NORTHERN isles ferry operator Serco NorthLink has defended itself after stranding a young Shetland family with a toddler who had just survived life-saving surgery on the quayside in Aberdeen because they were three minutes late for the boat home.
On Thursday Natasha and Stephen Cornick, from Lerwick, were heading for the boat with one year old Joshua who had undergone open heart surgery just nine days earlier at Glasgow’s Yorkhill Hospital.
Held up by road closures just south of Aberdeen caused by a lorry fire and traffic jams in the town, the couple phoned NorthLink’s Aberdeen terminal to say they would be a few minutes late.
However when they arrived at the harbour at 4.33pm, they were refused passage and told they could not board until the following night, though there would be no cabins available.
“We just could not believe it, we were absolutely gobsmacked,” Natasha said, “especially when the boat left ten minutes early.
“There we were standing on the quayside trying to arrange accommodation and there is the boat sailing off without us.
“NorthLink just don’t care, it’s just money to them. If I hadn’t phoned beforehand it would have been one thing, but I had phoned just before the check in closed to say we would just be a few minutes late.”
After booking into a Premier Inn and organising a flight for the following day, the 32 year old mother wrote the shipping company a furious letter.
She wrote that staff refused to contact the ship’s captain and told her there was no leeway with the 4.30pm deadline for checking in.
“It was more than a little hypocritical to see the boat setting off tonight at 4.50pm given that you offer no leeway to your passengers but leave when you feel like it,” she wrote.
“We were three minutes late and if your staff had let us on, the boat could still have left on time.
“We were offered no help and I was informed that our booking could be switched to tomorrow night but we would have to travel without a cabin.
“I cannot take the chance of boarding the boat without a cabin so have had to book flights to Shetland tomorrow morning.
“Furthermore your staff showed no concern about where we would go tonight, basically they chucked an ill baby out into the cold with no thought whatsoever.”
Contacted by Shetland News, Serco NorthLink managing director Stuart Garrett said that the Cornicks had only informed them six minutes before check in closed that they would be late, which was “insufficient” to delay the sailing.
“Had we had prior notice then perhaps a different outcome could have been achieved,” he said.
“Boarding instructions highlight that passengers will not be allowed to board after 1630 hours.
“This is a standard approach adopted throughout the travel industry and allows for the preparation required for the vessel to depart on time and also, for the convenience of all passengers who arrive on time.
“I would acknowledge that there are times, when with sufficient notice we can indeed accommodate late arrivals, particularly in situations akin to yesterday’s delays on the A90.
“No other passengers arrived late, and indeed passengers who likewise had been delayed on the A90 are recorded as having checked in at 1530 hours yesterday afternoon.
“Mrs Cornick arrived in the terminal after this deadline and after the vessel was readied for departure.
“Readiness for departure includes stern ramp lift, and passenger walkway removal with instruction to make ready for departure.
“The Master of MV Hjaltland had instructed his team that a prompt departure was required due to strong tides and that the vessel was scheduled to depart from Aberdeen Harbour with clearance granted from Harbour Control.
“Hence the vessel was secured for sea at 1630 hours awaiting clearance.
“We offered Mrs Cornick passage on this evening’s sailing to Lerwick, and a cabin was made available to her family when a cancellation allowed this to be allocated.
“We appreciate fully the angst expressed by Mrs Cornick that her booking was frustrated as a consequence of the road delay.
“We can also understand her frustration that the Hjaltland was still seen against the quay wall, however I believe the matter was properly addressed by our Terminal staff taking into account of the options available to them at the time.”
The Cornick’s eventually flew home on Friday afternoon to enjoy for the first time the prospect of their son Joshua being with them for a long and healthy life.
Joshua was born with a heart condition called aortic stenosis and underwent a seven hour operation at just 12 days old.
The operation was unsuccessful and had to be repeated at the end of July this year, when heart surgeons managed to replace his aortic valve with his pulmonary valve and find a donor to replace his pulmonary valve in a complex operation that lasted nine hours.
Joshua is one of the youngest babies ever to have undergone this medical procedure.
His mother said doctors were amazed at the speed of the boy’s recovery and cleared him to leave hospital after just nine days, having initially thought he would be kept in for at least one month.
She said Joshua’s life expectancy prior to the operation had been no more than two years, but now he is expected to live a full life.
“It’s as if a light has been switched on inside him, he’s doing things he has never done before.
“Before he had an incredibly poor heart function and I was spending 15 or 16 hours a day feeding him to keep his weight up for the operation. Now he is going off like a rocket!”
This year she raised more than £1,400 for the British Heart Foundation to show her appreciation for the life-saving work that was being done for her son.
“He’s gone from having a very, very low life expectancy of one or two years to having a full life expectancy,” she said.