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…. especially when they need you most.

This is the next instalment of my ongoing knee saga – please look away now if you can’t take any more! I’m feeling pretty much the same way myself. It’s not strictly speaking a language or translation-related post, but I felt I had to share this excruciating tale of dreadful customer care. Heaven forbid that we, as service providers, should ever be tempted to treat our clients with such lacklustre care and attention.

Chamonix chalets

My skiing holiday officially came to an end yesterday and my insurance company (Direct Line) had arranged for me to get an assisted flight back to the UK, rather than squeezing my extended leg in its brace into the car with three other occupants AND all our luggage, and enduring the lengthy journey back up to Sussex via the Channel Tunnel. The first inkling I had that all was (yet again) not going to go well was when I realised that I’d been booked onto a flight from Lyon, some 2 1/2 hours from Chamonix, rather than the closest airport, Geneva, just over an hour away. The insurance team had telephoned to offer me alternative flight times, but at no point had they mentioned the departure airport, and it never occurred to me to think that they would choose anywhere other than Geneva (which I’d requested). However, the boarding passes (all three of them, so I could keep my leg elevated across three seats) showed Lyon only too clearly, and my calls to try and get this changed bore no fruit. The die was cast.

The taxi driver arrived bright and early the next morning, in heavy snow, to carry me off to Lyon, commenting as we drove that this was the first time he’d been asked to do an assistance trip from Chamonix to Lyon. We actually made pretty good time and he dropped me off at 10.15, only for me to find that he’d left me at the wrong terminal. The last time I flew from Lyon was 35 years ago when I was working as an English teacher at a chemical factory just outside the city during my year abroad, and the airport had been comparatively tiny in those days. I should probably have checked my ticket too, but you do tend to assume that the taxi driver will have the relevant information in such cases! Of course, I didn’t realise this straightaway and it was only after I’d limped off in the direction of the EasyJet signs (which initially said 5 minutes, then 7, then another 5…), that I thought all this extra walking really wasn’t ideal.

lyon airport

I eventually found the EasyJet check-in desks and headed towards the Special Assistance sign, only to be informed that I’d come to the wrong Special Assistance Desk and needed to go right round the queue to another SA desk several metres along, blocked by one of those temporary barriers. I explained (as if it wasn’t obvious given my leg brace, pronounced limp and three SA tickets) that I’d already had to walk a long way and asked if could they move the barrier so I could go just a few steps instead, but they looked at me as though I was mad and shrugged: “Désolée, madame” – Yes, right, sure you are. Had I been my usual fit and healthy self, of course, I could have ducked underneath, but limbo dancing with a ruptured crucuiate ligament isn’t quite one of my strengths – yet.

Off I trotted to the next desk, feeling increasingly weary, and encountered the next (entirely predictable) hurdle. Only one piece of hand baggage is allowed, madame! Take a deep breath, explain that due to circumstances beyond my control I am travelling back by air with SPECIAL ASSISTANCE and that my insurance company have booked three seats which should surely entitle me to three pieces of hand luggage should I so desire (bite tongue in attempt to control fury). The fact that my handbag and one small denim bag containing a scarf, an iPad and my slippers plus sundry bits and pieces are smaller than most people’s chunky cabin bags is neither here nor there, it seems. Nor do most people usually travel with a spare cabin bag just in case they meet with an accident on their travels and have to return via a different mode of transport… After much muttering and frantic phone calls, I am grudgingly allowed to proceed with my two small bags, and told to go and await the promised assistance at the red chairs outside the café in the check-in hall – oh, and to return to the desk if no-one has turned up within 40 minutes of my flight. Not quite what you want to hear when you’ve been deposited 3 1/4 hours before departure.

As it happened, my damsel with a wheelchair turned up almost immediately, armed with not one, but two wheelchairs, just as I was about to order a much-needed coffee. She still had to find another lost soul, so told me to go ahead with the coffee – thank goodness, as that was to be the last drink I had, or was offered, before getting on the plane.

On her return, she settled me in the wheelchair, leg stuck out ahead without the promised support, but hey-ho, what a surprise. Arriving at security, I had to remove jacket, cardigan, belt, boots (so glad I can touch my toes with straight legs; heaven knows how those who aren’t as supple cope with putting on shoes and socks with this kind of injury otherwise!). Oh, and the brace, of course. And no, I can’t touch the X-ray machine when I walk through as that will set it off, but don’t mind the fact that my knee might give way at any moment and put me in a worst position than I was on the day of the accident… Fortunately (as I was starting to feel physically sick at the thought of falling again), the security lady grabbed my hands from the other side to help me through. Phew.

Back in the wheelchair and reclad in all my gear, I was handed over to an ambulance crew who drove me to the appropriate boarding gate, then into another chair (nearly leaving one of my bags in the ambulance in the process), whereupon they abandoned me in a virtually empty boarding hall. I assumed that this would be my gate, but of course it was far too early for the gate information to show. No sign of a café or water (I’d had to dispose of my bottled water at the security check, bien sûr), but luckily I’d had my coffee, and at least they’d left me right next to the loos.

The hours passed. Immersed in my Kindle (Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – great book, I highly recommend it!), I suddenly realised that my flight was being called (not at this gate, needless to say). My attendants had said they’d be back, so I waited. And waited. And panicked. Half an hour to go, I was seriously beginning to think they’d forgotten me, and limped over to the closest gate to ask one of the staff if they could call someone. She looked at me dismissively and told me curtly to just be patient; they would come (when it suited them no doubt). In the end they did arrive and whisked me through the assembled EasyJet passengers right to the front of the queue – at last we’re getting somewhere, I thought. Silly me.

From pole position, with a tantalising glimpse of the aircraft, there I sat in state while all the other passengers, speedy boarders, families and children, general throng, latecomers one and all, streamed past me and onto the plane. The back steps were wheeled back. The plane tow bar was attached. It seemed that I was invisible. Finally I managed to attract the attention of the frantically busy dispatcher, and was assured that they hadn’t forgotten me, despite all appearances to the contrary, but were awaiting the return of the assistance staff. To be quite honest, I was all prepared to forego the wheelchair and stagger across the apron and up the stairs myself at that point, but no, I had to sit tight. Eventually, they returned and I was elevated in state at the other side of the cabin and into the plane – huge relief on my part.


This was not the end of my trials, however (did you seriously think it might be?!). My ticket showed that I had three seats on Row 4, but looking down the plane, I could see no empty rows of three seats. When I pointed this out, I was ushered to an aisle seat (on Row 3) on the same side as my braced and unbending leg. I pointed out that I couldn’t bend that leg and the crew made great play of asking the man sitting on the opposite side of the aisle to swap sides, so I could sit on the right side, leaving me feeling like a nuisance for insisting, and the staff praising him for his kindness (call me churlish, but I did have three seats booked!). The crew then zoomed straight into their departure presentations, meaning it was another ten minutes before I could attract their attention to say I really needed to have my leg in an elevated position across the three seats. Only when we’ve taken off and the seatbelt signs have gone out, I was tersely told. In the meantime, the leg had to stay stuck out into the aisle – heaven forbid anyone should trip over it… By this stage I was in considerable pain after all the hanging around and unaccustomed walking, but had had no water to take any painkillers. No-one had thought of offering me any water throughout the whole sorry episode – nor, for most if it, had there been anyone to ask. The crew did bring me a beaker of water when I managed to get hold of them to ask, but really? Would it have hurt them to offer, or even to ask whether I was OK and had everything I needed?

On landing, as might have been expected, I was left until last, not that anyone bothered to tell me what was going to happen, leaving me once again to wonder whether they expected me to disembark under my own much depleted steam. But no, the lift was summoned, and off I went, this time into the very competent and extremely helpful hands of the Gatwick special assistance team. What a contrast! They couldn’t have been nicer, or more efficient, keeping me fully informed of what was going to happen, joking and smiling. Now that’s what I call customer service. I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to get back to home soil.

All in all, it was a horrible experience. I don’t suppose returning in the family car would have been any more comfortable due to lack of space, but at least I wouldn’t have been ignored and treated like an unwanted piece of baggage. Given the non-ideal diversion via Lyon, it probably took almost as long – I left the chalet at 8 and got home just before 4, whereas my sons left at 11, stopped off in Reims to stock up on wine and were home at about 9, having had a far more pleasant journey. I really feel for people who are in a wheelchair permanently; they must have to contend with being constantly overlooked and worse. It’s not even as if it was a communication problem as French is one of my languages. People just seem to assume that you are an object to be passed from A to B, not a human with real thoughts, needs and concerns.

Working in the service industry, as we do, we need to remember that providing a service is our raison d’être. We need to make it as easy as possible for our clients to get their material translated into something they can use and understand, just as the role of special assistance should be to assist people in need to get to their destination with as little discomfort as possible. Another salutary lesson on how NOT to do something. People matter and the human approach makes all the difference.

It’s good to be home.

Easter Sunday - home sweet home