em‘ pose, excitedly waiting for the next flight to come or go. Stood next to him, in the same pose, slightly taller but equally excited, was another child, probably about thirty-five years old.
I was eating on my own.
While we were on the viewing platform for the first time, as soon as an aircraft appeared, Elaine would say “ooh, there’s one” and point. Then a few moments later… “ooh, there’s one” and “ooh, there’s one”. Eventually I said, “Elaine, we’re at Gatwick International Airport. ‘There’s one‘ every thirty seconds, all day long”
Even now, when we see an aircraft, one of us will say “ooh, there’s one!” My aunt gave her a souvenir of Gatwick Airport. She’s still got it.
Some people like being at airports.
Some people are weird.
Sadly, those simpler days are gone.
Now the Romance of Ringway has been replaced by the Monster of Manchester.
You may have gathered, I’m not a fan of flying. I wasn’t a fan even before I acquired a disability. It is a means to an end that I have to endure. Our usual routine pre-disability was to arrive, check in, I’d find a spot to sit and play on the computer and try to avoid thinking about the grim, next few hours. Meanwhile Elaine wanders off, enjoying the atmosphere. And watching aircraft take off and land. Her holiday has already started, mine begins once at our destination.
Post disability, it’s become a bit more ‘interesting’.
This write up specifically refers to a flight taken in October 2018.
There are two elements to the airport staffing. Those that the carrier are responsible for and those that the airport are responsible for. Let’s start with the positives.
This was the first time I’d ever flown with Jet2.com so I wasn’t sure what I’d let myself in for. Jet2.com are a relatively new company.
They proudly state (perhaps not as proudly as they should) that “Jet2.com was voted ‘Best Short Haul Airline’ five times in the last seven years at the Globe Travel Awards”. After my first experience of flying with them, I can understand why.
I’d contacted them pre-flight to discuss the ‘special assistance‘ (more of that term later) and that I was taking a wheelchair with a powered adaptation. This caused some problems as they informed me, after I’d booked, that the coach transfer wouldn’t carry the chair because it was powered. They offered to arrange an alternative for me at a cost of about £118. I said I’d get back to them. A quick post on Trip Advisor forums and I had the contact for a reputable taxi company in Greece and a return transfer was booked for €80 instead. But this was still a substantial additional cost due to taking a wheelchair. They were also very concerned about the height of the chair when folded, which came in only 1cm below their maximum. Their maximum height appears to be VERY low and I can’t help but wonder if some information is wrong somewhere at their end? Crew would have to enter the hold on their hands & knees if it is correct. I had a ‘Plan B’, so wasn’t concerned, but it was something else to think about and plan for. I sent them photos of the chair with the Batec connected and lowered.
I also put rubber bands on the handlebars so they could put the brakes on/off easily and showed people how to do so when they took the chair from me. They were used in both directions, I could tell because they were in a different position when I got the chair back. Sometimes simple, low tech is easiest!
When we arrived at Jet2’s check in, I was met immediately by a very friendly chap with a clipboard. “Hello, Mr Fitton?” He then went through the pre-flight process and checked that the battery could be removed etc. He then took us to the check in and helped Elaine with the suitcases etc. The lady on the check-in desk was very happy & smiling too. All very smooth and very friendly. First impressions count and so far Jet2.com were doing very well thank you. Mr friendly chap with a clipboard then directed us to the ‘Special Assistance‘ booth, and wished us a happy holiday. Then he found someone else to smile at and be nice and helpful to.
With the carrier’s airport responsibilities covered, what about Manchester Airport themselves?
I literally did a big sigh as I thought about how to begin writing this.
Perhaps to set the scene from a different angle. I’m from Morecambe originally and I still have a lot of friends living there.
Well, I say “a lot”… some. A few.
Well I say “friends”. People I’ve known a long time and occasionally go drinking with.
They probably wouldn’t call me a “friend”…
Anyway, I know of multiple people in the Morecambe area who now choose to fly from Glasgow Airport rather than Manchester, because the whole experience is so much nicer.
Morecambe to Manchester Airport, 70 miles.
Morecambe to Glasgow Airport 170 miles.
How bad do things have to be to choose an extra 200 miles round trip of driving?
Admittedly, some of this is beyond the control of Manchester Airport. The motorways, congestion, road works around Manchester all mean that while the distance travelled is much more, the time to do it is not that much different and is generally more predictable. Also, some school holiday dates are different, so booking to fly from a Scottish airport during English school holidays (and visa-versa) may be quite a lot cheaper.
But some of it is simply Manchester Airport.
Over the last few years Manchester Airport have set upon a campaign of trying to screw every last penny out of their unfortunate victims… …sorry ‘passengers‘. Actually, in this corporate world, ‘passengers’ has probably been replaced by ‘customers‘. Regardless, they just want to fleece us.
Pre-disability, we would generally use Jet Parks for long stay parking. Huge car parks a few miles from the airport with a regular shuttle bus every eight minutes or so. Since becoming disabled, it was easier to use a ‘pick up & drop off‘ service. You phoned them. They met you at the drop off. Check car over for any damage, gave them the keys, then off they went. On return, once clear of baggage reclaim, they drove your car to the pick up point, check no new damage, off you go. Nice and smooth and worth the extra few quid. Now, Manchester Airport have made all kinds of changes. Basically, drop off and pick up is a nightmare. You pretty much must go through the car park and pay for the pleasure. Installing the barriers caused chaos. On occasions the queues to get out were so long that people were literally moving up in to the next parking tariff while sat in the queue to leave!
Another fun fact: There is a grid directly beneath at least one, if not all, the barrier pay points. So many coins are dropped by drivers which fall through the grid, that Manchester Airport have dug some of the new tarmac up to fit a way that they can retrieve the coins later. No money down the drain at Manchester! (Allegedly! This was told to me while on holiday by someone who had actually worked at Manchester Airport, fitting the new barriers).
The drop off & pick up has just become too much hassle as there’s no clear spot to go to and additional charges too. For this trip, we returned to Jet Parks simply because the alternatives are now so much more awkward and with Jet Parks we knew what would happen. As a traveller with a disability, knowing what will happen in advance is always a good idea!
Research, research & research some more.
Jet Parks themselves are fine, especially for car drivers who don’t have a disability. For wheelchair users, it is more challenging because the buses are often busy and being in a chair, with additional luggage takes up time and space etc. The drivers are friendly & helpful and other passengers were quite happy to shuffle around each other, moving luggage, even on this occasion, holding another passenger’s golf clubs! Do you remember those old tile games where you move the tiles in and out of a gap to get them in to order?
It is like that to get people on & off, ‘if you move there, then that bag goes there, then you move up and then you can get back out…‘.
I would also point out that Jet Parks is good value. The accessible parking spaces are numerous and close to the entrances. One thing to be aware of, you have to leave your ‘Blue Badge’ in the vehicle if using the accessible spaces, which is fair enough. But this may be problematic if you want to take the badge with you to use elsewhere in the EU. I guess (but haven’t tried) if you contacted them, they may accept a photocopy? Worth asking in advance if you need to take your badge with you?
Ah who cares, post Brexit you won’t be able to use a ‘Blue Badge’ in Europe anyway!
(That’ll get the comments section going!)
We got dropped off at Terminal One.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Terminal One was so named because it was the first terminal and is therefore the oldest? In keeping with Manchester Airport’s screw the cash out of the punter approach, Terminal One is split in to two worlds. One world is the ferrying of cattle through security and things like that, where they only get their wallets out for the X-Ray machine. Then the shiny bit, where they are flogging duty free and crap sandwiches. The functional part looks very old, utilitarian and cold. The money maker is shiny and new. Perhaps the extra cash will eventually lead to a more comfortable check-in process generally? But at the moment it is a soulless factory, processing lines of people.
We left off from the nice Jet2 bloke, when he directed us back in to the arms of Manchester Airport by pointing us to the ‘passenger special assistance booth‘. We arrived and spoke to the guy there. He re-checked a couple of details with regards to removing the battery from the chair etc, then confirmed that the special assistance vehicle would meet us once we were through the boarding gate.
He sent us down to security, who took us to the priority/wheelchair lane. As always, the Batec was drawing admiring glances. I’ll be talking about it & wheelchairs in later blogs, but suffice to say, it is pretty cool, very practical and draws a lot of attention.
Even with the priority lane, security was painfully slow as the meandering herd were funnelled through. To be fair, in keeping with the rest of the experience, the people were friendly and helpful. Security is always somewhat fraught though. The chair needs to be swabbed for drugs/explosives/undeclared Toblerone, not purchased in Duty Free/… so there is a delay. I don’t like the fact that I can’t keep an eye on my camera, mobile phone etc. I try to send Elaine through first, then hang back a little to give her a head start, so she can reclaim our stuff. But the metal detector went off because she had Euros in her pockets. We end up both getting stressed!
Eventually through and on to the yellow brick road that winds its way through the Duty Free shops, forcing you past huge bottles of alcohol and the smell of different perfumes. People stepping 90 degrees without warning or looking, almost resulted in me collecting a couple of fellow customers in to my lap! Finally, we get through to the bars & cafe areas and it opened up a little more, so at least some space to manoeuvrer safely.
So far, so okay. But the fun was yet to be had.
Eventually our gate number is displayed and off we go. By coincidence, we’d actually been sat next to it, so we were almost first ones there. Through the checks, we were parked slightly to one side and told to wait until the special assistance vehicle arrived.
Other passengers were joining us and a bus came to take them to the aircraft.
The bus came back and took the next lot.
Until finally, there was my wife & I and the family of a young lad in a wheelchair waiting.
Jet2 staff were very apologetic and kept us informed, but beneath their smile and jolly reassurance, I could tell they were getting frustrated. I could also see from the body language, they weren’t getting anywhere with the multiple phone calls. Eventually, they said that “no-one in Special Assistance is answering the phone, our supervisor has been trying too. I think they are going over to find someone.” She added thoughtfully, “don’t worry, they won’t go without you!”
By now, the last of the bus transfers had been about twenty minutes ago. The next flight had been called to the gate, but couldn’t be let through in to our waiting area. Finally a guy turns up and ambles in without a care in the world. No apology. I said “you know you are late?” He replied, pointing at the next flight’s passengers, “don’t worry, they’ve all got to board yet”. When I told him they were waiting to board a different aircraft and that our scheduled departure was in five minutes time, it made no difference. Still no apology and still just the one speed.
By the time we arrived at the aircraft, we were past the scheduled take off time.
The irony in all this is that the passenger shuttle bus that I wasn’t allowed on, was the same as the Jet Parks bus that we’d been on a couple of hours earlier!
I can walk short distances with two walking sticks and can climb stairs, so once I’d collapsed the chair for the ground crew, I boarded. Generally, people who require assistance are boarded first, so I walk through the cabin using the seat backs rather than the sticks. But I couldn’t do this now because the seats all had someone sitting in them. Using the walking sticks is much more difficult in a narrow space and while some people are aware, and will move their feet in, many others either don’t notice, don’t realise they are making life even more difficult, or simply, don’t care? Picking past people took even more time on an already delayed flight.
It’s also rather embarrassing, having everyone looking at you as you move with difficulty. I commented to Elaine that at least with us being at the gate first, everyone on board had to walk past us and would have seen that the delay to their holiday wasn’t because they were waiting for us to arrive.
Have I mentioned how much I hate flying? A bit of additional stress is just what was needed.
On the return flight, the Greek ‘Special Assistance’ team were excellent. Besides me, there was one lady using her own wheelchair and eight other people with limited mobility who needed an airport wheelchair. Despite having quite a large number of people, the Greek end was fine. Happy, chatty staff who were punctual and efficient. Once on board, as we waited for other passengers, I was chatting to the stewardess and mentioned the incompetence on the way out of Manchester. She informed me that this was the usual state of affairs at Manchester and flights are regularly delayed due to Special Assistance not turning up. She said she’d personally been on two flights that were delayed for this reason in the previous week.
At least we were on our way home and nothing could go wrong now…
…oh hang on, we’ve still got to get off.
We land on time and us ‘special assistance’ folk remain sitting while everyone else disembarks. Once clear, Elaine & I, with our fellow specials, formed a doughnut of disability around the exit, awaiting the wheelchairs.
And we waited.
If you’ve read all my blogs, you’ll know I’ve said previously that acquiring a disability teaches you patience?
And we waited.
Eventually, one bloke appears with one chair for ten of us. He takes the first passenger, and says he’ll be back.
And we waited.
How could they put one bloke on for a flight with ten passengers who need a wheelchair?
And we waited.
Apparently, that too happens all the time.
And we waited.
When it was my turn, we were wheeled up and then a couple more chairs had been acquired from somewhere, so he asked Elaine if she could take over, so he could get back for the next passenger. I detest being pushed. It is the one time when I really feel ‘disabled’. Even in a manually self-propelled chair, if someone is helping by pushing, for example, up a hill, I will still be propelling it too. I really hate those horrible little wheeled chairs, where there is no choice but to be pushed. It would appear I’m not the only one, a week or so later a wheelchair user in Luton shuffled on his backside to make the point, after Luton Airport lost his chair and didn’t have a suitable self-propelling chair. Funnily enough, within days of the video going public, Luton Airport have quickly responded and have new, appropriate chairs. But isn’t it a shame that they have to be embarrassed in to doing the right thing?
At the baggage reclaim I got my wheels back and we were off. Obviously, with the simple pick-up no longer an option, it was a wait for the JetParks bus and a final session of ‘the tile game‘ before we were finally back to the car.
Jet Parks are fine and offer good value long stay parking. If you are taking a car, get a quote from them.
Manchester Airport could hardly be more incompetent, yet efficient money grabbers, if they tried.
Jet2.com were excellent. I’ll have to check if they fly out of Glasgow?