I recently had a vacation in Cyprus using the services of Finnmatkat and TUIfly Nordic. The part of the travel agency was handled in a professional manner, as you'll see later, but the same can't be said for the airline. It was not really an epic failure, but a noteworthy episode non the less.
The day before departure we (me, my parents, the family of my sister and my grandmother) had been notified via SMS that the aircraft that was supposed to carry us to Cyprus, was expriencing technical difficulties (i.e. it was broken). It had been replaced with another similar Boeing 757, which apparently mixed up some seat reservations. Considering that those cost between 17 to 45 euros, we hadn't made any, so it didn't really bother us. Arriving at the Helsinki-Vantaa airport I was once again reminded why airtravel hasn't had any glamour for a long time. The charter side of the check-in was being remodeled, and we all quite likely know how good a construction site looks like... Well, that of course is not the fault of the airline, but gives a nice touch of a reality check. Just in case someone from Finavia is reading this, please install acoustic panels to the new long-distance terminal. The echo is quite dramatic when it's virtually empty. It's also quite boring in the morning when most shops are closed.
Arriving at the gate we found out that the carrier had been changed to Air Finland (or rather the TUIfly plane was still broken and they bought the flight as a service from Air Finland). It was quite amusing to read from the in-flight magazine about how efficient and environmetally friendly the TUIfly fleet is, considering that we weren't on one of their planes. The departure was late for a about the usual half an hour, but we got to our destination in time. The meals (19 euros) were ok for airline food, but interestingly the food tray doesn't contain any drinks, not even water (2 euros / bottle).
So far so good, but the real treat was the way back.
The original schedule for the return flight was: departure from LCA at 11:50, landing in HEL at 16:10. I woke up at around half past seven in the morning, as the airport bus was supposed to pick us up after eight. As you may have guessed already, things didn't go quite according to plan. Just before eight we got an SMS saying "Return flight delayed, more info at noon". Right...
At this point I think it's necessary to explain how the chartered holiday-flights from Finland to Cyprus work. A plane leaves form HEL in the morning, flies about 4 hours to LCA, changes cargo and passengers and flies back to HEL. So it's just a single plane flying there and back again straight away. Therefore I knew the plane carrying us back to Finland was supposed to have departed from HEL at 6:25 in the morning. To get some feeling for the expected delay, I went to the lobby of the hotel and browsed the departure list of HEL to see if the flight was still there. And there it was, right on top of the list. "Delayed until 19:00". Fuck.
Adjusting mentally for the 12,5 hour delay, we waited for the 12 o'clock deadline. More SMS's came before that, notifying us that a bus would pick us up at noon and transport us to a hotel in Nicosia, where they would serve us lunch and dinner. Being punctual Finns we waited half an hour for the bus, which came at 12:30. On the bus we were told that the hotel would be Hilton Cyprus, lunch would be served at three and dinner at seven, one beverage included. The expected departure to the airport was at nine in the evening, if the schedule held.
The check-in at Hilton was a bit of a chaos, but that was to be expected, as the whole planeload arrived at once. Admittedly, the 5 star hotel was a nice touch. Upon arrival, I noticed a light blue Bentley Continental GT convertible parked just outside. Not exactly a poor man's car, but then again, there was a black Bentley Continental GT parked outside our 3 star hotel in Lemesos. Not a convertible, though.
As expected, the Hilton was quite grand and I even got an executive room. Lunch and dinner buffets were great, so pretty much the only complaint is that they don't provide free internet access (and our 3 star hotel had softer toilet paper). They do have an interesting concept for delivering the internet connectivity, though. Each room has a TP-Link WLAN-router with a 4-port ethernet switch. The antennas are removed, so essentially the whole hotel is filled with WLAN-microcells.
(Apparently the reason why we were accomodated in Nicosia instead of Larnaca is that this episode occured during Pentecost, so the locals were filling the hotels in coastal cities.)
After another bus ride we arrived at LCA. The new terminal at Larnaca International Airport is very nice and cosy and feels like a brand new airport should; polished and functional. When the plane was towed onto the gate just before midnight, it wasn't very surprising to find out it wasn't a TUIfly plane. It was FlyLAL charter from Lithuania, but it felt more like a FlyLOL at that point. Fortunately the plane was a 737 (smaller than the original 757), so we were split into two aircrafts and as a result I had three seats for myself. Unfortunately I was sitting in front of a family with a little girl, who screamed for half of the flight. Curiously, we had been told that the flight had been delayed due to technical difficulties (i.e. the plane was broken again and they had to charter another one), but the flight attendant said it was "still late from it's previous route". Sounds a bit dubious to me.
Anyway, we did fly from HEL to LCA and back on TUIfly, but the only time we saw a TUIfly plane, it was parked on the apron at LCA and we were inside the terminal. Don't even know what they look like on the inside. They could even be magical for all I know.
A slight further delay on departure brought us to a total of 13 hours late. We arrived in HEL around five in the morning and took a taxi to my parents' place, where we had breakfast. I reached the office at about half past eight on that Tuesday morning, almost fell asleep on the bus on my way home in the afternoon, and got to bed at six after being up and about for more than 34 hours with almost no sleep. After 14 hours it was morning again.
Last week I heard from a travel guide that the same return flight a week later was 3 hours late.
As a side note, the catering company for the return flight had an interesting approach to special in-flight meals (lactose free and diabetic meals, that is). They just stripped away the unsuitable bits and didn't replace them with anything, so as a result the more expensive special meals were actually worse than the basic ones.
"Know your rights"-section regarding travel when things don't go as planned: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulation_261/2004
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