Japan, December 2014: Day One (again, kinda)

With the months of buildup leading to our final day in the country, and with only an evening at work between us and Tokyo, the news, “Air Traffic Control Chaos” wasn’t exactly how I had envisioned this night beginning. “Flights cancelled”, “Aircraft grounded”, “Planes diverted”… I was feeling pretty helpless reading the drama ensuing at Heathrow as I walked to work. With Em at home checking our flight status, it appeared we were one of the fortunate ones to be unaffected by the computer system downtime. Either way, we had booked a hotel for the night so at least we would be at the airport tomorrow morning whatever happens.

After leaving work at around 22:30, we set off on the long, but relatively straightforward drive to Heathrow Airport in order to check into our hotel. However, the motoring gods are a cruel, heartless bunch and decided this night was a great time to take vengeance on me for whatever reason. According to the Highways Agency, they’d closed the A36 just south of us, so we were forced to endure the drive up to, and along the (even dull in the daytime) M4. Once on the motorway and up to cruising speed, the ominous yellow glow of a service sign appeared on the horizon.

The sign read “M4 Closed J11-J8”, a good, unavoidable chunk of the road to Heathrow was now impassable. Frantically searching Google Maps for an alternate route, the obvious plan would be to drive down the A34 and rejoin our original route of the A303/M3. Not to be beaten, the Gods had foreseen our logic and also closed the M3 near Camberley. Not wishing to try and navigate our way around unfamiliar A-roads in an already tired and stressed state, we pulled into the Services and regrouped.

A study of the Highways Agency (HA) website indicated that the only possible route to Heathrow from the M4 was up the A34 and down the M40 via Oxford. This was turning into a midnight mystery tour of all the places we’ve previously lived. How can they cut off the South West so effectively? As we joined the M40, a final check of the HA website should have put our minds at ease for the rest of the journey; but that would be too easy. Already running an hour late, we discovered that the slip road from the M25 to the M4 Heathrow junction was also closed. You couldn’t make this up. We eventually parked up in the hotel at 2AM, 2 hours late, and were promptly greeted by someone throwing up on the floor in the reception area – gotta love work’s Christmas parties.

After a few hours of sleep, we were up and out to drop the car off at the Terminal before checking in. This was comparatively stress free compared to the journey to get here. As we waited, and waited, and waited for our Gate Number to be shown, we wondered if they had forgotten where they had parked it after yesterday’s breakdown of the Air Traffic Control system. Whilst other flights boarded and took off, we were left staring at a screen, puzzled as to why our flight seemed forgotten about. Eventually our Gate was displayed and we made our way to the waiting room, here we sat for another hour whilst we were told that there had been an error with the gate and the crew hadn’t been able to get on board. An hour late, we were allowed to board and the plane was pushed out of the Gate. This was promptly followed by plumes of smoke, presumably from the right engine on the opposite side to us. The aircraft taxied for a while before turning off the runway to an empty Terminal.

The pilot pointed out the fact that we had stopped and cited an “air conditioner” issue that would be looked at shortly. Obviously, safety is paramount and so we sat and waited for the “air conditioner” engineer to look at the engine. After about an hour, one packet of crisps and a TV show later, we were told that they were still examining the problem and that it was now a “sensor issue”… Anyone who follows F1 will be familiar with the old “sensor issue” statement as it’s usually preceded by images of a car in flames, parked at the side of the track. By the time Emma had finished watching a film, we were still no closer to Japan. It was another hour before they informed us that the crew weren’t allowed to work longer than the flight would take, so we would have to disembark and be put up in a local hotel for the night.


Virgin Atlantic woes
Virgin Atlantic woes

As Emma pointed out, if there was one plane, one group of people you would prefer to be dealing with at this stage, it would be the mild-mannered, polite Japanese people of this flight. Everyone knew this was an unavoidable incident, nobody got angry, the crew were apologising to everyone personally; it was unfortunate, but better to be stuck in a 4-star London hotel, than on a runway in Russia somewhere I guess?!

Annoyed that we were losing a day of the holiday, but surprisingly calm due to the fact there wasn’t anything else we could do, we boarded buses and headed back to collect our luggage. Whilst many took to social media to moan about the cancelled flight, I put a polite message on Twitter aimed at Virgin Atlantic in a cheeky attempt to get a couple of days extra holiday out of them. No sooner had I posted the tweet, my phone started ringing. I’ll be honest and say I’m impressed. Rita, from Virgin’s Social Media Team, was straight on the case, knew all our details and had the booking team change our itinerary immediately. I hadn’t asked Emma, but as we had nothing else planned for Christmas Day, we might as well spend it in the best city on the planet.

We collected our bags, cleared customs and got a train to our hotel. Hopefully today will be a more successful one!