We’re supposed to be flying from Manchester airport at 7.10am on Monday morning. Looking at the queues, which have seen travellers waiting up to three hours just to get through security and passport control, my heart is sinking.
This little jaunt to Northern Ireland was meant as a treat for my teenage daughter, before she starts her GCSEs. We’ve been trying to get there for about three years now, since she learned that several iconic filming locations for one of her favourite TV shows, Game of Thrones, are on the north coast.
It’s kind of work for me, as I’m going to write about the property market in Belfast, and a sort of homecoming for my husband, whose grandmother’s family originated from the city. We’ve all been quite excited about it; until now.
Worrying about the flights and the airport experience is causing so much stress I wish we had either decided to go to Flamborough instead (again, can’t beat it) or booked the ferry, as our friends have already done. We’re meeting up with another family when we’re there, also travelling from Barnsley. When we discussed travel arrangements, my daughter looked aghast at the thought of driving to Holyhead in North Wales then sleeping overnight in a cabin for eight hours. Our friends, who will drive to the ferry port on Sunday evening, then sail in comfort, look like they’ve picked the best – and probably most economical – option.
I’m now considering booking a hotel at Manchester airport on Sunday night so we are in prime position to join the queue. That’s at least another £100 on the budget. If we could have secured a suitable flight from a Yorkshire airport, we would have done. Sadly, the pandemic appears to have drastically reduced timetables; we had no choice but to drive across the Pennines.
We’re hardy travellers however and don’t mind a few challenges on any journey. We even managed to get ourselves, and my son and his girlfriend, from Gatwick (not my choice of airport, original flight re-routed more times than I can actually remember) to Croatia last August, with all the attendant LFTs and PCRs, vaccination certificates, passenger locator forms and masks demanded of us, without a hitch.
Yet once again the pandemic and its repercussions has made me feel sad that things we once took for granted have been turned on their heads. Northern Ireland, just an hour away by air, is part of the UK. You might think that getting there would be simple, but not when rising Covid cases amongst ground staff, cabin crew and pilots are causing such huge disruption, and putting flights at risk.
I’m back to scouring my email inbox and checking the EasyJet app every couple of hours in case after all this, our flights are cancelled. Over the weekend, the company cut 222 flights and axed 70 on Monday. As an old hand, I’m well aware that you have to play the long game. Wait for the airline to cancel, never cancel yourself or you’ll lose your money.
Up in the air (sorry for the pun) however, is the airport parking booking and car-hire at the other end. I haven’t pressed the button on the those two yet, just in case; so we’re probably going to end up having to leave the car in a field in Macclesfield and crossing Northern Ireland in a ridiculously over-priced Morris Minor.
Although Covid cases add pique, it does seem that delays and problems at Manchester have been ongoing for some time now. On Tuesday afternoon, amid calls for management to “get a grip”, managing director Karen Smart stepped down to pursue “fresh career opportunities” in the south of England.
However, it’s also reported that similar scenes of chaos and delay are afflicting other major UK airports, including Heathrow and Birmingham. I can only ask, where is Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, when his country needs him?
He was never off our TV screens or airwaves at the height of the pandemic, seemingly finding glee in his new-found power to curtail non-essential overseas trips, even on compassionate grounds. And then he was positively preening when he announced on March 18 that all restrictions on foreign travel had been lifted.
Did neither he, nor any of his Ministers and civil servants, or those who run aviation, not anticipate that getting back to what passes for ‘normal’ might be fraught? Did no-one consider any contingency plans, or accept that the travel industry recruitment crisis bosses complain of has happened because thousands of workers had no choice but to leave the industry two years ago? As the world opens tentatively up, I can’t imagine any of the above are proud of what the UK looks like right now.
I’ve warned my sceptical daughter to brace herself. Ferry (but not P&O, and there’s another Shapps story) might be our only option. Or Flamborough. And there would be nothing wrong with that.