Tuesday, April 22, 2008

So I Took Standby and All Hell Broke Loose

More on that later.

After sitting around the lounge for a good spell, like 4 hours, feasting on Danish and Cheese and Crackers and a nice mix of orange and cranberry juice, we headed out to the gate to meet the rest of our party.

There was nothing exceptional about the 12 hours over except that I seem to be getting used to it. Punctuated by panic attacks and feeling of self-pity the haul actually seems to go by pretty quickly. This time, armed with a new sleep mask, I was able to literally zone out for nearly 7 hours, a personal record by a long shot.

There was only one person in my row, which is always nice, except he was one of those that does not follow the unspoken rules. He had no compunction in tapping me on the shoulder any time he wanted to get out, which was fairly frequently. At least he was polite and waited while I unstrung my iPod, took off my blanket, unclipped my neck brace and unstrapped my mask.

We landed about 1/2 hour early into a gray, misty Shanghai, weather that did not bode well for our 8:30 PM departure. Friends of mine on that flight last week spent the night at an abandoned hotel out in the swamps when their flight was cancelled. An experience that may sound worthy but one I was not in the mood for.

Given the hour, we decided to try for an early flight. So there I was again, at the China Southern ticket counter trying to find someone who would admit to being able to speak English.

After a few go-arounds, we finally agreed that there was an earlier flight and that the 3 of us could get on it. This was after many renditions of "You are reserved on a later flight." Per procedure, she wrote my new ticket number down on a scrap of paper and then sent me over to the check-in area which was, as normal, mobbed in some places but empty in others. So I walked up to a semi-empty line, one reserved for Business tickets, which I didn't have but I figured I could bluff my way through. The agent there went through all the same announcements about my later flight and then informed me that the earlier flight was limited to standby. Gee, wonder why they didn't tell me that back at the ticket counter?

We hemmed and hawed a bit and she told me to come back at 6:00 (it was now 5:40) so we moved off to the side and waited. At 5:55 I went back and the supervisor remembered me. Perhaps it was my green coat? She started yelling at the young woman who had helped me earlier which brought another young woman into the flight. Now bear in mind, no one is talking to me, they're just glancing in my direction and yelling. The supervisor motioned me over and opening a manila envelope full of paper scraps she wrote my name on one of them, the "standby list." She told me to come back at 6:10. This time I didn't leave, I just moved to the side. At 6:07, she called the three of us over and started the process of issuing boarding passes and checking bags. I got mine and headed off to security, passing through the cursory checkpoint with no problem. For some reason, I looked at my pass and realized that it didn't have my name on it - it was one of my companion's. So I headed back to the cursory checkpoint, figuring that this would be too hard to explain, and waited. Sure enough, he had mine.

Interestingly, the three of us took up a row. I've heard how Chinese airlines hold back a few seats for last minute travelers, and I guess this is how we lucked into this one.

Made it through security and down to the gate. Waited a few minutes and then the scrum began, all 125 people trying to pass through a small swinging gate to the buses waiting outside. I ended up behind a very non-aggressive Westerner who was not moving forward to my liking. Side-stepping him and using my bag as a block to my left and my elbow as a pick to the right, I bullied my way right on through.

The bus ride was quite interesting. It was very long and we spent part of it drag-racing with the luggage trains. Finding ourselves on a remote tarmac surrounded by identical white Airbus 321s, the driver appeared to be reading the sides of the plane to figure out which one was ours. He finally decided on the very last plane, stopped, got out, leaving us locked in the bus. He went up the stairs, knocked on the door and discussed something with a person on a plane who signed some form. The driver returned and opened the doors. People started running across the pavement to the plane, forming exactly the same scrum that we had just cleared. As though there were better seats to be had? I don't know, but it was chaos. Employing my blocking techniques I found myself in line behind a young woman who was so close that my head was literally pressed into the exposed flesh of her right shoulder. Down below, other things were getting pressed that perhaps should not have been given our lack of a formal introduction. Spooning here is more of a contact sport involving strangers than something you do with your partner in the privacy of your own yurt.

But I made it on the plane and through an easy flight with a fine dinner of stir fried beef, rice, carrots, pickled radish and "salted fruit kernels" (as in peanuts) and into our final destination 2 hours earlier than planned, making it all a worthwhile adventure.

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