By Rick Sallinger


(CBS4) – It was to be a trip to an exotic location and a chance for a father and his younger son to spend some good bonding time. It became an unimaginable debacle.

(credit: CBS)

Sitting at Denver International Airport exactly a week before Christmas, our anticipation was high. With three hours scheduled to change flights in London within the same terminal it all looked fine on paper. Our flight ended up leaving Denver an hour late, but we still felt quite confident.

We had good luck in the past with Norwegian Airlines, but this flight was outsourced to Wamos Airlines based in Madrid, Spain. Somehow we lost another hour on route from the scheduled arrival time. Our anxiety was setting in as we touched down at London’s Gatwick airport. We were now down to less than an hour between flights and had to switch airlines.

Racing off the plane we nearly ran for the British Airways gates. We felt like contestants in The Amazing Race when a big hurdle jumped in front of us. That hurdle was more like being tackled, we had to go through security again. By the way, if you are going through airport security in Britain be sure to put your liquids in a clear plastic bag or they will nail you.

Well, we missed our connection. Despite our sad faces at the British Airways help desk, we got no sympathy. Since we hadn’t arrived on BA the only assistance they provided was suggesting we buy new tickets at our own expense.

Not wanting to give up our adventure to Morocco, we shelled out a small fortune for an Air Arabia flight. So now all is fine right? That’s what we thought as our new flight pushed away from the gate and taxied to the runway.

We were so close to taking off my son, 21, started picking out things to do from the Marrakech guidebook borrowed from the Denver Public Library … but wait, we were not moving.

After a while the pilot delivered the discouraging news: all Gatwick Airport traffic was halted due to “an object on the runway.” Well, that was not exactly right. After a few more hours with our plane still sitting in the same location. I found a London Telegraph online article stating the operations were shut down due to two drones spotted interfering with air traffic.

I privately thought “Shoot them down and let us get to our beautiful prepaid hotel in deep in the Medina of Marrakech.” The pilot later confirmed the news reports. Yes, I know drones can be very dangerous if ingested into a plane’s engine or if there is a collision.

After waiting for takeoff for five hours on the plane, about 2 a.m. the pilot announced our flight was postponed until 3 p.m. the next day and that the ground staff would help us with overnight accommodations. Right.

As we got off the plane a guy in a yellow vest informed us we were on our own and oh yes, all hotels were already filled with others in the same predicament as us.

Now 27 hours since leaving Denver, my idea of father/son bonding did not include a night on the floor of Gatwick airport.

(credit: CBS)

I headed to the Bloch Hotel inside the airport where a desk clerk named Sanford took pity on us. While he informed they us had no rooms, he took the trouble to call around until he found us one at a nearby Marriott Courtyard.

A fresh hotel room with beds never looked and felt so good. We slept until noon, but when we awoke the real life holiday nightmare was not over. The news reported more drone sightings and no planes going anywhere into or out of Gatwick. We were far from alone. Estimates were 1,000 flights were affected derailing some 130,000 passenger’s holiday dreams.

(credit: CBS)

There was a couple on our flight who were going to Morocco to get married. I clearly realize our difficulties seemed minor compared to so many others. We learned our hotel was fully booked for the next night, so now what? As visions of Marrakech and my bank balance fading away it was time for Plan B. Fortunately one of my very best friends lives in London. I held my breath and called asking which continent he was on (he was soon to leave for Australia).

Explaining our sad situation, without hesitation he said, “Come on over.”

We had surrendered, after all the planning and expense we had to give up on Morocco. Next, we tried to book a flight to our next stop in Spain. Due to the chaos at Gatwick nearly all flights from other London airports were already filled for the next three days. We booked a flight for Sunday to Barcelona.

(credit: CBS)

To make an already too-long story a bit shorter, in effect what happened was that we traded our vacation in Marrakech for one in London which turned out just fine. Instead of Moroccan souks and kasbahs went traded for Camden Market and Windsor Castle. As for those awful drones, a couple was arrested then promptly released with a statement from authorities that those people were not involved. There was even the suggestion by one investigator that there were really no drones at all despite nearly 100 reports of sightings. That theory was later walked back.

Now comes the hard part for me — trying to “claw back” all that money spent on tickets to nowhere.

Rick Sallinger

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