Anguish in Athens

June 3, 2010

in Airport Stories

Even though there are many tales of woe listed on this site, I think my story competes with the worst, for an all-around emotional pounding and bad treatment of customers.

It was March 2006. I had flown on Olympic Airlines from JFK to Athens, Greece for a week-long Aegean Sea cruise that was designed to show us the total solar eclipse occurring in that part of the world that week. Now a week later, I was returning (or at least attempting to). My outbound flight the week prior had gone without a hitch and had arrived in Athens on time. The cruise had been a difficult one (for a lot of reasons that I won’t go into here) and so I was approaching the Athens airport sleep-weary but rather relieved, for this was my chance to go home. Or so I thought.

Check-in at the airport was routine, and our blue Olympic Airlines Airbus was parked outside the gate window. I sat down and waited for the midday flight to board. About a half-hour before boarding time, there was a tersely announced delay due to “operational reasons.” The delay was repeatedly extended (“operational reasons” was stated each time), until several hours had gone by and it was late afternoon. I knew by then that I would miss my connection in New York. Each announcement was made in Greek and then English, and I could tell from the downcast faces of the Greek-speakers what was in store for us even before the English translation was read.

Around the check-in desk, a group of angry would-be passengers were gathering around the attendant posted there, their voices rising in uncomfortably loud volleys of Greek that I didn’t understand. Misinformation and rumors were rampant among those of us waiting for the flight. The airline made no effort to clarify the problem, or to provide us with guidance, amenities, food, etc. The afternoon hours were incredibly long and trying, and there was a security check immediately prior to the gate with no food, water, or bathrooms inside the gate area. This meant that one had to leave and re-enter security to get any of these things. I had made a few friends on the cruise earlier, and they went and got some water bottles for me, thus helping me conserve my limited energy.

In the early evening, things really got ugly. Apparently the crew for the JFK flight was on strike, which we belatedly learned either from rumor or someone from the airline, I can’t recall. We had to leave security and re-enter customs at least a couple of times, as we were made to stand in successive lines for new seats on another flight that they had reportedly found a crew for. The airline had only one or two agents manually processing new boarding passes for the entire flight, so everything was incredibly long and chaotic. People to a large extent were guessing what was going on, including where the lines were supposed to be. The situation was excruciating. There were agitated people and raised voices everywhere, and the airline made no attempt to impose order or streamline the process. For each passenger, the agent had to painstakingly ruffle through a huge stack of old boarding passes to do the reassignment. Horrifyingly, I nearly lost my passport in the chaos when, on request, I handed it to a fellow cruise passenger ahead of me in an effort to streamline things. There were a few people with physical limitations dealing with the situation, and I really felt for them. No effort was made to help them, or anyone else. It was nearly total disorder. I had not checked any luggage, which I felt grateful for. Those who had were probably wondering what would become of it.

Somehow, I made my way to the front of the disorderly line and got what I thought was a reassigned seat on the new flight, which we heard would leave for JFK close to midnight. I went back through security and took my seat in a relatively quiet gate area, as other passengers who had survived the chaotic line emerged with their assignments. By now it was 9 pm and it had been 9 hours since the first announced delay. I was very tired and my contact lenses were starting to give out on me. Despite this, I was relatively young and in good physical shape and was traveling alone. I felt sorry for those who had less resources than I to cope with all this. I peered through the gate’s dark window, trying to see if a plane was parked there. Was my ordeal over? Dared I believe that they really had a flight to take us back to the U.S.?

Around 11:00 that night, an agent appeared at the gate’s desk and made this curt announcement, with no further explanation: “Your flight xxx, scheduled to leave at 11:30, will not leave at 11:30 due to operational reasons.” At this, piercing screams and shouts emerged from the exhausted and angry would-be passengers, and I felt afraid, queasy, and thoroughly frustrated all at once. I wondered if I would witness a breakdown of civilized order. By now, my desire to get out of there was beyond words. The group, including myself, was herded back through customs yet again. I remember getting a voucher for the Sofitel airport hotel, which fortunately was just across the street from the main terminal. I also heard that the flight was now officially, finally, cancelled and that was the reason for the vouchers.

I checked into the hotel – fortunately this proceeded without incident – but was too exhausted to sleep (if that makes any sense). The time was about 3pm back at home, so I called my travel agent there to explain the situation, and she reviewed the limited options for getting home on other airlines. Then, I tried to go to sleep, but this was mostly unsuccessful.

Our group had heard that the airline might call the hotel room of each stranded passenger with new arrangements, but I was thinking that to get home, I would have to address matters directly. So at 5:00 in the morning, I left the hotel, went to the terminal, and tried to find agents to help. Fortunately, I did, despite the early hour. With difficulty, I tentatively booked some seats on a Lufthansa flight to leave the next day, then a big break occurred – an Olympic Airlines agent suddenly said they could put me on a flight to Montreal later that same morning. This wasn’t my original connection plan home, but I eagerly took it, since it was a chance to leave. At least it would get me on the right side of the ocean! I went back to my hotel room for a brief rest, then returned to the terminal and began check-in for the new flight.

The airline wasn’t done with me just yet – this flight left 40 minutes late (loading cargo was the reason, we were told), but leave it did. As it climbed into the air and I saw Athens receding into the distance, I felt very elated. As we left Greek airspace, the passengers – many of which had been on the tour and had gone through the ordeal of the cancelled flight – broke into applause. The rest of my trip home was a happy and relieved one. I faced a 10-hour flight to Montreal, then the task of finding (and paying for) a flight home from there, but I didn’t care – I was going home and that’s all that mattered.

On returning home, family members came to pick me up at the airport. Due to cumulative lack of sleep, my gait was unsteady, and at one point I stumbled into a chain-link fence alongside the airport exit. I was in no condition to drive. I promptly announced to family and friends that I had no intention of traveling overseas ever again and that my future vacation destinations would be New York and Chicago. I’ve broken this vow, having traveled overseas several times since this ordeal, but it is never far from my mind. Since its occurrence, I have tended to be far more willing than my fellow travelers to believe that my flight may be delayed or cancelled, and I’m more likely to build contingencies into my planning as a result. (Murphy’s Law, anyone?) And I do not plan to fly Olympic Airlines ever again.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim June 4, 2010 at 11:18 am

I don't want to be inconsiderate…but, that was a long ass story to simply state, your flight was cancelled.

I'm sure you were upset. I'm sure it sucked. But, not really a flight from hell….unfortunately, flights are cancelled every day. Luckily, it didn't happen on your way to vacation, because then you would have missed days on your cruise.

Sorry this happened to you…but, again…a long story for a cancellation


MM June 4, 2010 at 11:23 am

Agreed, this was a bummer, and I'd feel like I was in hell at the time I guess. But a flight cancellation isn't really on par with the worst things that could happen during the flight experience. People sit at the airport all day all the time.


D-Money June 4, 2010 at 2:01 pm

No fatties? No stinkers? No pukers? No poopers? No screamers? No seat-kickers? No, uh, AIRPLANE?

How can this be a "flight from hell" when there was no flight at all?


lucyloo June 6, 2010 at 9:15 am

This was a pretty long boring story. I read the first couple of paragraphs then the comments and got enough information. I too have a story posted on here when I was felt up by the guy sitting next to me. Sorry but I'd rather have my flight cancelled than go through that again.


Gregg - admin June 6, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Here's lucyloo's story for those who haven't read it yet: The Creepy Passenger.


imacruiseaholic June 17, 2012 at 3:33 am

No checked baggage after a 1 week cruise…whatdyado…wear the same clothes every day..or have upteen carryons?


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