Horror films occasionally use the device of the deceptive idyll. An apparently restful place — a clearing in the woods, a pretty cottage — is the site of a fiendish atrocity. A goodie escapes and breathlessly reports the matter to the police. Next morning the authorities race to the scene, and find nothing. Wickedness has been concealed. The deceptive idyll has returned.
Such a place is Chambéry airport in south-east France. Framed by mountains and fringed by Lake Bourget, it was founded in 1938 and has not grown much. On weekdays little disturbs the airfield daisies save the tinkle of distant cow bells and a cooling Savoyard breeze. You can imagine the Milka girl dating the guy with the ping-pong bats.
Yet on winter Saturdays, Chambéry’s mask drops. There is weeping, wailing and gnashing of middle-class British teeth. Arguments erupt. Profiteers fleece desperate families. Children shiver. Chambéry airport, you see, is one of the main terminals for British ski-tour operators in the French Alps. Some 250,000 passengers use it annually, nearly all on a handful of Saturdays in December, January and February. The place cannot cope.
Just before New Year you may have spotted TV news footage of anoraked British travellers stuck in a crowded airport. That was Chambéry. It was the first Saturday after Christmas, busiest in the ski-tour calendar. A long-forecast weather front arrived. You would have thought a commune such as Savoie, where ski tourism is so important, would be ready. Nope. Major roads became blocked by cars while gendarmes shrugged. At Chambéry airport, thousands of Brits arrived and found no coaches to take them away. When the coaches did arrive, unloading further hordes, the airport building overflowed. The crowd was as thick as at the end of a Twickenham international. Except this lot had suitcases and skis — and nowhere to go.
By the time our Flybe flight from Birmingham arrived, chaos was established. Staff from British ski firms Crystal and Inghams had retreated behind their desks. They seemed to have arrived with stacks of bottled water. How come? ‘We’re used to delays at Chambéry,’ said one rep glumly.
The two lavatories were filthy and broken. The tiny snack bar was operated by a single boy of about 17. He had perhaps 5,000 customers. There was such a throng at the asthmatic luggage carousel that passengers could not collect their bags. A couple of boiler-suited blokes from Vinci airports, the management company, watched with boredom. Every ten minutes the Tannoy told us unattended bags would be blown up. I soon wished the entire airport could be detonated.
We had booked a minibus to take the five of us to Alpe d’Huez. I rang the taxi firm to ask where our ride was. ‘Dunno,’ said the man at Actibus at 4 p.m. ‘It might be quarter of an hour. Might be an hour. Who knows?’ It would be some 16 hours before it arrived, with a driver who had not slept for 30 hours.
As night fell I thought about taking a taxi into Chambéry town to find a bed but local taxis were as rare as drunks in Mecca. Word soon went round that there was not a hotel room to be had for 50 miles.
The airport was cold and there was not enough space to lie down. I saw a man go to sleep standing against a vending machine. At the car rental hut I bagged the last vehicle, a small Nissan. Hertz’s computer was down — but that did not stop the guy charging me over €100 for a 24-hour rental. Five of us ‘slept’ in the Nissan. Meanwhile, uniformed civil--protection blokes had descended to order people to evacuate to emergency hostels such as sports centres and schools. A family from Norfolk was despatched to a maternity hospital and told to sleep in birthing chairs.
A week later we arrived for our flight home. This time the weather was perfect. Our delay? Five hours. The airport’s petrol pumps had gone phutt. So had the check-in computers. The lavs were still wet underfoot. Jobsworths would not let anyone through security until gate calls were made, so every flight was further delayed. A reputed 10,000 people had to queue for two small metal detectors.
Camilla Pettifer, 48, a kinesiologist, was returning from a week in Meribel with her son Harry, 19. ‘Never again,’ she said. That expression could be heard time and again from British holidaymakers. One man lost it at the info desk and was bawling ‘I am never going skiing in France again!’
If word of mouth counts for much in the travel trade, you may want to offload any stock in French Alpine business. And the coup de grace? When we got back to Birmingham five hours late, those vultures at NCP extracted a further 12 quid from us because we had exceeded our allotted time in the car park.