How I acted as a hostage negotiator for 120 Italians
At Stansted Airport over Christmas, Mickey became the star of her very own Italian epic
You may recall that the day after Boxing Day 2017, we had some snow. I remember it very well, because it was the catalyst for the most bizarre airport experience of my life.
I was travelling with my husband and daughter. Destination: Lucca, Italy where my sister lives and where I also resided for a number of years – something that helped me become very fluent in Italian.
The snowy conditions had already caused a two hour road journey to Stansted Airport to extend to three hours. Thankfully we had set off in plenty of time for our evening flight, so everything was fine.
Err… fine that is until we set foot in the terminal building. The hall was filled with many people of various nationalities travelling to a number of different destinations. They all had one thing in common: none of them had any idea what was going on, or if and when they were ever going to fly.
We were now amongst them. It was like being trapped in a war zone. There were hardly any staff in sight. There was nothing on the boards. It was almost impossible to get any information.
People were coming back from departure gates, some of them in tears.
At this stage, we still hadn’t been allocated a gate number. It became clear that the vast majority of people travelling on our flight were Italian. I talked to a few of them, most of whom were aggrieved and frustrated.
After a three and a half hour wait, we eventually learned which gate we were due to depart from. We appeared to have been mixed in with a flight bound for Alicante.
A Ryanair plane was at the terminal. Was this ours? Then, suddenly, around 100 of us were allowed to go down the bridging tunnel that led to a set of steps, which we would descend before walking to the plane.
Except, we didn’t get that far. At the end of the tunnel section, the doors were locked. We waited a while. What was going on?
Some of the more restless passengers had decided to try and go back to the departure lounge to find out what was happening. They discovered that the doors were locked in that direction too.
So we were now locked in a tunnel with two other British passengers and around 120 somewhat annoyed Italians.
More and more of them started to realise that I spoke both Italian and English, so I ended up becoming the spokesperson for the group.
At the end of the tunnel was one of those wall-mounted red telephones with a sign saying, “For Emergency Use Only”. Well, you know what it’s like being a Brit. We don’t like to make a fuss. It has to be a real emergency to pick up such a phone.
I thought, “We’ve got 120 people locked in a tunnel with some of them getting very annoyed and banging on the doors”. One gent in particular appeared to be on the verge of losing it. “OK”, I thought, “This is now enough of an emergency”. I picked up the phone.
The man on the end of the line said there was nothing he could do, and that it was all the fault of the people at the departure gate for letting us in.
Eventually, after much hammering and shouting on the door back to the departure lounge, one of the staff came and opened it. He told us we couldn’t be allowed back into the departure lounge because we’d already been checked through.
I was also informed that the reason we couldn’t get on the plane because two disabled passengers who had been on the incoming flight were still stuck on the aircraft because there were no special assistants available to help take them off.
Some of the Italians who had come with me decided to vent their frustration by shouting at him in their native language. I managed to placate them, but then had to go back down the corridor and explain all this to the others.
By this point, I became aware that I had become known to my fellow passengers as “L’interprete” or “The Interpreter”. Obviously this was not because of my likeness to Nicole Kidman, but purely down to my linguistic ability.
I had to explain to them that, no, they were not going to be allowed to remove the disabled passenger themselves, and also that it was really not a good idea to call the police and say they were being held hostage at the airport (I suspected that the possible arrival of the SAS might delay us even further).
I spoke to man on the red line again. By now it was 11:30 pm and I got the feeling I was interrupting his evening. He’d possibly just made himself a cup of cocoa and I was now disturbing him. But, I had to insist that there was no way I was going to tell 120 Italians that they were not going to be allowed to go to the toilet and that we were going to go back into the departure area whether the staff liked it or not.
Four and a half hours later than scheduled, we boarded. As we were flying over the Alps, the captain came over the intercom to say there was a problem.
“Are we going to be locked into the plane on landing?” I mused. Or maybe he was about to tell us we were doomed to crash into a mountain.
After these thoughts flashed into my mind, it was something of a relief to hear that Pisa Airport was closed, and that we were being diverted to Bologna. Which meant a 2.5 hour coach trip on landing. Joy.
On reaching our destination around 7 am, we only had to wait a further hour for the car hire centre to open. All in all then, a relaxing journey!
Now, at the end of a blog it is customary to sum up what business lessons we can learn.
Well, I think it’s safe to say that keeping up communication with your clients, especially when things don’t go as planned, is much better than telling them nothing.
It’s also fair conclude that locking 120 paying customers in a tunnel and not letting them go to the toilet isn’t the best PR strategy if you are looking for future word of mouth recommendations.
Having said that, I can attest to the eternal power of networking and using your abilities to their full potential. Thankfully, my Italian skills helped keep the lid on a situation which otherwise might have been even more fraught than it was. Plus, by chatting to fellow passengers I made a couple of very nice new friends.
Maybe next time you’re held up somewhere, you might find your next client. I just hope it’s not the man on the end of the red telephone.