Tuesday, November 06, 2012

no flight

"Ladies and gentlemen, this flight is fully booked."

Normally I'm already dazed off at the point of such an announcement when boarding is nearly complete, or sunk deep into the first story of the latest New Yorker. This time, I listen up. Fully booked. It's a fully deserved stroke of good luck that I'm on this flight, albeit in a middle seat.

An hour earlier, things looked bleaker, roughly in line with the weather, which in Germany tends to be incredibly dreary and grey in November. Rising from the train station underneath the airport in a glass elevator, the first thing I beheld was the large departures board, glowing in a promising orange.

There aren't many flights out of Dresden. The entire day fits comfortably on the board. Though it was still early in the morning, the first few of tomorrow's flights were shown as well. Not shown was my flight, just about an hour away. It wasn't that it was canceled; it simply wasn't there, as if it had never been scheduled to take place.

Five days earlier, at the end of a long night at the synchrotron and a short few hours in the sagging bed of a countryside inn, I had made my way towards Southend, the Victorian summer resort by the Thames estuary, a place with its very own charm. If you're glum, Southend, with endless mud flats when the tide is low and carefully preserved decrepitude, must be unbearable. If you're cheerful, the place is hilarious.

It tries to cover the decay brought about by decades of neglect with bright neon lights and noisy entertainment. It boasts, at one-and-a-third miles, the world's longest pleasure pier, the only way to see the water at low tide. Tacky, with cheap bed-and-breakfasts, untold chippies, and dismal amusement arcades – and though it isn't even by the sea – it's the epitome of the English seaside resort. It's a must-see.

I had visited Southend-on-sea last summer. This time I came for the airport, a former military field that was converted to civilian use about a year ago. Now, a few budget airlines fly to a few European destinations. There are fewer flights than in Dresden and the airport would hold no interest for me at all, were it not for a novelty of two weeks: The connection between Southend and Dresden is the only way for me to get home without changing flights.

The flight is the third try of an airline to connect Dresden and London in an economically viable way since I arrived in London. British Airways was first, four years ago. Their flights were full, but they only lasted a year. Then came Lufthansa through their budgetesque subsidiary British Midlands. When BMI was sold to British Airways, solely for the valuable landing slots it held at Heathrow, the route was quietly cut.

Now OLT Express is trying its luck. The (German) acronym stands for East Frisian Air Transport; the company was founded in 1958 to connect intertidal islands of the North Sea with the mainland. It operated in obscurity for a few decades until it decided to enter the burgeoning market of low-cost air travel. At this point things went awry. Bankruptcies, acquisitions, loss of contracts – I don't know the details, but when I first heard about the company at the announcement of the Dresden–Southend service two months ago, I booked a return trip anyway.

After the synchrotron, a train took me to Paddington, the tube to Liverpool St. and then another train straight to the airport in Southend. It was painless and quick. Getting from the station to the gate was even quicker: just a walk across a small parking lot and then security just for me. The flight was equally pleasant. Plenty of newspapers were for grabs at boarding; free refreshments were served in flight. The plane felt new (though its manufacturer is long gone), the seats were big and there was tons of knee space. All the pieces were there to build success.

Hardly anyone knew about it, though. I shared a plane for 100 with only 16 other passengers. OLT Express had launched the service two weeks earlier with minimal fanfare. A press release made it into the local newspaper, but there were no announcements on billboards in Dresden and the trams didn't carry advertisements. Posters in tube stations in London didn't invite people to come and see the Frauenkirche, as they had when BA had tried its luck.

I don't know if OLT's senior vice president for marketing got the sack for this fiasco. He should have. But maybe they don't have one. They're a small airline, provincial as their name and quite obviously overwhelmed by the challenges of operating Europe-wide. They're not about to get bigger either. In light of the lack of bookings, the decision was made to cut flights and limit the service to school holidays, my mom said. She had heard it somewhere. I heard nothing, though the holidays have ended. There was no email from OLT and no word on their home page. I assumed I would fly and went to an internet café to check in the night before. After a few clicks, I had my boarding pass, the schedule unchanged.

This morning at the airport, as the glass-enclosed elevator took me up to the departure level, reality caught up. My flight wasn't on the departures board and, OLT being a no-frills internet-only operation, there was no one to talk to. I insisted on talking and was sent from counter to counter. In the end, it was good old Lufthansa, one of the few reliables in fleeting times, that bailed me out. They called OLT and let me speak to their service.

The first thing I learned was that "it is technically possible to check in, even though the flight won't take place". Whether this is considered sensible wasn't revealed, nor whether IT should be outsourced someplace competent. I also didn't learn whether I should expect the airline to notify me of flight changes and cancellations. Not surprisingly, there was no apology. On the plus side, Lufthansa took charge and rebooked my flight.

Throughout the process, I wasn't frazzled. Things happened as I expected them. When you're checked in and your flight is canceled, it's the airline's responsibility to ensure your travel. I relied on that and took the new boarding passes, stiff and Lufthansa-yellow, for granted. I didn't appreciate how (relatively) lucky I was until the announcement on the plane right before take-off. I had barely squeezed in.

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