LenWilliams.com

People and places

Author: len123456789

Ethiopian ethnic: how migrants use culture for commerce

The decision that a lot of migrants make, to use their own ethnicity for the sake of commerce, is very common. I myself have done it – in the past I’ve worked abroad as an English teacher. Some students I had in France expressly chose me as a teacher over, say, Americans, because they thought the British accent was simply more ‘correct’ – my accent literally won me work. Which is odd really – my only real qualification over the competition was the fact I happen to be British. This use of culture as a means of making money is also quite problematic – it depends on reusing other people’s stereotypes (the unfounded French belief that British English is somehow better than American English) as an advantage.

I came away with a very similar impression after I spent an hour or so one Saturday afternoon in the Hamer Ethiopian Restaurant just near Finsbury Park station. I’d been talking to the owner, Hana Teklmariam, and Biruk Teklu another Ethiopian who happened to be in the restaurant and helped interpret my questions. I’d eaten at the restaurant before – it’s one of four or five Ethiopian restaurants in Finsbury Park, serving the capital’s reasonably large community—according to ONS statistics there are around 15,000 Ethiopians in the UK of which 11,000 live in London.

Hana told me that her restaurant is the third in a series of Ethiopian restaurants which have been housed on the site, the first of which was launched about 25 years ago and was, she said, the first Ethiopian restaurant in the UK. The owner of that enterprise apparently emigrated to the US, and Hana eventually took over the business from its second owner after having worked there following her arrival in 2003. Today, she works 24/7 keeping the place going according to Biruk, who informed me “she is a very friendly lady; everyone here loves her”.

Hana is in her forties and was wearing a white headdress and a beige top. Besides being the manager, she’s the head chef and employs another Ethiopian woman to be front of house. After a faltering dialogue with Hana, Biruk, who was wearing jeans and a sports jacket, took me on a tour of the establishment. We had a look in the kitchen where Hana had something bubbling away in a pot, and he showed me some massive piles of cling-filmed injera, a kind of large, slightly sour-tasting pancake which serves as the base of a lot of Ethiopian food.

Injera wrapped in cling film

Injera, ready to be ingested

Besides being a restaurant, Hana’s place also serves as a food store, and she imports spice mixes and other produce from east Africa. Hana told me most of her clientele will be Ethiopians, although they do get customers from other nearby African countries plus, obviously, locals like me. No one was really eating, it was about 4.30pm after all, but there were a handful of men sat alone at the tables, drinking St George, a very good Ethiopian lager.

Curious decor

While Biruk gave me a tour of the premises, we started discussing the way Hana had chosen to decorate her restaurant. Quite strikingly, above the bar on the ground floor were six tableaux depicting various Ethiopian ethnic groups. I find there’s something pretty cringeworthy about ‘exotic’ representations of African tribespeople, but there they were, hung up above the bar, bare breasted women carrying baskets on their heads. And it carried on much the same upstairs too.

Decorations on the bar depicting Ethiopian ethnic groups

Bar decorations painted on dried animal skin

On one wall was a photo of a ‘tribesman’ and on the low communal tables were more photos of men and women in traditional gear. Besides the slightly cringeworthy images of ethnic groups, there was a wall painted with a selection of letters and numbers from the Ge’ez alphabet, an ancient script now only used as a formal language in Ethiopian churches. And there was a photo of the Obelisks of Axum, an Ethiopian national symbol which was finally returned to the country from Italy in 2005 after being plundered on the orders of Mussolini in the 1930s.

Wall with Ge'ez alphabet paintings

The Ge’ez alphabet

The upstairs of the restaurant

The low tables upstairs – note table images and wall decorations

Picture of the obelisks of Axum

Picture of the obelisks of Axum

So, I was quite curious about the way Hana had chosen to decorate her restaurant. Was it not tapping into foreign ideas about what Ethiopia and Ethiopians are like? Surely it was a bit of a simplistic use of imagery? Biruk inadvertently gave me some answers.

National Geographic

At one stage, we were discussing a picture of a bearded Ethiopian man on the wall, topless, with a cloth round his waist and an AK 47 slung over his shoulder. “This man is from the Hamer tribe, they are famous in our country for not wearing clothes. But now, one generation coming to the next, they are now covering up their private parts. But, they are famous for walking around naked all the time” he grinned, “like something in the National Geographic!”

Biruk then went on to tell me about the different ethnicities in Ethiopia, telling me there are over 82 in the country. He said he was from the Amhara ethnic group, who, as I understand, make up the majority of Ethiopians in London (and are the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia at 27% according to Index Mundi). Hana, however, was from the Hamer ethnic group herself (hence the name of the restaurant), who make up just 0.1% of Ethiopia’s population (according to Wikipedia). Hamer people are, according to Biruk, a nomadic group who live “far, far in the south of Ethiopia”.

A depiction of some Hamer women

A depiction of some Hamer women

What really struck me about Hana’s restaurant was that she was not only using her ethnicity to advertise her restaurant to the wider world, but also within London’s Ethiopian community itself. Coming from a tiny minority within her own country, who are seen as ‘exotic’ and perhaps even a bit backwards by more cosmopolitan Ethiopians (that National Geographic reference), Hana seemed to be using that cultural identity as a means of differentiating the business in a relatively crowded market—there are already a handful of Ethiopian restaurants in Finsbury Park, including a competitor next door and plenty more in nearby Holloway.

Walking a fine line

Before I’d ever heard of the Hamer people, I would quite probably have assumed that Hana’s restaurant was more or less typically Ethiopian, when in fact it was a pretty unrepresentative vision of Ethiopia. And what struck me as particularly interesting was the fact that she’d chosen to emphasise a very specific idea of her own ethnic group to other Ethiopians living abroad; a sort of taste of home yet also a taste of the exotic. A bit like me moving to Madrid and visiting a Scottish restaurant.

In a way, tapping into one’s own cultural symbols—be that the fact I have an English accent or paintings of topless women—is a perfectly reasonable way of differentiating one’s business. But, the risk you run is of being misunderstood, and especially so for anyone who’d never heard of the tiny Hamer ethnic group; only an Ethiopian would know what that word signified.

Towards the end of the tour, Hana told me the restaurant would soon be having a makeover and begin selling a wider range of dishes, including a uniquely Hamer dish (at present, no Hamer food is sold on the menu as “it’s harder for other people to eat”). It’ll be interesting to see what kinds of imagery Hana will use to represent the place after the revamp, how she’ll use those cultural symbols and the kind of story she’ll want to tell about herself and the place she’s from.

What hair tells you about here: the wig shops of Finsbury Park

One of the best ways to understand a place, is to understand its shops. The shops tell you what’s important to the people who live in that place. Where I live now, my local shop is part of the Costcutter franchise. Inside, you find all the things you’d normally expect in a local shop – milk, bread, jam, cucumbers, peppers, salt, a range of detergents, olive oil, dustpans and brushes, tea. Things like that. Things people need in their day to day. Tellingly, in the fridges you also find a lot of halloumi, feta cheese, Cypriot yoghurt. It tells you what people in the area are like, what they want, what they need, what they like to spend their money on.

I used to live in Finsbury Park, a place in north London. As I’d make my way around the area – whether it was going to buy milk or tea or jam, or going to a pub or getting a haircut or going to meet someone or anything like that, I would often walk down Stroud Green Road, which starts just by Finsbury Park station and goes west to Crouch End. One shop on that road – in fact it’s a series of shops on both sides of the road which has expanded and absorbed four or five storefronts on the street – is a place called Pak’s.

Pak’s is a chain of cosmetics stores founded in Finsbury Park (there’s an outlet where I live now, too). With names like Wig World and Hair Centre, it’s pretty obvious what they’re all about. Step in from the street and you find shelves of mannequin heads lining the walls. Empty faced, they wear a huge array of black, brunette, blonde and multi-coloured wigs of every length and tone.

Wigs in a window

Some wigs in a Pak’s window

Aimed primarily at a black clientele, the stores sell real and synthetic wigs, relaxers, extensions, shampoos and pretty much any other product you could possibly want. Officially established on Stroud Green Road in the 1990s, Pak’s has gone on to become a nationwide brand, with 35 outlets across London and the UK, become a provider to major supermarkets and an exporter of hair products to mainland Europe.

You can guess a lot about Finsbury Park from the fact that Pak’s (and quite a few other stores doing similar things) line Stroud Green Road. But you can understand even better by finding out how it got there.

“There’s a lot of heritage around this area” explained Peter Mudahy, CEO of Pak’s, when I asked him. “For a long time, Blackstock Road (which connects to the bottom of Stroud Green Road) was a very black-populated area. Back then you would have a lot of black barber shops where people would come from all over to get their afros done and shaped and all that. Again, the Aquarius Salon on Stroud Green Road has a lot of history from back in those days”.

Pak’s in its present incarnation has only existed for just over 20 years, but it emerged out of a much older series of developments.

“It originated from when people began coming over in the 1950s – from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados. They would come up to Finsbury Park to buy fruit and veg from home – bananas and yams and what-have-you”. Mr Mudahy explains that the area was something of a hub for the needs of the Caribbean community in London and beyond. “You used to have coach trips with people coming down from Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, and buying food on Blackstock Road, going to Monsell Road for fashion and coming up to Stroud Green Road for cosmetics”.

Between the 1950s and the late ‘80s, the industry for cosmetics targeted at black women was run from a business based in Tottenham, a nearby borough in north London. However, when the owners of that firm decided to pack it in (“one went on to become a councillor, another one got an MBE and wrote a book”) the customers hadn’t disappeared. “When they closed, the manufacturers in the USA realised there was a gap in the market. The question was: how to fill that gap?”

Their sales people took an innovative approach. My Mudahy explains that they visited Caribbean fruit and vegetable stores in different areas of London such as Brixton, Dalston and Finsbury Park; all areas with large Caribbean communities. Pak’s was originally a fruit and vegetables grocery store, importing produce from the tropics. If you wander further up Stroud Green road, you’ll still come across shops selling coconuts, yams, allspice, banana chips, salted cod, sugar cane, scotch bonnet peppers. Things like that. Pak’s began selling hair products as a side business, but eventually decided to go all-in with the cosmetics, and hasn’t looked back since.

Changing business

The industry for Afro-Caribbean cosmetics is expected to reach £475 million by 2017, and new lines from industry giants such as L’Oréal are feeding already high demand. However, the chain’s traditional customer base is apparently on the decline. “Our target demographic has actually diluted somewhat because it’s becoming increasingly integrated with the Caucasian population”. The Caribbean, and British-born Caribbean population in the UK is just under 600,000 – plus another 400,000 who identify as mixed Caucasian and Black Caribbean according to the last census. “The Caribbean population is so integrated with the Caucasian population the market is shrinking” says My Mudahy. However, the business is adapting – he explains that the store is now catering to a much more diverse market – “anyone with curly hair” – including Africans from all over the continent, Brazilians, French, Portuguese and more.

A Pak's store

A Pak’s store in Homerton (I’ll update next time I’m in Finsbury Park)

Another change facing the business is trend setting. As with most industries, the Internet has radically changed how companies market their products and influence tastes. Mr Mudahy sums it up as such: “bloggers, bloggers, bloggers”. The industry is now primarily led by the Internet with “hype about a beauty product on social media becoming much more important than a celebrity endorsement”. A quick venture into the world of beauty and cosmetics blogging confirms just how big the Internet hype machine has become.

Changing shops, changing place

If Mr Mudahy’s business is changing, so are the streets around Finsbury Park station. Once dominated by Caribbean stores, there’s a whole new clientele and a whole load of new businesses meeting their needs today. On Fonthill Road, parallel to Stroud Green Road, are fashion stores aimed at Nigerian customers and general corner shops run by Turks. Blackstock Road is now more remarkable for its Eritrean restaurants and Algerian butchers and Stroud Green road is an eclectic mix of Pakistani grocers, Spanish tapas bars and Korean dining.

Whenever I’m back in Finsbury Park – maybe to meet someone, or to catch a bus, or go to one of its pubs or go to a vegetarian Indian restaurant I like – I’m always glad to see Pak’s. The way it still dominates the bottom of Stroud Green road with its loud green logo. And even though I’ve never had any need to shop there, I think I like it because of what it says about that place, and what its shops can tell you about it, and what the people there value.

Traces of past and present at the Brick Lane Mosque

“When you become an Imam, you have to be seen to be serious when you’re walking down the street” said Yasin. “But, one advantage is I do get discounts on food in the shops along Brick Lane”, he broke into a grin.

We were stood on the first floor of The Brick Lane Jamme Masjid, also known as the Brick Lane Mosque. Both floors are covered in thick blue carpet, woven in Turkey and paid for by the worshippers – for £37,000. The carpet is a recent addition – the previous carpet had become threadbare from repeated kneeling worshippers, who attend five times a day, every day.

Inside the mosque

Inside the mosque

“It’s outrageously expensive to maintain” explained Yasin, who’s in his early 30s. The heating bill during winter alone cripples the committee’s budget, and they can’t improve insulation by replacing the large arched windows which line the walls on three sides of the large square space since the mosque is a listed building. English Heritage stipulates that if the mosque is to replace its windows, it will need to replicate the existing frames, at a cost of about £2,000 apiece.

The problem for the mosque is that the building itself is very old. Perhaps the most evocative symbol of the history of London’s east end, the Georgian building was built in 1743 by French Huguenot weavers who were fleeing religious persecution in their homeland. They opened cloth factories in the surrounding neighbourhoods and opened the church for their community. Over the next 150 years or so it went through the hands of different Christian denominations and associations before being converted into a synagogue in the 19th century by Russian and Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms.

The Jews followed a strikingly similar pattern to the Huguenots – enriching themselves in the East End’s cloth factories before moving north out to the suburbs. By the 1960s the area around Brick Lane had once again evolved dramatically. A nascent Bangladeshi community was, once again working in the East End’s cloth factories and, in 1976 had pooled together to buy the now empty building. “Until then, the community would mainly worship in peoples’ homes, or they’d head out to the Regent’s Park mosque”.

I asked Yasin what the future of the building might be – as London’s Bangladeshis make the gradual migration out to Dagenham and Leyton, might the building be exchanged again? The future he couldn’t tell me, although he knew of mosques further out east where Bangladeshis and their British children and grandchildren had begun worshipping.

Sttreet view of the mosque

Street view of the mosque with minaret

For now, the mosque is still very busy. When I visited on a sunny Saturday afternoon in April, the ground floor was still relatively busy with men sitting around with prayer beads. Like any religious building, the mosque offers more than a place to worship. It also hosts weddings and funeral rites, Arabic and Koranic lessons for children on the 2nd floor after school and provides prayers in three languages – English, Sylheti (a variation of Bengali) and Arabic. There are different imams fluent in each respective language; Yasin was the first native English speaker and was sought out by the mosque because of a growing awareness that many of the younger generations of worshippers could only just about understand their parents’ and grandparents’ Sylheti – let alone Arabic. Besides prayer and learning, the mosque also offers additional services – from mentoring youngsters to providing help with visas and other social matters for new arrivals.

Most worshippers at the mosque originate from Sylhet Division in north east Bangladesh and arrived en masse from the 1950s onwards. However, roots were planted up to a century earlier in East London by lascars, skilled Sylheti seamen who worked on the boats of the British East India Company, many of whom ended up in this part of town at the end of long voyages.

Yasin explained that the mosque is also attended by a handful of Somalians who come for prayers in Arabic. And there’s also a fascinating Italo-Bangladesih delegation too. “They arrived only a few years ago – people originally from Bangladesh but who were living in Italy for many years. As the economy got bad there, they’ve moved on to London to find work”. Yasin explained the weird conundrum this poses – people of the same origin as himself, with a similar culture, yet whom he shares no common language. “We get by in English”. Like everyone.

If the building continues to have a close relationship with new migrants, the traces of its past incarnations are never far behind. On the second floor, a network of stairs and passages leads to a set of classrooms. Framed above the door of one is a stone plaque inscribed with a Hebrew prayer. “We do sometimes get some of the older Jewish community visiting who can remember when this was a synagogue. One of them translated me that prayer in full – though I can’t quite remember what it says”.

The Hebrew Prayer

The Hebrew Prayer

The building will have changed a lot for those Jewish visitors. Since the Muslims moved in, the cavernous body of the building has been stripped, and architects added a floor with a gap in the middle where worshippers can look down. At major festivities such as Eid, the addition of this floor means the building can now seat up to 3,000 people. Most of the time, the first floor accommodates female worshippers who cannot mix in the same space as men. In the past, Yasin explained, the ground floor was covered in a cascade of seats, typical of some synagogues.

Down in the basement, other traces of the building’s past are testament to its particularly Gallic origins. Two huge arched cellars keep the air still and chilled – perfect for storing wine. At Eid in the 21st century, worshippers break the fast in the cellar over a huge feast.

The basement

The basement

Back out on the street, I’m surrounded by today’s ever changing Brick Lane. A couple of hundred yards north, the slightly seedy and identikit Bangladeshi brasseries peter out into a series of ‘vintage’ clothing shops, hip cafes, street food stalls and weird chocolate shops, among other tourist traps (although there’s still a couple of decent Jewish bagel shops hanging on in there). Crowds of presumably bemused central Europeans listen to bearded men wax lyrical about graffiti artists, Chinese tourists swan by in pairs and hustlers try to talk you into a curry with a free naan and a pint of Tiger.

I think about Yasin and his story. He told me about his decision to become and Imam – “I never exactly planned it, but I loved teaching and it somehow just happened”. I think about how he’s aware that when he’s out on the street, he needs to keep up a composed appearance, even though in his private life he doesn’t feel like a very serious person. And then I disappear into the crowd, another visitor to Brick Lane.

Running the Bath: why has long distance running become so popular?

Long distance running has always struck me as painful and frankly a little dull. Nonetheless, it’s all the rage these days, so I did some intrepid research to find out why.

It was on Queen Square that I stood with George’s dad watching the Bath half marathon. After variations on “I can’t see him yet, can you?” we eventually dropped the small talk and watched the rhythm of runners jogging by.

From our spot at the bottom corner of the square we had a good view of those running towards us then turning the right angle before disappearing along its third side. Queen Square is a nice spot with Georgian town houses surrounding a leafy park where a group of drummers was driving the competitors on.

There was a good atmosphere in the crowd, which was about four or five people deep on the pavements and the sun was out. There was always someone suddenly spotting a friend and shouting “there she is, there she is!” or “come on Dave!” or cheering for people they didn’t know – for people dressed as breasts for a breast cancer charity, or the kind of daft people who run marathons dressed as robots who make you wonder what on earth motivates them, or some weird exhibitionist wearing nothing but a pair of Speedos.

A marathon is a pleasing thing to watch. While scanning the swathe of panting people for George (so we could shout “there he is, there he is!” or “come on George”) it was hard not to be impressed by the sight of it. According to the event’s organisers, 12,700 people took part in the run (although the results table seems to suggest only 11,352 actually finished it…). Watching that mass of humanity jogging by at quite a high pace is strangely absorbing.

With tens of people flitting past each second, it’s hard to fully focus on any single one. Yet occasionally one holds your attention and you watch them bobbing by. The weeks of training, all their different motivations; to have a bit of purpose, to have something to say for themselves, to lose a bit of weight, to achieve a personal goal.

The loop

The Bath Half goes through Queen Square twice. It seemed that, first time round, we’d missed George, and as a large proportion of the runners had now gone by once, it was back to making comments with George’s dad. There were just the stragglers coming through the square. The occasional injury hobbling by with a hamstring.

But then shortly we heard the drums pounding hard again and practically sprinting towards us up the straight came Robert Mbithi, a 26-year-old Kenyan currently ranked 85th in the world for men’s road running. Mbithi was in and out of sight in a flash. When you rarely see top athletes in the flesh it’s hard not to be amazed; pure lean muscle, a different species.

Image of Robert Mbithi running

Source: Athletics Weekly

In brief flashes the professionals zipped past us over the next couple of minutes, followed shortly by the personal best hunters and semi-pros. Again, the main pack of runners started swelling by and some time later, I spotted George, “there he is, there he is!”

Why the renaissance in running?

 

Running has become noticeably popular in recent years. It seems like every town or city is annually host to at least one half-marathon, besides a whole load of full marathons, ultra-marathons and other ‘tough guy’ challenges. And according to data from the Association of Road Running Statisticians, that figure is constantly on the rise. Data from England alone shows that since 1980, the number of annual marathons has grown almost 30 times:

graph

Source: ARRS (treated by me) 2016

So how come marathons have become so popular? According to Traviss Willcox, chairman of the 100 Marathon Club (a group for long distance runners in the UK and Ireland), a major reason for this growth is a change in perception.

He explained “I think the main reason for the growth is that people have found that it’s achievable”. In the past, many people thought you may ‘drop dead’ since marathons were seen as so hard.

However, now even “very average people with a bit of work and a bit of stubbornness can achieve marathon distance and there are more friendly, accommodating events. For example, 20 years ago the Isle of Wight Marathon didn’t give you a medal if you finished over 4 hours. Now there are events when you’ll be cheered in like mad if you take 6/7+ hours… which is a lot less daunting than 3:45!”

Why run at all?

That view is mirrored by Matt Deamer, 28, a keen marathon runner who completed his first marathon in December 2014 and has gone on to finish eight more, plus a couple of longer runs too. “I think [a reason they’re getting more popular is that] people may be seeing others’ achievements via social media or from watching events on TV such as the London Marathon and Great North Run and then wanting to challenge themselves too”. Distance running is also appealing for other reasons – “people are trying to stay in shape and running seems to be a cheaper alternative to the gym/fitness classes”.

There’s a lot of reasons why people start lacing their running shoes up. For Matt it was about fitness and the challenge: “I felt like my fitness was on the decline a little so I decided to run a lot more, then once I’d run a few of the shorter races I wanted to challenge myself so upped the mileage. Then once I’d run one or two marathons, I was hooked!”

George’s (27) motivations were a little different when I asked him: “there was a ‘Scrubs’ episode I watched maybe ten years ago where one of [the main character’s] bucket list goals was to run a triathlon before he was 30 and so I thought “yeah, let’s get stuck into some running” so I signed up to it as a way to motivate myself to do something fitness related”.

There were other reasons to go running too – “another reason perhaps is to have a sense of community – running, you know, with thousands of other runners. And I’d also done a 10k in Madrid before which I’d really enjoyed for that reason. And, also, perhaps a growing sense of fondness for my place of birth – Bath.”

Back at the finishing line

From Queen Square we walked to New Bond Street then across Pulteney Bridge to Great Pulteney Street where the runners run in.

Once we found a spot among the crowd (“there she is, there she is”, “come on Dave”), we listened to a local radio presenter doing ad lib commentating as the runners crossed the line in front of us. The semi-pros, the people dressed as boobs, the exhibitionist in his Speedo’s, the desperate man dressed as a robot. And it was great to see all those regular people reach the goals they’d set themselves; to have a bit of purpose, to have something to say for themselves, to lose a bit of weight, to achieve a personal goal.

 

Why do airlines overbook flights?

At the start of a recent trip to Spain, my companions and I almost got ‘bumped’ from our flight. We weren’t overly impressed, so I decided to find out why airlines overbook their flights. 

After a short queue at the Gatwick check in desk, we presented our passports and the ticket on James’ phone. The man at the desk scanned the QR code on his machine and returned James his mobile. After a studied gaze at his screen and some button tapping, he turned to us with an uneasy expression.

“I’m afraid to tell you there’s been a problem. We overbooked this flight and unfortunately all the other passengers have already checked in online in advance. This means two of you” indicating Bill and I, “may not be able to fly today. I’m going to go upstairs to speak to my manager to find out what we can do”.

We were all, understandably, fuming. Once the man returned with has manager, she explained that very often customers who’ve checked in online don’t actually turn up, so we may as well go through to the departure lounge and try our luck. If, in the worst case scenario, we didn’t get through, the two of us who didn’t have boarding passes would be given a full refund and €250 for the inconvenience. But what about James who did have a valid boarding pass by the fact his name came before ours on the checking in list? Would he get a refund too, or be forced to fly without us?

A scandal, or good business?

What had happened was that we had, potentially, been denied boarding – or been ‘bumped’. The Daily Mail recently reported on a growing number of such cases, where airlines overbook their flights by as much as 50%. This practice, which isn’t illegal, is employed by the vast majority of airlines. I got in contact with easyJet for an explanation of the policy and was told that “like other airlines, easyJet overbooks on some flights to fill seats which would otherwise fly vacant”.

According to Brett Snyder, an air travel blogger, airlines realised that seats often go empty because passengers don’t show up for all sorts of reasons – from bad traffic to simply deciding not to fly. By gathering data on ‘no-shows’, airlines have got pretty good at estimating how many people will miss any given flight.

easyJet told me “2.6m passengers a year do not turn up for their easyJet flights and a flight will only be overbooked after reviewing the no show rate for the last 3 months. On average, across our flights we will only overbook by one or two passengers per flight.  As a result, it is extremely rare for easyJet to deny boarding of passengers because the flight is overbooked”.

Look for the cellos

A cello

Back at the flight desk, the manager was explaining that many of the people on our flight were bringing musical instruments, so it was possible some of those could be put in the hold. How likely it was that someone would agree to putting their £800 cello out of sight and at risk of being damaged for the sake of our holiday seemed questionable, but we agreed to go through the gates.

While we’d been told that we’d get a refund if the worst came to the worst, we were still unimpressed by easyJet’s model.

“Isn’t it pure profiteering, selling a service you never intend to deliver?”

That’s as may be. However an article by Sabri Ben-Achour on Marketplace explained that, in the US, at least, this kind of approach may be one of the ways ‘no-frills’ airlines manage to keep flight prices down. That was of little consolation as we drunk lagers at the airport’s Wetherspoons, and anyone who walked past with a musical instrument got the staring treatment as we discussed our alternatives.

Good cop, bad cop?

As the Heinekens went down we began talking about how we ought to deal with easyJet staff when we arrived at the gate. Should we play it mean, be angry and let them know how pissed off we were? Do we make their life a misery so they think “I’ll do what I can to get these guys out my hair”? Or, should we be nice and understanding; make them like us, so they’d want to help us out?

We then started talking about what we’d do if it all went wrong and we couldn’t fly. Would we take their offer and get a refund and go home? Would we use the €250 for a replacement flight the same day (some googling on our phones suggested there was no such alternative)? Maybe we should blow it all on a huge night out in the nearest town…which turned out to be Croydon.

The gate

The beers finished, we made our way to the gate. We’d been told to wait right until all the other passengers had boarded the flight before asking about spare seats, so watched the queue gradually shrink. Ahead of us was a Spaniard who, it appeared, was in a similar situation to us. He’d gone for the ‘bad cop’ approach and was telling an easyJet employee off. He had to go home to Valencia, it was a family event, he couldn’t miss it.

We waited our turn, anxious. “Hi there, so we have an unfortunate situation and were hoping you could help”. The woman at the desk was indifferent and told us to wait aside. At the first eye roll, she curtly informed us other passengers had checked in online “up to thirty days in advance”.

Standing to the side, feeling obscurely like misbehaved schoolchildren, we watched the dregs of the passengers arrive and embark. The last of the musicians, pulling their cellos and violins and other instruments that were taking up seats which we could’ve sat on.

Eventually it was just us and the Spaniard left. The woman at the desk told James he should go through – he had checked in. “But I’m not going on holiday on my own – surely you have to refund me?”

“I’m afraid in that case you would be declining to fly, so we are under no obligation to pay you back”.

A couple of minutes until the gates were going to close, and apparently there was still three people unaccounted for, three people who might come running through the gates any time and take our seats. We waited nervously, chatting briefly with the Spaniard, then, dismay, a Chinese girl came rushing towards our gate. We were aware as she began talking to attendant at the desk that it was then going to come down to a fight for tickets between Bill, me and the Spaniard.

But then the air hostess: “OK, this is actually a flight to Valencia – your flight is to Porto, which is at Gate 27”.

Minutes later we were running down the tunnel to the flight doors and onto the last available seats, massively relieved.

Have your aeroplane and fly it too

Ultimately, the manager at check in had been right. As she’d predicted, a number of fliers simply wouldn’t turn up. Was it worth putting us through an hour or so of anxiety at the airport? It hardly seems the most reasonable way of treating customers. On the other hand, we got return flights to Valencia for £80 each; perhaps we’d have had to pay considerably more had the flight only been booked to capacity.

The moral of the story? As soon as we connected to the WiFi at the hostel, James checked us in for the flight home.

 

 

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