Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A bumpy landing

Apparently Christmas isn't just a time for wanton consumption, gluttony and liver abuse. According to Wikipedia it's also some kind of religious holiday (who knew?) when we're supposed to remember those less fortunate than ourselves.

So spare a thought for the people who'll be spending this December shivering in the cold, pressing their drippy noses at the window and gazing enviously at our plentiful feasts. People like Liz Jones, everyone's favourite professional victim and Mail columnist.

Despite pleading poverty several months ago (inspiring hundreds of old people to hand over their meagre pensions so that she could buy organic cat food) our intrepid journalist recently packed up her Vuitton luggage and headed off to Bolivia. How was she to know that while she was away, Britain would descend into wintery chaos.

The poor woman left her hotel in La Paz assuming that she had a relatively stress-free return flight ahead of her, only to find herself stranded in Schipol airport as Heathrow was all-but closed over the weekend. Displaying an ever-present flair for the dramatic, Liz describes the scene that met her in Amsterdam as being similar to that which might follow "a shipwreck or an earthquake". People were forced to change clothes in the terminal, breastfeed in public and, brace yourself, sleep "open-mouthed".

She couldn't understand the Tannoy or find her luggage, an experience that left her feeling like "the walking dead". By now, your eyes are probably blinking back hot tears, so I'll try to spare you some of the gory details of the experience which left Liz "stripped of [her] humanity". Suffice it to say, she found the airport staff unwelcoming and seemingly immune to her cries of "But all my Christmas presents are in the suitcase". It didn't help matters that her weather-appropriate boots were also packed away in her case, leaving her to tramp around a snowy airport in flip-flops.

Now, the churlish readers amongst you might chuckle at the utter lack of common sense it takes to fly back to the UK in late December wearing flimsy beach-wear. But Liz has never been over-endowed with any kind of capability for lateral thinking. Remember, she's the victim here.

And yet, even in the depths of despair, our kind-hearted correspondent was able to empathise with her fellow passengers. Having asked for information about arranging an alternative flight to the UK, Liz says "I was given a piece of paper by another mute employee; this had a phone number on it. (Anyone without a mobile – old ladies, nuns, the weak, the injured – were culled.)" Although, I'm sure that, if push came to shove, even Mother Teresa could have operated a payphone.

After a flight that involved waiting on the runway "for what seemed like the rest of my life" (if only), Liz found herself in Birmingham. It was here that Liz was able to get a lift with another passenger to heathrow. This good Samaritan's name, or the circumstances of his selfless offer? Fuck that - this is Liz's story; there's no room for bleeding-heart liberalism here.

Sadly, Heathrow was even worse than Schipol. Her car was buried under a 'mound' of snow, leaving her unable to unlock it. And the security staff were no use, even when Liz banged on the window of the closed airport and "mimed driving a car".

If you've gnawed your fingers down to the knuckles at this point, wondering whether Liz would ever get home to her hydrotherapy and macrobiotic pet sanctuary, don't worry - it gets better. Industrious to the last, our plucky heroine was able to fashion a makeshift snow shovel from a Pixie Lott CD, and finally made good her escape from the coldest Colditz of car parks.

But she doesn't blame the airport staff who were deaf to her need for unwarranted prioritisation. She understands that the reason they "stood, mute and uncomprehending, shoulders shrugging, staring into space" was because they were contemplating "the life they could have had". Nice touch.

Here's the thing. We all have bad customer experiences - times when we curse our rotten luck and wonder if things could possibly get any worse. Only to discover, moments later, that it already has. We even take to blogs, Twitter and facebook, to find a friendly ear and a sympathetic tut of understanding.

Liz's problem is that she doesn't understand the fundamental problem at the heart of her writing. Liz feels that, because her case was laden with gifts, the airport staff should have been more understanding. And although she relates the story of an elderly couple worried about missing their grandson's first Christmas, she still misses the point.

It's not that the staff don't care. It's that they can't. With tens of thousands of irritated, agitated would-be travellers descending on them, they have to adopt a degree of distance in order to get the job done. When you've heard one sob story, you've heard ten thousand of them.

At times of crisis, everyone has a horror story to share. Unfortunately, in Liz's world, hers is the only one that counts. In the end, she wasn't "stripped" of her humanity, she just discovered what it is to be part of it.

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