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Notes from Lapta, Cyprus – CTA, R.I.P by Ken Dunn

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…. but time’s up for CTA and what’s happening about the launch of the much trumpeted ‘new’ airline? No one seems to know. With the demise of CTA last year we were two of thousands who were stranded in the TRNC without a flight back to the UK. Atlas Jet came to the rescue but that wasn’t all plain sailing. With a first come, first served situation I had to wade through an enormous crowd at Ercan Airport, elbows sharpened and flexing in every direction, to battle through to the check in desk to stake our claim for a seat on the plane.

This was far worse than the earlier ‘ash cloud’ debacle but after that happened we didn’t mind having to ‘endure’ an extra week of being in the TRNC. Oh, dear. What a chore that was! Fortunately, we had our house in Lapta so it didn’t really cost us a great deal, unlike many tourists who had to pay for unexpected hotel bills and living costs until they were able to return. Since then, as with many other folk, we’ve had to think again about who to fly with. With CTA gone, prices on other airlines, Turkish Airlines, Pegasus and the rest shot up alarmingly. Some quotes offered flights, one way only, for well over £400! Naughty, very naughty!

So, what to do? Grudgingly, we booked with Easyjet last time from Gatwick to Larnaca but that had to be done carefully to ensure they didn’t charge us for breathing! We could have flown with them from Bristol, as that’s only twenty miles from us, but who wants to go to Paphos only and then catch a taxi all the way to Lapta? Fortunately, a couple of good friends of ours live minutes from Gatwick so we were able to drive to them, stay overnight, leave the car and the following morning were transported to the airport and off we flew.

That was fine. We arrived on time, were picked up by other friends of ours and were in Lapta well before midnight. But here’s a tip about Easyjet before boarding. It can be a bit of a scrum getting onto the plane. No seat bookings unless you pay through the nose, but, if you queue on the right, not the left, in front of the desk at the final check in point you’ll be asked in first! Well, that’s after the few idiots who have pre-booked and paid £15 or so for their ‘easy boarding’ status.

Anyway, in reflective mode, remembering all the shoving and pushing of the previous year, the demise of CTA and the mayhem at Ercan, attempting to take advantage of the rescue by Atlas Jet, it reminded me of the old days of CTA. Now that was a real challenge from Heathrow but much more so on the return journey from Ercan.

Before the early 90’s CTA did not allocate seats at the check in desks in the way most airlines do now. Oh, no. Once through check in, security and into the departure lounge you had to be fully alert as to when the flight might be called and which departure gate to go to. Once it flashed up the screens it was a case of ‘GO!!’ to scuttle along those endless corridors and find a seat as close as possible to the final check in point. When the gate eventually opened to the aircraft all hell would break loose!

Civilised people returned to their basic instincts, pushing and elbowing anyone from their path, running down the connecting corridor to the plane, jamming the entrance and fighting each other to find a prime seat, either at the front of the cabin, for a quick departure when we arrived, or the seats next to the emergency exits which always had much more room than the rest.

The cabin staff were noticeably absent, taking refuge in the galley, cockpit or anywhere else, having had great experience of this madness over the years. They offered absolutely no help whatsoever as old and young fought, yes fought, with each other, up and down the central aisle over who was sitting where and who had arrived first!

The warfare usually took a good half hour before tempers simmered down and people sat, grudgingly in seats they had to accept, or grinning over the ones they had won. The cabin staff would then reappear, safe in the knowledge that the worst was over but with still a few problems to deal with. Huge bags were always sitting in the aisle, blocking any possibility of movement. The lockers above were usually open and overflowing with unidentifiable fabric and plastic bags wound up with that wide, brown sticky tape. I’ve seen a young Turkish gentleman sitting in an aisle seat, holding a full, cut glass chandelier by the top, a good two feet in diameter, content to hang on to it like that all the way to Cyprus. It took some time before the cabin staff, all four of them, persuaded him that it must go into the hold!

On one occasion, and I had never seen it before or since, the aircraft was completely full but three folk milled around in the aisle and couldn’t find a seat. Their tickets were checked at least twice by the cabin staff and they presumably proved to be perfectly valid as the cabin staff simply shrugged and walked off. Twenty minutes later the plane took off and these characters stood all the way! Strap hanging to Cyprus!!

The journey itself was usually without incident but passions could still be at a high level. The delivery of the statutory meal had its dangers in that several folk often objected strongly to whatever it was they had been given. Eventually we landed in Turkey for the hour or so it used to take. Some folk would disembark and then the ‘officials’ came on board to count us, then check all our passports, count us again then huddle together checking their collective information, one to another, before eventually leaving.

I’ve often wondered if they thought someone had left the plane mid-flight or had somehow parachuted in illegally! On one flight, as we waited to take off, the ‘musak’ playing over the sound system seemed a bit odd, slightly Turkish but not quite. I listened and listened and then realised it was actually the Beatles singing ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ but it was being played backwards! I tried to point this out to one of the sour faced cabin staff but she would not listen and dismissed my plea to reverse the tape, or whatever it was they had. Fifteen minutes later the music suddenly stopped, a few pops and crackles were heard and then the Beatles began again, this time the right way round!

Half an hour before we took off again for Ercan other people would arrive to fill the empty seats vacated earlier. The same scuffling for seats would go on but at least at a less frenetic level. Nonetheless you had to be aware of the activity in the aisle and be ready to defend yourself from having your head clouted or your feet stamped on as this was going on. Arrival at Ercan was just as dangerous as getting on the aircraft at Heathrow. Before the plane had even taxied anywhere near the terminal a mad scramble would take place as lockers were thrown open, luggage cascading everywhere, and a scrum for the doors filled the aisles with squirming people. With the steps in place the doors opened and a race began to get into the terminal and through passport control.

We never bothered, content to sit in our seats until these idiots cleared the plane. Passport control then, was the slowest process known to man so it didn’t matter one jot how quickly you made it there, it would still be a good half hour of waiting in a queue while the policemen on duty checked every page of a passport, as if reading a difficult text of Latin, then indolently stamping it and handing it back limply. The final part of all of this was the feeling of sheer relief to find your luggage appearing on the incredibly creaky and slow carousel.

But then, after however many weeks, there was the fun and games of returning to the UK! Being in Lapta didn’t help as we always had to fall out of bed at three in the morning, use the bathroom, and wake up for the journey to be sure of getting to the airport for the seven thirty or eight o’clock flight. Not much fun after having had too many Rakis the night before.

Old Ercan was not good. No air conditioning, too many people in too small a space and a bad tempered mob trying to check in. It wasn’t unusual to shuffle slowly forward to the check in desk for over an hour and a half before passing the luggage through, then over to another long queue to a somewhat lax security point and then into the departure lounge. Everyone seemed to smoke in those days so the air was a trifle thick, mingled with sweat and expectation, most folk sitting as close as they could to the doors which would give access to the plane.

Mumbled announcements, usually complete gibberish, were ignored. All eyes were on the desk by the door. As soon as anyone with an official tag moved near to it a surge of people would follow, jockeying for position to be the first across the tarmac.

When the doors did eventually open and boarding passes checked, a mad dash took place, halted only by the need to check your own luggage, piled up on the tarmac in front of the plane. Once spotted you had to point at your bag, nod to any of the ground staff who would then take it to a trailer to be loaded into the hold. Then you had to sprint, racing grannies, kids, men and women, young and old, all attempting a world record over the remaining fifty yards or so and up the steps of the plane to grab the best seats and all that would entail, as on the journey out. Grannies dressed in black were the worst, not caring who they incapacitated with a vicious elbow or a sideswiping foot. Happy days!

So what will happen this year or the next with regard to CTA’s replacement? I have to say that CTA, in the last two years of it operating were, for us at least, just beginning to get their act together. All the flights we made were on time, cabin staff had been coached to actually smile and be helpful and the food wasn’t bad. I can only hope that whoever can provide a ‘new’ CTA will extract their several digits from their cavernous orifices and realise that without a viable replacement the economy of the TRNC is bound to suffer.

There was only one airline in the early 80’s which was far, far worse than CTA ever could have been. It’s long gone now and I think it only flew for a couple of years before disappearing up its own jetstream. That was called ‘Toros’. Grim looking cabin staff were dressed in para-military uniforms, khaki from head to toe. Berets, badges, epaulettes, brass buttons, belts, boots, et al. The designer of these outfits must have taken inspiration from First World War Army photographs. Passengers were ignored completely. When the food arrived it was almost thrown at you. I think the cabin staff were women but I’ve never been sure. The only things missing from their uniforms were a Kalashnikov automatic weapon slung across one shoulder and knuckle dusters on each hand, but then, that’s another story.

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