A series of flight cancellations and delays, a broken-down bus, an airport fire and a Covid outbreak onboard a cruise ship just some of the mishaps to hit NI couple’s European break
A couple have been reliving their holiday from hell which saw them plagued by a series of flight cancellations and delays, a fire at an airport, staff shortages, a broken-down bus plus a death and a Covid outbreak on their cruise ship.
Haydn Milligan and his wife Norma Stewart, who are both in their seventies, had been looking forward to their first post-pandemic foreign holiday — a French river cruise — but it was anything but plain sailing.
The first part of the journey from Belfast went surprisingly smoothly and they encountered no problems on their way out of the International Airport to Gatwick where they were due to catch another plane to Marseille the following morning.
“The Gatwick flight from Belfast was delayed by half an hour but that was no big worry,” said Haydn. “However after we landed in London there were no staff members to operate the air-bridge or find steps so we had to sit on the plane for another 35 minutes before we could get off.
“But thankfully we were soon in our hotel to rest up for the flight to France the next day.” However Haydn and Norma got a rude awakening in the middle of the night.
“A text came through at 2.30am from easyJet to inform us the flight to Marseille had been cancelled,” said Haydn. “After a restless night we were told to go to departures by Riviera, the company organising the cruise and they said an alternative flight had been arranged to Marseille.”
But the new British Airways/Finnair flight was from Heathrow and the holidaymakers were driven across London in a fleet of cars, not a luxury coach as they had expected.
Haydn added: “Some of the others in our group were then told they weren’t going to Marseille at all but to Geneva where they would face a four-hour bus journey to take them to our river cruise ship at Avignon.
“However when we arrived at the departure gate we were informed there was a fire near Marseille airport which had been temporarily closed. Our flight was delayed for 90 minutes and we touched down at 8pm. But that wasn’t the end of the saga. There was another 60-minute hold-up for us as our coach waited for another plane from London to land with more Riviera passengers.”
With frustrated travellers finally all on board on the bus there was another unforeseen hitch.
“Unbelievably, the coach wouldn’t start,” said Haydn. “It transpired that there was something wrong with a breathalyser that tests drivers for alcohol consumption. Our driver was fine, it was the machine that was faulty and we were delayed again as it was sorted out.”
The weary holidaymakers finally arrived at Avignon near midnight, nearly seven hours behind schedule to find out they were too late for dinner and cocktails and so had to make do with cold meats, cheese and salads which had been left for them in their cabins.
“The actual cruise along the River Rhone was wonderful. We saw some lovely towns and some lovely places in those towns,” said Haydn.
During the cruise, however, he and his wife noticed an ill passenger being brought to an ambulance and after officials told passengers they hoped the man would return to the ship he died later, leaving behind his distressed wife who was suffering from dementia. Riviera later flew her son out to be with her.
For Haydn it brought back painful memories of a tragedy some years ago when his first wife died on holiday in Cyprus.
Near the end of the Rhone cruise two friends of Haydn and Norma were diagnosed with Covid. Two other travellers tested positive too and the four of them had to stay in isolation for seven days before returning home.
Haydn said: “We were negative thankfully and we were bussed to Lyon airport for our evening plane to Gatwick on the Thursday but at departures my phone pinged to tell me the flight was cancelled. We were instructed to reclaim our baggage and sent to a nearby hotel for the night where we paid £39 for a couple of dishes of pasta, £9.90 for a pint and £14.80 for a gin and tonic.
“We had been due to get a plane to Belfast from Gatwick on the Friday morning but the new delay meant that was now out of the question and we were informed all of easyJet’s other flights over the weekend were full, leaving the following Tuesday the earliest option. “
Eventually Riviera arranged another flight back to Gatwick on the Friday but it was leaving from Marseille, not Lyon, so Haydn and Norma had to endure a four-hour coach trip to get there.
In the meantime, the couple paid £445 for a British Airways/Aer Lingus flight from Heathrow to Belfast City Airport on the Saturday so they had to organise transport from Gatwick where they re-arranged Friday overnight accommodation in a hotel.
The flight from France to England was delayed by nearly two hours until 11.30pm and by the time Haydn and Norma arrived at their hotel at Gatwick it was the early hours of the morning.
After just a few hours’ sleep they caught a coach to Heathrow “where there was mayhem in departures” but the couple’s flight to Belfast was — for once — on time.
Their car was parked at the International Airport but friends collected them at the City airport and drove them to Aldergrove where they arrived 30 hours behind schedule.
“We were just so glad to get home,” said Haydn. “On reflection that evening we realised the most important and, for me personally, poignant aspect of the whole episode — we came home together.”
Airlines and airports have apologised for the disruption currently facing passengers and Haydn and Norma are philosophical about their trip.
He said: “It’s an unfortunate illustration of the chaos that can befall travellers at the moment because of so many factors.
“Our story just goes to illustrate what can go wrong. We were just unlucky that so many things happened together and conspired against us.”