The charming little airport that ruins thousands of holidays

Chambéry airport just isn’t built for peak skiing season – as I discovered in the most unpleasant way

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

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.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Quentin Letts writes for the Daily Mail

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Show comments
  • Sean Grainger

    Chambéry spelt wrong in standfirst — very poor subbing.

  • Ken

    Go by TGV next time!

    • James Jones

      I agree that is by far the best way. Seems usually to cost more on a package trip though so I mostly end up flying.

  • Jon R

    indeed there are other options – overnight Eurostar? fly to any other nearby airport?
    you don’t need to boycott the whole of the French Alps just because the small local airport nearest to your favourite piste happens to be too small and too local.

    • James Case

      Eurostar to Paris with sleeper from Gare d’Austerlitz (after visits to traiteurs and a good dinner at le Train Bleu) is far more civilised!

      • davidshort10

        He’s a Mail hack so hasn’t got the funds.

  • souptonuts

    Camilla Pettifer, 48, ok, but no mention of the value of her house?

    • Cim Thayne

      I know, awfully surprising for a Mail writer to leave out *such* an important detail.

    • Hamburger

      But that she is a fraud, I mean a Kinesioligst.

  • William Cameron

    Pretty awful I agree, but these are first world problems of a pampered middle class. I could only be forced into an airport, or most other forms of public transport, around Christmas at gun-point; OK, I’m retired now, but when I worked I almost NEVER travelled around Christmas; years ago when I lived in London I did once travel home to Scotland for Christmas – chaos and discomfort getting there and freezing cold in a replacement train, for one that had broken down, on the way back – never again! There is almost always chaos and many unpleasant hours of cold and waiting around for everyone involved when travelling at this time of year, not to mention the various staff who must cope with disgruntled travellers supposedly on a pleasure jaunt. I prefer to stay at home, or close to home, with copious champagne, nuts and oysters with walks along the nearby beach when fresh air is required. Go skiing in late January or early February – the snow is probably better anyway then. Equally, if you are travelling with children, why spoil their Christmas with this annual nightmare?

  • Mark Dubbery

    “I soon wished the entire airport could be detonated”: – you can probably expect a knock on the door in the dead of night any day now.

  • James Case

    Next time go to Lyons or Geneva with suitable reading / listening material for the slightly longer transfer. Sion airport has also been touted by ski holiday companies with an even lower success rate!

  • James Jones

    In addition to the concerns mentioned I had previously decided to avoid Chambery for my ski trips.

    It requires special pilot training, is surrounded by hills, sits in a small valley and is prone to mist.


    Why bother when there are alternatives where these risks are absent?

  • rtj1211

    Years ago, I worked a season when Dan Air used to fly BAe146s into Bern-Belp. The first Saturday of the season, the plane clapped out and they didn’t have a spare. As they couldn’t land anything bigger at Belp, they had to get some 737 or something and fly it to Kloten, then bus them round from Kloten to Belp (arriving about 6.5hrs after schedule), giving me just about enough time to get the poor customers to their cable cars/trains for the last service before being shut down for the night. My boss called it ‘an initiative test’. The customers thought: ‘six and a half hours late and THERE’S NO ******* SNOW!’ Well actually they were far too cultured to think such dark thoughts, probably used DASHED instead, but you get the picture.

    At least you lot had a week’s ski-ing on snow. My lot had a week’s hill walking, curling or ice skating. Assuming they didn’t go for a day down to Bern or Interlaken.

  • Popular Front

    Tough luck mate, next holiday go to Cleethorpes instead.

  • davidshort10

    Can’t see why this silly man is given space in the Spectator for a personal whinge about a problem that was totally foreseeable and so totally unavoidable. Chances are that as a hack he can’t really afford to take the family skiing but tries to do so using a cheapo airline to an inadequate airport instead of doing it in style.

  • Lorenzo

    Piste off, are we?

  • UnionJihack

    Millions of international aviation commuters need to use silly ‘hubs’ in London all year round to get in and out of Britain. What’s the point of that when you want to go to the regions?

  • charles kinbote

    next, I expect an article by an indignant lemming whinging about overcrowding and poor facilities at Norwegian cliffs

  • Control Freak

    Invest in some decent winter tyres and drive yourself there.

  • Bonkim

    Ski Sunday – travel overseas is freshening. Enjoy it, don’t complain.