Saturday, June 07, 2008

Did I say something worth writing about?

Well, I had no idea just how portentous those words were going to be.

Not five minutes after the refueling announcement, a forlorn voice came on and told us the flight was cancelled, and apologized for any inconvenience that might cause. Right, 300 US bound people perhaps being inconvenienced by sitting in a hot plane for 4 hours and then being asked to leave.

From that moment on, my life was forever changed. Those of us who had elected to pass the time hanging out on the plane were lucky - we got to grab our stuff and make it up the jet way in opposition to all the people whom had left and now had to go back to collect their goods. Like a few renegade salmon fighting the throng of their cousins heading upstream. At the top of the ramp, we stood queued before the tiny crew elevator until someone showed up to lead us out to immigration and that is where the true chaos began. Everyone just jammed up against the 3 lanes that were open creating a vast, unmoving jumble of people. The Global Services people, United's top class were pulled off and sent a different way. We just inched forward until I took the lead and peeled off to the outside, finding a line that was actually moving. While waiting, I called the American Express emergency line and made reservations on a plane tomorrow and checked myself into a hotel in Pudong. The only flight tonight was $5600 so clearly that was out. When I made it to the counter they checked my passport and collected my boarding pass and sent me through, with no instructions as to where to go. We came to a small door in the security wall where a guard refused to let us pass, having not been told to open up for the abandoned flight. She finally relented and let us through and having cleared it, everyone began to run to the next scrum, the United counter. Half the agents were yelling and telling us to go get our baggage, the other half had us forming lines. I finally bullied my way to a counter so that I could at least hear what was going on. Multiple Americans were just standing there yelling as though talking louder was going to make it go faster. A Chinese agent was trying to make an announcement using a handset that kept going in and out. A Chinese man in line was screaming at her telling her that no one could hear. She switched phones to the same problem, but it finally started to work and when she switched to English I managed to get all of it - take a voucher for the free hotel, go get your bags and leave, come back tomorrow at 10:30 and you'll have the same seat on the regularly non-scheduled flight that will be leaving at noon. A young man stepped out from behind the counter and began handing out blank boarding passes, the ticket to the free hotel. I took one for grins, knowing I had no plans to use it and went off to find my bags.

Downstairs, we had another small scrum when we were all sent through the staff security door. I only found it because I happened to recognize some people from our flight. Apparently since we had left the safe zone, we had to be re-checked albeit this check was pretty cursory. We stood there joking with some guys in line about having to chug the bottles of duty free Scotch Whisky since we had left the enterprise zone. Once through the check it was off to collect our bags and mine just happened to be waiting for me for a change. My Zero Halliburton karma continues to flow. Too bad I don't have any for air conditioners and refueling connectors. Out to the taxi stand where a short thin driver wearing Ray Ban Wayfarers in the pouring rain agreed to take us to the hotel. A long haul on a gray night across a mostly abandoned Pudong, we joked when the Maglev train went blowing passed that we were doing nothing more than retracing this morning's path.

So here I sit now in the penthouse of the Pudong Renaissance contemplating the vagaries of international travel and wondering what tomorrow will bring. Will I have that business class seat again, or will I be stuck once more in 34G with the Indian woman who took my place? Will the plane even go?

Reflecting on today, in my estimation this was a complete disaster mishandled in so many ways as to defy one's imagination. This is a major airport and this is a major airline and yet no one seemed to know what to do with what must be a fairly common occurrence. It was almost as though they were improvising as we walked along, all 300 of us. In this modern age that, in my estimation is inexcusable.

And sadly for you, the events of the day pretty much pushed aside all the good characters I was going to describe. Like the really big guy in an Olympics t-shirt with the greasy gray comb-over who sneezed loudly without covering his nose and was seen later walking up and down the aisles knitting something in burgundy yarn. Yes, knitting. Or my row mate in business, a young tech nerd listening to Phantom of the Opera on his iTouch and doing so with absolutely no irony whatsoever.

It was a full day, just not full of the things I might have chosen.

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