Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Eyjafjallajokull: it’s been no joke

The lack of blogging activity on this site last week was due to me being in Plzen, in the Czech Republic, at the 11th annual conference of the Otto-Brenner-Stiftung (the research arm of the IG Metall trade union) and the annual Editorial Board meeting of the South-East Europe Review, the journal of labour and social affairs in the region of which I am Associate Editor.

I was due to return on Friday… and finally managed to return home some fully four days later last evening, after a return trip involving detours to Nürnburg, Berlin, Amsterdam and Brussels, from where an additional Eurostar finally got me back over the physical barrier of the Channel. I won’t go into the full gory details of my own experience, but I thought I might make a couple of observations based on it:

1. It really doesn’t help travellers plan what to do in these situations when airports are advising that they are closed until 6 am tomorrow, then until 3pm this afternoon, then until 6.30 this evening… Such continual postponements give the illusion that the closures are likely to be short-term ones, when something on the lines of ‘travellers are advised to make alternative arrangements for their trip’ do at least add some certainty to the picture. Last Friday lunchtime and late afternoon, that would have been particularly welcome and I don’t think this is just with the benefit of hindsight.

2. Airlines whose retail ticketing arrangements are confined to call centres and online ticketing are in no place to offer assistance to stranded travellers. On leaving Plzen, my initial decision was to return to Prague to throw myself on the mercy of KLM (this blog has a policy of naming names, after all), which had conveyed me (and quite acceptably) from Glasgow to Prague in the first place. Except, KLM has an operation in Prague only at the airport, which was closed; in Prague itself, the address obtained that morning from the KLM website is a mailing address only. So, there was no airline mercy on which to throw myself. There was no presence in Berlin either, only at Tegel airport, and even at Schiphol, my initial survey of the departures area conveyed nothing of relevance to the airline itself. The lines to the call centres – as you might expect – were continually engaged. Simply, that’s not good enough. My ticket might have been (reasonably) cheap, not being ‘fully flexible’ and all that, but that doesn’t entitle the airline to abandon me. Essentially, this is exactly what their lack of presence in city centres does.

3. So, I’m not currently at all well-disposed towards flight companies and if I hear any more bleating about how much they’ve lost in all this, I will be forced, well, to write an official letter of complaint. I’ve waved farewell (or, at least, my credit card has, so far) to over €900 since last Friday – and that’s in additional accommodation and travel alone. No doubt the hoteliers, travel companies, restaurateurs and, to be fair, brewers of central Europe won’t be complaining too much, and I had a nice little break in central Europe – but that’s a transfer of resources I can ill-afford and the scale of the expenditure is worth far more to me, in relative terms, than whatever it is to the airlines. When did our society – and, I would venture, this is a pretty distasteful Anglo trait that wouldn’t be acceptable in much of central Europe – become so much more dominated by commercial interests than those of ordinary people?

4. Information has been very late in arriving. This is helpful (though today is the first day I’ve seen it) and today I’ve had two texts, one from a financial institution and one from my phone company, offering help with credit limits and with travel information. Only, I’m not now stuck in Europe (my phone company ought to know this!). OK, it’s not too late for others still stuck and not as lucky as me to get on an additional Eurostar. But where was it over the weekend, or early this week? Accessing travel information on the move was difficult this week, for a variety of reasons, but the information society seems to have failed, here. Perhaps I need to invest in a smartphone.

5. My train company in the UK seemed to have more first class carriages than usual relative to the numbers of second class ones, while the costs of my accommodation in Amsterdam looked to have been somewhat inflated. I may be simply wrong in the first place (and I had no problems getting a seat in second class); perhaps it’s our fault for not being better Europeans in the second, and no doubt the companies involved would claim the prevailing ‘laws’ of market forces. But, this looked like a bit of simple profiteering to me.

Enough of the brickbats. Bouquets, however, do need to be directed to the following people:

– the moral support of participants in the conference and particularly Bruno Sergi, Kemal Oke and Darko Marinkovic, whose initial comradeship kept me in good spirits after the evident policy FAIL of my decision to return to Prague

– Frau Furthe at Nürnberg station travel centre, who spent a good 20 minutes at her terminal in trying to get me home via a sleeper from Berlin and then by Eurostar (already by Saturday afternoon nothing until Tuesday, and then only first class and too late for onwards travel in the UK to Glasgow the same day) and whose best efforts were met only with rejection (I think she understood)

– the friendly staff at the information centre in the castle at Nürnberg (regards to Glasgow duly given over a glass of malt whisky at Queen Street station last night!)

– the good people at the art & business hotel in Nürnberg for coping with my attempts at speaking German and for providing me with a cracking breakfast on Sunday morning

– the staff of Zur Gerichtslaube in Berlin just for being very good at what they do (and the couple with whom I shared a table)

– Ellen Huiskamp, from the offices of Treinreiswinkel, in Amsterdam, whose cheerful assistance and reporting of a just released additional Eurostar revived my considerably sagging spirits on Monday afternoon, it seemed to her complete bemusement. And all conducted in faultless English, too (my Dutch not being up to much).

People’s essential humanity never ceases to amaze, as much as the ignorance of faceless corporations never ceases to surprise.

Blogging activity should now resume as normal …

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Written by Calvin

21/04/2010 at 7:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized