Saturday, June 30, 2007

Late Like a 40-Year Old Virgin

Rant and Rave ahead - skip this post if uninterested.


I have never waited so long in my life for an airplane to take off.

It was a simple domestic flight from Sydney to Melbourne for the purposes of work, meeting relatives, and a more pleasant environment to spend the weekend.

Instead, it turned into the interminable wait.

In hindsight, it wasn't entirely the fault of Virgin Blue (the domestic carrier I directed all my invisible rage at). But I can't help but blame them for what ensued.

First off, I checked in at those ubiquitous self-service kiosks that were meant to reduce the need for front counter check-in staff. But because I also have a Samsonite to lug onboard, I still have to drop my bag in the bag drop-off counter.

What I didn't get was why there was a queue for the bag drop-offs - don't you just 'drop' your bag and then go? So why the need for a whole slew of counter staff to check and tag bags? OK, I guess it is necessary, but somehow, it kinds of defeats the whole purpose of self check-in entirely.

Additionally, checking in was also confusing because there were 2 long queues formed: one for the self check-inners who are queueing to bag drop; another for the stupids who are queueing to check in. Of course general confusion ensued and additional staff have to be hired to manage the lemminged passengers into joining the right queue.

And to make things worse, there are guys who will join the wrong queues, and hold up counter staff in meaningless arguments over mindless stuff like: "Yes I know I didn't check in at the kiosk, but can I still drop my bag? No? WHY THE HELL NOT? WHAT RULES?"

Ok, so all in, about 30 minutes to self check-in (5 mins for the computer illiterate to figure it out and move on from their frustration at the kiosk, 1 min to check myself in, 24 minutes shuffling in the queue and nudging my bag to the drop-off counters).

Next up: Krispy Kreme doughnuts for brekkies and off to Gate 32 we go!

At Gate 32, I whiled the time away reading a little book about finding your strengths, which Virgin Blue isn't very good at showing me at this present moment. Its one claim to fame is perhaps that it keeps you in transit for a SHORTER period than its archrival JetStar.

So while at Gate 32, there were ominous signs looming: the first one was the airport announcement over the public address system that there were "Strong Westerly Winds" blowing in and one of two of Sydney's runways will have to be closed. It meant delays and Sydney airport decides that the best thing passengers can do is to "check with your respective airlines' staff". Like they aren't hassled enough already huh?

And to make things even worse, Virgin Blue flight DJ 818 was 'DELAYED' getting out of the Gold Coast. Which meant that it was going to be 'DELAYED' getting out of Sydney as well. Alright, fine. Virgin Blue's ground staff immediately announce in a cheerily happy voice that the 8.15am flight would most likely leave at 9.30am or so, after the Gold Coasters disembark and the plane refuels.

How optimistic of them.

So next up, DJ 818 finally got into Sydney airport and the harried Gold Coasters shuffled off the airplane. Hurray! Gate 32 should start getting busy soon.

Except for one problem: DJ 818 has an engineering fault and "our engineers are working on fixing the problem" and the ground crew announces that "as soon as we know how long it will take, we will let you know."

At this point, I am starting to seeth... I'm already late getting out of Sydney, and I am going to be very late showing up at my client's office.

To make things worse, ground crew eventually pronounces (in the same cheerily happy voice) that "unfortunately, our engineers cannot tell us how long it will take, and we apologise for being unable to tell you when our aircraft can take off". They also say that "if you would like to leave the gate area, please listen to the public announcements for updates".

Tell that to the iPodders who probably didn't understand any of the ruckus going on. More on iPodders later.

Eventually, the engineering problems proved insurmountable. Ground crew at Gate 32 finally made the executive decision that was to create the 'Mr Bean' situation of domestic airport hell: they decided we should switch to... another Virgin Blue plane! Yatta!

Ground crew promptly decides that the plane at Gate 31 will become DJ 818 and thus announces that "all passengers of DJ 818, please move to Gate 31 for immediate boarding". Happily, the passengers all shuffle across the passageway to the gate opposite and promptly forms a queue in front of the counter. There were few seats available because some passengers of another flight are plonked on them.

Ground crew happily skips from Gate 32 to Gate 31 and picks up the microphone. DJ 818 passengers look on in mild anticipation that they will finally board the plane. Ground crew cheerily announces that "all passengers of DJ XXX (I forgot the number) waiting at Gate 31 will now board at Gate 32 instead. Please kindly move to the gate opposite to await your flight".

Ahhhh... now I get it. We did a plane swap! Collective groans from the passengers of DJ XXX were greeted by indifference from several iPodders - some sleeping to the sounds of Handel, others pumping their heads to techno. It did take a while for the iPodders to register these domestic terminal comedies and, of course, they did eventually move. (Some of the thick ones did eventually try to board the 'wrong' aircraft and were shooed away with much irritation and confusion).

Okay, so the plane swap has happened and Gate 32ers are now Gate 31ers, and vice versa. So DJ 818ers finally look at our skippy cheery ground crew gal and she finally announces that "we are now removing your bags from the previous plane and transferring them onto this plane, and there will be another delay".

Wow... 8.15am has turned into 10.15am, and none of us are on the plane yet.

And finally, the plane swap has been done and the bags were moved across, ground crew gal finally starts checking boarding passes and letting people onto the new DJ 818. Collective sighs of relief and happy customers of Virgin Blue start boarding their flight for Melbourne.

So boarding takes another 20 minutes or so and I chucked myself comfortably into window seat 5F, with a view of the starboard side of the plane. I can see the wing to the right and back, and a mean looking yellow manhole cover nearby.

With everyone safely in the aircraft, and the right bags onboard, the pilot proceeded to welcome all passengers and greeted us with this news: "the plane needs to be refueled and we have already called Shell to come refuel the plane, but they seem to be taking their time coming."

Ok, sanity check: Plane swap - checked. Passengers boarded - checked. Crew moved to new aircraft - checked. bags transferred - checked. Oh wait! I can't take off coz I don't have enough fuel!

Ok. Yet another delay.

Eventually though, out of my little peephole of a window, I saw what look like a bunch of shining alumnium pipes-on-wheels zip over the mean looking manhole cover near to the right wing of the newly christened DJ 818. A bored looking man wearing a lime green jacket and big lime green headphones (NOT an iPodder this one) got out of pipes-on-wheels and started fiddling with his mean looking hose.

In fact, he had TWO of them! On the truck anyhow.

The small one led to the plane, and he slowly and laboriously lugged this one to a little hole at the side of the aircraft, plugged it in, and shuffled back to the truck.

Next, he brought out this rod and prodded it into the manhole cover. He removed the cover and attached another hose (thicker but shorter this time) into the recess that was exposed. (If that didn't sound like a dirty romantic novel, then I guess I will never carve a career in writing books with Fabio on the cover; side note: where's my career counselor when I need one?).

So anyhow, the fuel truck guy from Shell FINALLY filled the plane with fuel and drives off. Meanwhile, cabin crew were busy telling passengers to stay in their seats. They were also busy showing their disapproval whenever someone whipped out his / her mobile. Much clucking of tongues and shaking of heads and wagging of index fingers are meant to indicate that it was a bad idea to call the darling while fuel was injected into the aircraft.

With the plane fueled up, it was time for all passengers to hear what the next hold up (you think its over???) was.

Oh yeah, the "Strong Westerly Winds" theory of plane delaying tactics. The pilot promptly announces to us that "due to Strong Westerly Winds" one of the runways had to be closed. Which meant that all planes are taking off and landing on one runway, which meant that "we are now negotiating with air traffic control to let us take off as soon as possible".

At this point, despite my reservations about the delays; despite my seething rage at waiting for 3 hours already; despite my resignation at the inevitability of it all; I have to say that Virgin Blue staff are perhaps the most informative of all airline staff ever. Kudos for the information age!

Not that its a bad thing: it just doesn't help if you have people like stupids, thicks, and iPodders, all of whom generally don't care in their own special ways what you tell them about delays. A delay just meant that: a delay. And no amount of information regarding what you're doing or when things are happening are changing the perception that Virgin Blue is one big cock-up in the eyes of these people.

Finally, and this is the last time I use that word 'Finally', the plane gets permission to take off, and we taxi onto the runway, slowly, but surely, and DJ 818 is off the ground - almost 4 hours behind schedule, and with all passengers intact.

It was with fanfare - and a huge dose of relief - that all DJ 818ers started to clap and cheer when the plane landed in Melbourne airport. I don't think I'll ever look at another 'DELAYED' sign in the same way ever again.


odd lola said...

At least you're lugging a Samsonite.


I dont know why that matter but the above is the first sentence I thought of. Krispy Kremes came to a close second.