Friday, July 20, 2007

The Prisoner of Hangzhou (Airport)

I was to have been flying back to Beijing from the southern city of Hangzhou on Wednesday afternoon.

I had been warned by a work colleague earlier that there was a danger of delays because there were some big thunderstorms around Beijing. But that was at 8 o'clock in the morning. I assumed it would blow over pretty quickly, and I couldn't conceive of how it might still be disrupting flight schedules 6 or 7 hours later. But I was to learn. This is China.

I got to the airport in plenty of time. So much time, in fact, that I thought I'd try to switch to an earlier flight. No joy there. It seems that - unlike in enlightened countries like America - China's domestic airlines don't have any reciprocal agreements to enable easy flight-swapping. On a visit to Shanghai a few weeks back, I had been offered a switch to an earlier flight - but I suppose that was on the same airline. This could be one of the advantages of flying with one of the more major carriers like Air China or China Eastern. If you travel - as I always seem to! - with someone like Shanghai Airlines or Hainan Airlines, they often only have one or two flights a day.

Anyway, during this brief, frustrated negotiation, I noticed with some alarm that the flight I was trying to get on - not yet listed for boarding - had in fact been scheduled to leave two hours ago. Scanning the departure board, I found many more of these warning signs: nearly all the Beijing flights were blinking red, departure delayed, boarding delayed, check-in delayed. This looked like it could be a bad situation. But the backlog was only around two hours, presumably the duration of the storm; and the backlog would slowly clear, right, the delay would get shorter rather than longer over the rest of the day? Oh, no.

Recorded announcements were droning continuously. This was perhaps the worst part of this dreadful airport experience. There was no let-up, no silence, no peace, even for a moment. It was very difficult to concentrate on my book. And the announcements were mostly saying that new departure times "would be announced later". Uh-oh, indefinite postponements. That doesn't sound good. And this was still for flights that should have left in the morning or early afternoon. They weren't even mentioning my flight.

A few flights for other destinations were delayed too, but the problem seemed to be mainly with Beijing: NO Beijing flights were taking off. This was becoming ominous, sinister. The announcements were mostly citing unspecified "plane delays"; but in relation to Beijing, they were often giving "bad weather" as the excuse. I was beginning to suspect it was something far more serious - a plane crash, a terrorist incident, an earthquake? I began desperately firing off text messages to friends in Beijing to try to find out what was happening. The weather, I discovered, had been gloriously fine since mid-morning. No-one was aware of any reason why there would be delays.

Well, since my return, I haven't been able to uncover any dark secret behind this strange phenomenon. It may simply be that a temporary closure of the airport for an hour or two at the start of the day during the thunderstorm caused a logjam at air-traffic control that escalated out of control during the rest of the day. China's air-traffic control system is still within the hands of the Army, and it is notoriously inefficient: most hardened business travellers here build a 1-2-hour delay into their itinerary whenever they have a flight scheduled in the second half of the day. Finding controllers (and pilots) with the necessary skills and English ability is becoming a huge problem: the volume of domestic air traffic in China has doubled in the last 5 or 6 years.

But I digress. Where was I?

Ah, yes, camped out next to Gate 16, trying to read a book.

Around 5pm - an hour or so after we should have boarded - it was announced that our flight would now leave at 7.15. Well, at least we now have a time. Some of those poor devils on other flights to Beijing are still getting that dreaded "the new departure time will be announced... later" message. But an hour or so later, our projected departure time was put back to 8.15. Then the announcements started saying "we'll tell you later" again. And the airline representatives decided to switch off the display board at our gate because they realised it was just annoying people now.

Now, I felt sorry for these airline guys. There were three of them, and they were having a hell of a time. 'Beleaguered' is definitely the word that springs to mind. I have subsequently heard a story of someone in this job being pretty severely beaten up by irate passengers in a similar situation a little while ago. And this did seem a worryingly imminent possibility at Gate 16 a few times. The Chinese do 'ugly mob' rather too easily. They tend to have a rather short-fuse temper, their cultural expression of dissatisfaction moving almost immediately into apoplectic shouting and counter-banging, and then escalating all too rapidly into full-on physical confrontation. Once or twice, when leading complainers forced their way behind the counter, I was really concerned that things were about to turn very nasty indeed. Luckily, we never quite passed that threshold. I don't even really know how close we got. At one point a couple of airport security guards were summoned; but they just loafed around, surveying the situation from a safe distance for 30 seconds, and then sidled off again. I'm not sure if they felt that their mere appearance on the scene would quell any potential riot, or if they shrewdly judged that there was no real danger of such a flare-up here..... or if (more probable, I fear) they didn't like the look of the situation at all and wanted to keep well out of it.

I think the over-the-top irascibility of the Chinese passengers (comical, if it weren't so scary) was strangely useful in helping me keep my composure. I didn't want to make life any harder for the poor airline reps; I didn't want to become like those animals shrieking abuse in their faces. There was one of the three who was really doing a remarkable job of keeping calm and friendly in the midst of this morass of hate; and his English was pretty good. Whenever there was a lull, I caught his attention and led him aside for an amiable "come on, you can tell me, what's really going on" sort of chat. He told me they were hoping to board the plane shortly, but they still didn't have a take-off slot from air-traffic control, and there were 4 or 5 other Beijing flights still waiting which had been due to take off much earlier in the day than us, and so would be ahead of us in the queue. (He also told me - very disturbingly - that one Beijing flight that had taken off in the early afternoon had been sent back to Hangzhou by Beijing air-traffic control. How can such things be?)

By this stage, it was nearly 9pm. I pointed out to the friendly airline guy that, if this were really the case, it was almost inconceivable that we were going to get away that night. You don't get to take-off until a good half-an-hour or so after you begin boarding, and the flight takes nearly 2 hours in the air: so, I was calculating that we needed to be getting on the plane before 10pm. (I suppose they might have kept Beijing airport open later than usual to accommodate the backlog of flights. I have landed there shortly after midnight once or twice: but the place was a graveyard then, and there were very few taxis on the rank. I didn't fancy walking into that scenario after 8 hours of sitting around an airport.) And the problem really didn't seem to be with waiting for air-traffic clearance. I don't think any planes took off for Beijing all evening. For some reason, it just wasn't happening. I told the airline guy we needed a decision soon on taking us to a hotel. He nodded sadly, but said it wasn't up to him.

I was on the brink of walking out of the whole nightmare. I thought, I'll just buy myself another ticket on an early morning flight tomorrow, and take a taxi back to my hotel. I didn't think my employer would make a fuss about reimbursing the expenses. Only the difficulty of trying to get a refund on my original ticket gave me pause.

And then, all of a sudden, at 9.30pm, they started boarding us. "They're probably just going to keep us on the runway for 2 hours, and then send us to a hotel," I remarked ruefully to my new airport-delay buddy, a Kenyan businessman called Ali. I was spot on. They kept us in the plane for two hours, then deplaned us again and told us we were going to a hotel for the night. I really think they knew all along that there would be no more flights out that night, and just put us on the plane for more effective crowd control. At least I managed to sleep for most of that two hours.

We didn't finally get to the the hotel until half-past-midnight, and I was too hyped-up to turn in immediately. Also - although it was in all other respects much the nicest Chinese hotel I've stayed in - there was an enormous air-conditioning plant right outside my window; so, despite my exhaustion, sleep was slow in coming.


Ah, and then, the final straw. I was - at last - in deep, deep, restorative slumber. The bedside telephone rang. LOUDLY. I wasn't sure what time it was. Still dark outside. Maybe it was an early wake-up call. I had tried to explain to the airline rep at the hotel (a different one, not very good English) that I really needed to be back in Beijing as soon as possible, and would be very grateful if he could get me on a flight early the next morning. On the phone there was a girl yabbering away in Chinese. At great length. "Uh? Whaa??" I suppose it might have been one of those nuisance calls from hookers that you almost always seem to get in Chinese hotels in the wee small hours. That didn't even occur to me at the time (maybe it was the absence of the keywords - in English - these calls almost always include: "Massage?" and "You want company?"). I remember how, with only half my brain in operation, I made such elaborate efforts to try to communicate with her, fumbling through the few dozen Chinese phrases I know (for some reason, I kept wanting to speak in French to her) to try to construct a coherent message: "I'm sorry. I don't understand. I can't speak Chinese. I'm English. Do you speak English? Does anyone there speak English. I'm sorry." It was a painful process, but it seemed to work. "Yes, yes, English, OK." the girl said (in English), and then hung up. I was thinking that it might be some urgent message about an early flight. I was going to do my damnedest to stay awake until I got a call back in English. I switched on the bedside light and checked my watch. 2.30am. What the f***?! Why would anyone be calling me at that time?? Shit. This is China.

I went back to sleep. Around 3am I was woken again, by the call-back in English. It was the hotel reception desk. "The airline has asked us to tell you.... your flight is cancelled." "WHAT??" "Your flight is cancelled."

What were they thinking? Was the hotel supposed to be a mere fleeting comfort stop, a "splash'n'dash" before we once again returned to the airport to try to take off in the middle of the night? Did the "cancellation" only become official hours after the airports had all closed and we'd all gone to bed? Yet this news was so momentous that we had to be informed immediately?? "Yeah, I kind of know my flight was cancelled. THAT'S WHY I'M HERE!"

I have railed many times before against the apparent stupidity of 'the Chinese way of doing things', but this example absolutely takes the cake. How could anyone - at the airline, at the hotel - think for even one minute that it was necessary or useful to wake everyone up in the middle of the night to tell them something they already knew? How??

I am still sleep-deprived and cranky two days later. At least the substitute flight the next day went fairly smoothly (although it didn't get me home until 4pm).

I am seriously considering quitting my new job. Business travel in China is just not something I want to be a major part of my life.


Anonymous said...

indeed it sounds awful.

but let me step away from being someone who knows you personally and therefore ought to sympathize and comfort you with "oh dears."


In French?? LOL. and i totally would've thought it was a hooker phone call. but i guess after the stress of the day, something connected for you to know it was about the airline. (or could it be that you understand more Chinese then you give yourself credit for? or your sleepy subconscious does, anyways.)

and another LOL for the grand reveal that the phone call is about the flight that is already cancelled. okay, i wouldn't want to be you, then, but you gotta admit the whole thing is so bizarre it's funny. I mean, they wouldn't have even had your hotel room number if they hadn't cancelled your flight and put you up at the hotel, right? (or was the call to your mobile?)


anyways, welcome back to the Jing. and surely this is an exception. I'm sure you'll manage with the business travel.

Anonymous said...

This post is chock-full of wonderful observations and completely entertaining. Uh, not that your dreary situation entertains me... You know what I mean. Anyway. Bonus points for use of the word apoplectic, which makes me very happy every time I hear it.

I totally understand the French thing. Well, I don't know why it happens, but I know it happens. When I was in Germany I often found myself saying things like "si" and "uno" to Germans with whom I was having trouble communicating. I think something must happen to our brains and their hard-wiring. We revert to the last time we were successful with a foreign language, any foreign language.

My new job requires me to travel from my bedroom to my downstairs office. Any delays are completely my own fault.

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