UNDOUBTEDLY, MADEIRA IS a wonderful place to visit – a gem in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Unless you are travelling on a cruise liner or own your own seagoing boat, the only way to reach the place is by air. There is only one airport. This is on the coast east of Funchal. The runway is close to the sea and has sea close to each of its ends. The problem with the airport is that it is frequently affected by local wind conditions, which make both landing and taking off difficult, if not occasionally quite hazardous or even impossible. Only specially trained pilots can use this airport.
The air currents – mainly cross-winds – make landing a challenge. When we flew to Funchal in 2022, our ‘plane had to make two attempts because on the first approach, we were blown away from the runway towards the sea. We were told that this was not at all unusual. Sometimes, conditions are so bad that aircraft must be diverted to the Portuguese island of Porto Santo, which is across the sea about 35 miles northeast of Madeira. A couple whom we met in Funchal this May (2023) told us that they had visited Madeira by air eight times. On two of their trips, their in-bound flights were diverted to Porto Santo. On one of these occasions, they waited a few hours on the island before their flight continued to Funchal. On the other, they disembarked on Porto Santo, and had to continue to Madeira by ship.
If flying into Madeira has its difficulties, so does leaving the place. For, if a ‘plane cannot land, or is delayed by adverse winds, then those hoping to leave the island will also face problems including delays and cancelled flights. This year, our flight from Funchal to London was scheduled for Wednesday, the 10th of May. On the evening and during the night of Monday the 8th of May, Funchal was hit by strong winds. Flights were unable to land or take-off from Funchal for most of Tuesday. The couple I mentioned were due to fly to England on Monday evening. To our great surprise, we met them at Funchal’s airport on Wednesday afternoon. Their flight had been cancelled on Monday, and then again on Tuesday. Their airline, Jet2, had arranged for them to be put up in comfortable hotels for both Monday and Tuesday nights. In addition, they had been given vouchers to cover their meals. Other people we met at the airport had been less fortunate.
When we arrived at Funchal’s airport on the afternoon of the 10th of May, the check-in hall was full of people, many of them lying on thin mattresses that the airport had provided. Many of them had spent one or two nights sleeping on the floor, waiting for flights to replace those which they had had to miss because their ‘planes were unable to land. We spoke with several Ryanair passengers whose flights had been cancelled. They had either been offered only one night’s accommodation or none at all. Because their delays were due to weather rather than failings of the airline, Ryanair did not offer to accommodate or even feed their delayed passengers. They had been offered places on replacement flights, which were scheduled to leave several days after the 10th of May, or to try to get last-minute stand-by places on earlier flights. Many of the delayed passengers, who were uncertain when they could leave Madeira, had jobs to return to and/or connecting flights to catch. A young couple from Canada were particularly unfortunate. Their Ryanair flight had been cancelled, and they had to reach London to board a flight to Vancouver. They missed the flight to Canada. Because their tickets from Funchal to London were not connected with those to Canada, the transatlantic flight tickets from London were wasted and they had to pay for another flight a few days later. In addition, because they preferred to stay in a hotel rather than on the floor at Funchal’s airport, they managed to book “the last remaining hotel room in Funchal”, which set them back 400 Euros. Luckily for them, they managed to get standby tickets on the same Ryanair flight as ours. They had been told that had this not been possible, they would have been assigned seats to fly out on the 20th of May.
We were lucky. By the 10th of May, the weather had calmed, and flights were back to more or less normal. Our flight was delayed by one and a half hours because the ‘plane which was to take us to London had to circle many times before being permitted to land at Funchal.
So, much as I would highly recommend spending time on the beautiful island of Madeira, you must understand that because of the vagaries of the weather far out in the Atlantic, you should be prepared to spend less or more time than you planned on the island. Finally, in an age when tourist travel has become almost as reliable as clockwork, it is fascinating to find a place where, as in centuries long past, travelling is subject to the same factors that affected voyagers of yesteryear.