Saturday, April 12, 2008

That new-fangled Beijing Airport

I had the singular experience of traveling through the brand new Terminal 3 (T3) in Beijing this morning. It’s one of the crowning architectural achievements associated with the upcoming Olympics, and I must say it’s magnificent. At least as a monument. As an airport, it leaves a lot to be desired.

I was doing a domestic to international transfer, so my row was a bit more difficult hoe than that of the average visitor to China’s capital. Which is a good thing since if they all had to do what I had to do, it would result in chaos.

We made it into Beijing at 9 AM after a one hour flight from Dalian. The early flight had been chose since a 3 hour layover is generally recommended for international travel. Unlike regular travel, the big birds generally fly once a day – miss it and you’re scrambling to find a hotel for the night in an unexpected port. So we got on our early shuttle and made it to what has now become the domestic side of the airport.

In the olden days, like last week, you used to fly into Terminal 1 (T1), grab your bag and take a ten minute walk over to Terminal 2 (T2) where the flights to the US and Europe depart. I always found it amusing that there were signs on the walls on these endless corridors informing you of how much time you had left to the destination. Once through the walk, it was a rugby scrum through the initial security check and then things eased up a bit.

The new process isn’t all that much different. You get your bags in Terminal 1 and start the Trail of Tears all over again. Because it would apparently be inefficient to have a shuttle to T3 leave from one of the two major domestic arrival points. Noting that there were no directions posted anywhere, we grabbed the bags and started on the way, rounding the corner to discover that the only escalator up to the second level was dead in the water. Recovering quickly, we shot over to the elevator just as it was heading up. Two Germans (what is it with these Germans?) were waiting there. Ironically, one of them was the same guy I rode down the elevator with last Sunday on my way out to the Russian Street where I saw him again. Is he following me? The lift went up to the 3rd floor and stopped there. We stood there staring at the floor indicator. Nothing was happening and I wondered why the elevator operator was not bringing it back down. We’d seen the blue suited gent operating the controls when we missed it the first time. One of the Germans reached over and pushed the button and lo and behold it came down. When the doors opened – no operator – so taking matters into our own hands, I pushed the button marked “2” and the thing departed.

Upon arrival and just for grins I went over to an information desk and asked how to get to T3 and surprisingly the young woman had the right answer, at least to the extent that it agreed with what I had been told. Funny thing though, you couldn’t really tell if she was reading from a memorized script or actually speaking English.

On and on we went, finally arriving at T2. We knew we had to go down so we sought the first escalator, and it was dead. So on to the next one which was graciously in service. Down to the ground floor and off to the right, a decision that was about to prove fateful.

We kept passing doors to the outside clearly branded as “Emergency Only” and panic was just setting in when a tiny young man in a crisp gray suit offered his help. In the words of Yoda, “Wrong direction going you are.”

A quick 180 and some more schlepping brought us to a genuine exit with a clearly marked sign that directed us to Terminal 3. Following the universal code for “go a bit and turn left” I planted my face on a corrugated steel wall where the shuttle buses should be. Gathering my thoughts I scanned the tableau and saw a gang of buses, boldly proclaiming “free service to T3.” One left just as we approached and a loud talking man with a radio motioned us towards a second one whose driver gave the international head shake indicating “no way.” Undeterred he pushed us towards the 3rd.

These were much like the shuttles that take you to rental car centers, except there was no room for luggage storage aside from on small platform with a railing around it, big enough perhaps from my bag alone. The traffic flow in the bus was interesting in itself, one seat along each side and stadium seating in the rear. As the bus filled up, the net result became obvious – people coming in the front had to scramble over the luggage jammed aisle to get to the elevated seats in the rear. For grins I started my stopwatch.

This turned out to be far more than a drive between terminals; it turned out to be a bus tour of Beijing. We exited the airport and drove on a half-completed freeway a good, long ways. We passed an Army barracks where guards in white gloves stood on half-height glass paneled daises saluting at a lone officer standing in the middle of the street talking on his cell phone. Plane Trees decked in their early spring pale green lined the cross streets. As we neared the new facility, work gangs populated both sides of the street installing landscaping. The new terminal came into view, orange roofed with huge pyramid skylights, the front bisected by a large Buckminster Fuller-style glass dome. It was quite a sight, further enhanced by the largest parking lot full of brand new taxis that I have ever seen.

We got out of the bus and I checked my watch – 20 minutes on the dot. The layover was slowly disappearing. The United counter was easy enough to find and my line was short enough to make the wait incidental. From there it was just a matter of heading to the gates whose directions were clearly marked. The place is even more incredible from the underside of the dome. The layout though is a bit weird, in order to break up the row and column feel of most interior spaces like this, they didn’t lay things out in right angles. Rather they tend to be on the bias and which makes it impossible to walk in straight lines. Instead, you’re constantly doing an up and downwind tack. It also makes the signs strange because the arrows more or less become suggestions instead of directions.

A kindly young woman in orange relieved me of my luggage shuttle and directed me to the first security check, passport and boarding pass. The cheerful guards there pointed us to the platform for the train. Train?

Two parallel light rail tubes stood side by side heading out to the gate pods. They’re bi-directional, constantly picking up and dropping off passengers at the gates and at the terminal. Ours appeared in 40 seconds, at least as the monitor claimed but not until I was reminded by yet another cheerful guard to keep my toes behind the yellow line.

On the train and out we go for a longish ride past the pods from which the planes actually leave. Got me thinking about what this would be like on the day that one train went down, in the middle, while carrying the Zimbabwe volleyball team.

On arrival we formed queues for the immigration check. That took a while as there were many serpentines but only a few officers. Once stamped you walk another 10 feet for a second immigration visit and a second stamp. That one had me perplexed. And then it was through another barrier to the actual security check with the metal detectors and the x-ray machine.

Having passed that, you’ve cleared your way to shopper’s paradise – Dior, Ferragamo, Bvlgari, and Chanel – all in individual boutiques. Lots of goods but little food, interestingly enough. It was now 10:55, a full 1 hour and 50 minutes since we began the quest making me think that we are in for some serious flight missage here on our regular run.

Trying to maximize our time we headed to the Business Lounge to grab a bite. We only had 20 minutes before boarding though so the lounge was not about to be brightened by our presence for very long. The food was ample, but cold making me wonder if I making the right choice eating it. Bolting it, I grabbed a bottle of water and we started the walk to the gate. Again cutting catty-corner across the non-straight lines, the walk turned out to be significant and we made it to the gate just as boarding started. I got in the special personal line and my companion got in the proletariat line and she actually got through the doors before I did a gross violation of the terms of my frequent flyer agreement with United. The doors at the end of the jet way formed a bit of a clog for no obvious reason until the reason became obvious. Another security check. This time it was more cheerful guards rifling carry-on bags on little tables. One guard controlled the action by sending passengers to tables as they became open. He sent me to one where a second inspector happened to be chatting with the first inspector who was going through some woman’s bag. She was not happy to throw about $300 worth of make-up in the trash having reasoned that she had already been cleared by security 20 minutes ago. I scoffed until they seized my water, the very bottle I had just picked up in the lounge.

From there it was just the usual pre-boarding nightmare of people not sitting down and doing all sorts of dumb stuff. I ended up in the Row of Hell and knew it the moment I walked up to it. The window seat dweller, let’s call him Professor Fosdick was busying himself at God Knows What standing in front of my seat. In an amazing burst of clarity he asked me if that was my place before turning to put his bag overhead into the spot that I had taken while he dawdled. He finally sat down and for a while I though we’d have an empty between us but that ended when a bunch of Chinese people on some sort of tour appeared and started filling the remaining seats. The Professor took out his 10 year old giant digital camera to snap a few taxiing shots. The Chinese Guy just stared straight ahead. The Professor never really got the whole sunshade thing, his being the only one open on the entire plane during movie time. He was using the sun to read. When night time came, he discovered that his light didn’t work and complained to the Flight Attendant who unfortunately lacked both the necessary tools and spare bulbs to effect a change while sitting in my lap. He and Chinese Guy did a little pantomime and discovered that using Chinese Guy’s lamp, he could read. At one point, Chinese Guy reached across my chest and turned my light on. I said “Mei yao!” and turned it right off, both of them giving me a look that plainly said “selfish.”

Being the Captain of the Row and the Controller of All Access, I made obvious departures for the rest room, setting the pattern for the remainder of the flight. Chinese Guy got it, leaving at the same time. The Professor though didn’t preferring to wait 10 minutes until Chinese Guy fell asleep.

From there it was more of the same and all down hill.

Reflections for the day as I pass the Aleutians – it’s going to be a fine time this August and the athletes of the world converge on that airport. I hope all those shiny new systems work reliably, because all the nice landscaping, pretty architecture and shiny new taxis aren’t going to make up for the one day those trains get sideways in those tubes.

Did I mention how yellow the air was today?

The final story of the day concerns baggage. I truly am jinxed when it comes to luggage claim. Usually I’m the last person in the area, and I know I’ve complained about it here before. And while I know you all think I imagine these things, it’s true.

When I handed my bag off to the agent in Beijing, she gave it a priority tag. First time for me and I honestly believed it might break my streak. Fourteen hours later at SFO, I positioned myself in the ideal place and waited. And waited and waited. Someone’s big black roll-around came up the chute and got sideways, blocking one of the conveyors. I pointed this out to a couple of the baggage guys and they agreed, sure it enough, it was sideways. Didn’t think all that much of it, figuring the load must have shifted to the other chute. Twenty minutes and still no bag when a maintenance guy came along, gave the ill-behaved bag a kick, climbed down the chute to into the guts of the system and fired it back up. And then the bags began to flow, mine, the “priority bag” was about 6th off the belt. It had been sitting down there in the basement waiting to come up to the light. Makes you wonder why, when a conveyor shuts down some really annoying bell doesn’t start ringing.

So next time I whine about my baggage curse, consider that little morality tale.

No comments: