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Gateway to hell left me furious and in limbo

We started out before dawn in thick mist, a soupy Tuscan miasma that enveloped us from Florence to Pisa airport, and far, far beyond.

As the morning went on, the skies cleared - that was part of the problem - but for the rest of that 19-hour journey, we remained trapped in a fog of confusion, silence and misinformation that is the civilised modern world's equivalent of thumb screws.

A glance at the departures board at Pisa showed a slew of delays, which at first we assumed was the result of the wintry weather. Our flight to London Gatwick was put back by an hour, without a word of apology or clarification. Only once we were all aboard, safely corralled like weans in a playpen, did the pilot tell us that we would be sitting on the tarmac for another hour, thanks to an air traffic computer glitch in England. When he said that this meant "less" planes were able to fly, one briefly wondered if the aviation authorities were trimming wings or offloading fuselages to reduce airspace congestion.

But this was no time for grammatical pedantry. The pilot did not sound amused. Nor were we, or the Italians around us, whose muttering about the Inglese held a distinctly threatening, if insultingly unsurprised note. This was as nothing, however, to the disgruntlement caused as EasyJet staff began their trolley service, offering a measly handful of sandwiches for a hungry planeload, and with so little small change that each transaction became a masterclass in monetary exchange and international diplomacy. I have watched young men grow bald faster than the speed at which those carts crept along the aisle.

It now strikes me as oddly naive that it did not occur to us that landing in London would not solve anything. Quite the reverse. Our Edinburgh flight, we learnt - only after checking in our bag - was running at least three hours late. This was relayed with such casualness we thought we'd misheard, since there'd been no hint of trouble on the departures board. The reason? Roused into consciousness at being asked for a justification, the jobsworth said she believed there was a strike.

When even an airline's staff don't know what's going on, the situation is bad. As late afternoon turned into evening, it became increasingly clear that no-one knew or was prepared to divulge, what was going on. Haunting chairs close to the information board, we watched unblinking as we were told to "please wait" for more information. Driven to fury by the absence of any such thing, after a couple of hours my partner called EasyJet, and was told our flight was boarding, right now.

Like mosquitoes on the scent of a redhead, we rushed to the gate. There, the lights were as dim as a crypt, and the check-in operator was as bemused as we were. Eventually told we had been misinformed, we were advised to return to the lounge. "Have a cup of tea", said the security officer, as if that would solve anything. Although, according to an air industry expert interviewed on a Sky screen above our simmering heads, making sure we ate regular snacks would take some of the pain out of the situation.

At last, we did get back to Edinburgh, tired, narky and angry at the way we and 30,000 others that day had been mistreated. As that single computer malfunction showed - and it was not the air traffic controller's first such hiccup - a simple error can create international chaos. The wildfire spread of delays and cancellations is truly alarming, not just for the repercussions but because such holdups reveal all too starkly that in these situations we are each of us entirely powerless, in the hands and at the mercy of those who are incompetent, indifferent, or worse.

Isolated, inhospitable outposts, airports at these times resemble the gateway to hell, more like refugee camps than professionally run businesses. For many, getting through Saturday was an act of endurance. Knowing there is a delay and patiently waiting it out is one thing.

Being kept in limbo, unsure if you'll ever have a plane to board, told absolutely nothing, and treated as if you are invisible, is intolerable to anyone without nerves of steel, or a Zen-like calm. Since I possess neither, don't expect to see me at a departure gate any time soon.

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