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Notes from Lapta, Cyprus – “To fly or not to fly” by Ken Dunn

We have flown to and from the TRNC on many occasions and fortunately have had, so far, only two incidents which I’d rather forget. By coincidence the same airline was involved each time. Which one? Well, I’m sure you can guess. Yes, it was good old CTA. These events were years apart but they still hang heavy in the memory banks.

Have you ever been faced with a ‘denied boarding’ situation? I hope few of you have but when, having booked a flight from Heathrow to Ercan months in advance, we had to endure that rich experience along with several others. That happened twenty years ago but I know it still occurs. Overbooking in any airline is a hazard and has been recognised and frowned on by all for years. Yet they, the airlines, seem to think that allowing this will ensure every flight will be full. Can’t they count? Obviously not.

So, we had arrived at Heathrow, were misdirected to the wrong check-in desks and by the time we found the CTA check-in there must have well over a hundred and fifty people queuing. Only one member of staff sat there and the process of checking the luggage and the issuing of boarding cards was desperately slow. We had joined at the tail end of the queue and shuffled along with the others. Ages later we still moving painfully slowly but there only about twenty folk in front of us when the woman at the desk stood up and said, ‘I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen but the aircraft is full’. A stunned silence fell and then all hell broke loose but she had walked off and that, for the time being, was that.

As a mixture of Turkish Cypriots and Europeans we were all adamant and ‘suggested’ that CTA should be a little more positive and as tempers boiled over a few of the folk at the front began slapping the desk demanding satisfaction. It was a tad rowdy, not exactly life threatening, but someone must have pushed the ‘panic’ button and two minutes later three armed Policemen arrived behind the check-in desk, one of whom slowly walked round and took up station behind us. When I say ‘armed’ I don’t mean a modest small pistol. No, they were all wearing flak-jackets, with all the electronic communication gear hanging from it, and wielding a large automatic machine gun! I thought that was just a little ‘OTT’.

One of them called for calm which only inflamed the situation. A chap next to me muttered doefully, ‘God Almighty. This is bloody worse than Nigerian bloody Airlines.’ The Policeman tried again but then had to shout, ‘Look, here you lot! If you don’t behave you’ll end up behind bars!’ The replies and suggestions he received were not particularly polite and if some of them had been accepted and performed would have been quite painful.

Then a CTA employee emerged from behind the two Policemen and, holding up his arms, asked if he may speak. The hubbub died down and, brave man, he stated that we should come back the following day! The collective reply was rather loud and very, very, negative. Many of us had travelled from all over the UK so that was not an option, besides, what were the chances of this happening again? That was not ‘acceptable’. Anyway, after another half an hour had dragged by this employee had been in touch with head office and told us that a bus would soon arrive, forty minutes or so, to take us to an hotel for a flight the following day but from Stansted!

Vouchers of the princely sum of £4.00 were handed out for refreshments (wow, you can really buy a lot for that at Heathrow) but it was two long hours later when the bus eventually arrived. We clambered aboard and the CTA chap joined us. Someone asked, ‘Which hotel?’ the answer was, ‘The Hilton National.’

‘Oohh!’ someone said. ‘The Hilton!’ But that was not the ‘same’ Hilton which they thought it was. Over an hour later we arrived at this ‘hotel’. It was a two storied, brick box of the ‘let’s go to that hotel and get pissed over the weekend’ variety.

More fun ensued as the Manager had no idea we were coming. Oh, joy! Half an hour later that had been sorted out but CTA had given strict instructions that no phone calls, no drinks, newspapers or anything else would be allowed. A light evening meal was all that they would provide. More rumblings began to grow. So, we were shown to our rooms, tiny doesn’t describe them, and tried to calm down. Needless to say we all ignored the ban on phone calls and the rest and left the hotel to wrangle over that with CTA.

Neither of us could sleep as we were exhausted and we had spent over eight hours getting to this point. The television was of little consolation but we did learn an amazing fact from a news programme that penguins were being bar-coded in the Antarctic, or was it the Arctic? Amazing information.

The following morning we were allowed breakfast and then asked where we could find the bus to take us the mile or so to the airport. ‘What bus?’ the manager asked. CTA had not arranged that either. So, we suggested that we could take the hotel courtesy bus. No, that would not be possible. One of us, almost bursting with anger but, containing his rage, said quietly but firmly, ‘We will take that f’n bus even if we have to f’n hot-wire the f’n thing!’ Ten minutes later we were in the terminal.

We found the CTA check-in desk but sagged with dismay at the sight. Another plane load of people were queuing. We looked at each other and with one mind, without a word, marched to the front of the queue. Explaining what had happened to the staff behind the desk we were politely told to join the end of the queue. We refused and the would be ‘hot-wire’ man said, with a winning smile, ‘If we don’t get on, they don’t get on. OK?’ An hour later we took off leaving behind another twenty unfortunates!

So, we all arrived in the TRNC over a day late and many of my fellow sufferers were adamant they would never fly with CTA ever again. It took almost six months of faxes, letters and threats of legal action before CTA coughed up and paid us the internationally recognised penalty for ‘denied boarding.’ Years later we had another ‘do’ coming back to the UK but of a slightly different kind.

Have you ever noticed that going to the TRNC never seems to take as long as coming back to the UK. Is that just my feeling or is it because we’re going back ‘uphill’, if you see what I mean! Well, some years ago, for us, it did take longer, much longer. On the day of departure we checked in at Ercan very early in the morning, went through to the departure lounge, and after only thirty minutes or so, boarded the plane and off we flew. So, far so good. We were on time but half way over the Med the Captain came over the speakers to inform us all of a slight problem. We’d now be landing at Istanbul instead of Izmir due to a ‘technical difficulty’. That was disappointing enough, but not particularly alarming. It was what he then said which didn’t go down too well.

The technical difficulty was, apparently, a faulty aileron on one of the wings, one of those flappy things. Well, it didn’t seem to be operating properly and on approach to Istanbul we’d have to circle to dump excess fuel. This was standard procedure and we should not worry. And that was all. Not Worry!! I thought ailerons were fairly fundamental and important to how an aircraft flew and the notion of dumping fuel did not bode too well either. I wasn’t the only one feeling a little apprehensive.

As we approached Istanbul the plane began to circle and circle and circle. After forty five minutes of this we eventually landed but I noticed we were a hell of a long way from the Terminal or any other building for that matter. Was this further standard procedure or what? The plane came to a halt and the usual pantomime started of folk getting up, pulling down bags from the overhead lockers and blocking the aisle completely, but then the Captain piped up again asking us to remain seated while the aircraft was inspected. We would not be disembarking and would probably be on our way quite soon.

A wave of relief swept through all of us and so bags were pushed back and we all sat down again. A few minutes later a cacophony of terrible, metallic bangs could be heard, and vibrated through the cabin. Somebody seemed to using a massive sledge hammer to knock seven bells of hell out of the wing on the right hand side. Or should that be ‘starboard’ or ‘port’ or even ‘larboard? Anyway, it was certainly not a very subtle ‘inspection’ or a ‘delicate’ adjustment. This went on for half an hour or so and then silence. The Captain came back on the PA system and, apologetically, told us we would have to transfer to the transit lounge of the terminal building and wait for another aircraft which would be dispatched from Ercan. Groans floated up from all.

Once we were in the transit lounge we were told it would probably be another two hours before the plane arrived. That was code language for, ‘We haven’t got a clue how long it will be.’ Grumbles were getting louder and, after much coercion the staff grudgingly allowed a small bottle of water and a rather stale sandwich for each person. Thanks a lot! The plane arrived four hours later by which time we were all more than just fed up. But we boarded, buckled up and we were off again and without any further problems, except for one that happened after we had landed.

By the time we reached Heathrow it was well after midnight local time and we just managed to catch the last National Express coach to the West Country, or rather Bristol. With hardly any traffic on the M4 we sped along for thirty miles or so but then pulled over onto a slip road and made an unexpected stop. With a sheepish look on his face the driver switched off the engine, clicked on the PA system and told us that he was experiencing a ‘technical difficulty’. Not again!!! That turned out to be a ‘duff’ radiator. The damned thing was overheating and he would have to wait for a mechanic, from Basingstoke of all places, and if a repair could not be done, another coach would arrive to take us the rest of the journey. Oh, joy double whammy!

We didn’t have the will to resurrect any kind of Dunkirk spirit in the circumstances. We were too knackered for that. I did offer my AA Breakdown card but that didn’t go down too well. Two and a half hours later the mechanic had been and gone. No repair was possible. It would have to be towed back to the garage for that. But then another coach arrived and we were able to complete the journey. At the bus station in Bristol it was now almost 4 o’clock in the morning and we still had twenty miles to get back to our house. No local buses ran at that time and there wasn’t a taxi in sight.

Fortunately, or rather miraculously, a young woman, who had been travelling with us, lived close to our place. She phoned her parents and they, bless them, collected all of us and we opened our front door just as the sun was coming up. We’d been travelling, well some of the time, since six thirty the previous day. We left the luggage where we had dropped it, inside the front door. There was only one thing left to do. We opened the duty free!

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