It's normally a 17-minute drive from the market town of Hitchin in Hertfordshire to London Luton Airport, so it seemed safe to leave by 5.45am for a 7.15am departure. It was July, and I was flying to Nice with EasyJet; after a few days in Monaco, I would return directly back to Dubai with Emirates, cutting out the necessity of a return flight to the United Kingdom and of passing through London Heathrow.
I was in Hitchin to visit my friends Devi and Prajay, who, among other things, own a multi-million-dirham tech company specialising in artificial intelligence. One of their current virtual-reality projects is with the Facebook-owned Oculus, which will soon allow us to "go places" without any of the usual hassle.
Yet Luton airport, sadly, is all too real in its depressing, badly organised layout and appearance, made worse in this particular peak summer period by construction work causing huge tailbacks on the approach to the airport's car parks and drop-off points.
At 9.15pm on the night before the flight, the airline sent me a vague email warning that "the redevelopments are having an impact on the flow of traffic into the airport ... We strongly recommend that you leave plenty of time to arrive."
I had checked in online, so leaving at 5.45am would allow me to arrive at the airport about an hour in advance, with plenty of time to drop my bag 40 minutes before departure and proceed to the gate. Or so I hoped.
Even so early in the morning, the tailbacks, on roads with only one lane in each direction, stretched for miles, and the chaotic scene before me featured dozens of travellers abandoning their cars and taxis and running up the hill to the airport on foot, dragging their cases behind them. Because I had packed for several small trips back-to-back, and had a large suitcase and hand luggage, I sat tight. I have taken hundreds of flights and never missed one, so didn't imagine starting today.
After being finally dropped off at 6.30am, I entered the airport and followed the surging crowd left. Big mistake: the bag-drop area was to the right. Backtracking, I reached the EasyJet queue and waited. After a couple of minutes, I reached a bag-drop machine and presented my suitcase and boarding pass. "That flight has closed," said a staff member, checking her screen. It was 6.37am. "When?" I asked. "Two minutes ago," she replied. "Well can't you reopen it - there was a lot of traffic and I've been queuing here," I told her. "No, the weights have been calculated. The flight is closed. Sorry."
I headed to the customer- service desk behind the check-in counter to protest, but there was a queue even to do that, and the agent was similarly unmoved. Even worse, the next flight - 12 hours later - was fully booked. The agent wasn't willing to rebook any flight until this one had taken off - and, he said, he couldn't even hold me a seat on the flight the next day until then.
The prospect of an extended stay at Luton instead of a dreamy afternoon in Monaco was too much to bear: somehow, I had to make the flight. After all, despite what the counter agent had said, the flight wasn't technically closed to me, because I had already checked in and had a boarding pass. It was only closed to my bag, which although packed with a newly bought Monaco wardrobe, I could survive without.
I called Prajay. "Can you come and collect my case?" I asked. He was too far away, and wouldn't reach me until after the flight had departed. "Isn't there a left luggage?" he said. "Is there a left luggage?" I asked the EasyJet person. "There is over there, but..." "I'm going to leave the bag there and get on the flight," I said. "Well, if security will let you through..."
I ran, threw my case into left luggage and sprinted through the airport with what clothes I could carry in splitting carrier bags. Laptop, camera, shoes, belt, everything was asked for, but I made it. At about 7am, the gate was still open; other passengers cheered as I reached it. I had my own bus to the aircraft, and once on board, I collapsed into my seat, only to be told that there was a 40-minute air-traffic-control delay. I was so exhausted, I didn't care.
On arrival in Monaco, I told the waiting limo driver that I had a "problem" and needed to visit the nearest shopping mall. Being French, he understood immediately when I told him I had no spare underwear, and drove me there post-haste. I spent €243 (Dh978) on essentials, and we were on our way. I checked into my gorgeous Monaco hotel room, and after a shower, I had an idyllic lunch outdoors on the terrace of the Monte Carlo Casino. I didn't look quite as chic as I had hoped, but I was there.
My friend collected my bag from Luton airport's left luggage, and he's keeping it safe. When I got back from my trip, I complained to EasyJet, and just last week heard that they have sent me a cheque for the €243 because of the "inconvenience". Another reminder that in the UK, you always have to plan for the worst case scenario. And that, no matter what, we should never be held back by our baggage.
Rosemary Behan is the travel editor of The National.
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