Leaving Chicago02 Oct 2011
I have just spent two weeks in America being reminded what such great people live outside my own country.
This is a story, written in several parts, about my flying experience from Chicago back to Sydney this weekend. I found it entertaining living it, and I hope you find it entertaining reading.
I'm sitting at the gate in Chicago airport and I see this 2 year old girl with her mother, and instantly, fear strikes. The little girl is being perfectly innocent, playing with her toys and giggling. She seems like a little angel, but I know better.
Someone has to sit near that girl, and there's a chance (although relatively low) it's gonna be me. This fear comes from being... traumatized... by other children screaming on planes while I've tried to sleep or kicking the back of my chair. She could be one of those devil children.
So I calm myself down and remind myself of the tiny statistical probability that I'll be sitting near her. She seemed fine.
We line up for boarding and I am a ways back in the line from the girl and her mother, thinking that would be the last time I would see the two. I get on the plane and look for my seat 68H, keeping my eyes peeled on the strip above the seats with the numbers. I find row 68 easily enough (yay, sequential numbering!) and then I look down.
The fear came back. There they were, the mother and the daughter. And one spare seat. Just for me. On the aisle. I know how cattle who have been led to the slaughter feel like now. I instantly begin to slide down the wonderful spiral of depression (and into my seat), and then went through the 5 stages of grief in quite rapid succession.
Perhaps everything would be ok. The little girl was handed a bag of things to entertain her and seemed pretty enthralled by the prospect of a Toy Story puzzle. No screams, no crying, no yelling. No kicking seats. I had accepted my fate. I was doomed to sit next to the child for the next 14 hours and perhaps sleep not a wink the entire time. I was... strangely actually OK with that.
Then a male air host comes by and says the most beautiful words I have heard in my entire trip:
"Excuse me sir, are you travelling alone?" "Yes." "Would you like to move down? I have some spare seats over here you are welcome to."
A choir of angels sung in my head, the clouds covering the Chicago sky vanished and my fear turned to joy. I moved down a couple of rows to and was assigned a block of three seats, just for myself, right in front of one of the cabin dividers of the aircraft. I laughed at the absurdity of the situation: my acceptance of my approaching doom (of having to sit next to a toddler) and then being not only rescued by an air host, but also being given three. Whole. Seats. For me.
So thank you, Taka, from the Cathay Pacific Chicago to Hong Kong 3:25pm flight on the 28th September. Very much appreciated.
Oh, and Cathay Pacific have powerplugs on each seat (even back here in cattle class) and plenty of leg room. I think everything's going to be alright.
The plane took off and I enjoyed the thought of having three, whole, seats, to myself for the entire flight. After takeoff, I took out my laptop and did some work for a client.
Later on, I got up to go to the toilet and on my way back this stranger says in a thick American accent "Hey buddy, you've got that whole row to yourself up there, right?" and I confirm. He says: "Well look, I'll do you a deal. I'll give you one hundred dollars if you let me swap my seat here for your row" and he shows me two empty seats (the aisle and the middle seat) back in the plane, about 20 rows back from where I moved to, 10 back from the kid.
I ask, "is anyone sitting in that middle seat?" and he says no, so I say "Deal!". He opens the overhead compartment, unzips his bag and pulls out a money clip full of bills, about half a centimeter thick. He leafs through them and hands me $100 in American money.
We go back to my seat and I pack up my things. As I do that we chat about where we both come from, what we are traveling for and where we are going. He says he's going to the Philippines and would love to stretch out and sleep on the plane.
"Pleasure doing business with you!" I say as I move back in the cabin. "Same to you!" he replies.
I take my new new seat, quite pleased that I made $100 by being lucky. I do a bit more coding, watch a movie, take a sleeping pill and promptly pass out, sleeping for about 4 hours.
As we are approaching Hong Kong, the lady captain comes over the PA and says (in an authoritative voice that only captains have. They probably have some kind of school for Captain Voice) "Cabin crew, 30 minutes to landing".
More than 30 minutes later we are still in a holding pattern, and the captain comes over the PA again: "Good evening passengers, due to the windy conditions caused by the typhoon in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong airport is backed up and so we are delayed. We apologize for the delay". At this point, I didn't know there was a typhoon in Hong Kong. This was also the first time I had ever heard a pilot say "windy". I guess typhoons are kind of like that.
So we hang about in the holding pattern for about 40 minutes more. "This is the captain again", the authoritative voice over the PA announces, obviously stressed or annoyed, "we are unable to land in Hong Kong tonight".
A cacophony of noise starts up. "We are diverting to Taipei airport due to the backup of planes caused by the typhoon over Hong Kong". I think I giggled a little at this point. This flight just got weirder.
An older guy called Jim sitting one row back over my left shoulder started a conversation with me about our flight and reason for travel, as you do when flying. He was a woodcarver going to the Philippines on a business trip and he spoke about the plight that some of his workers had, having to walk many more miles to get wood due to the deforestation happening there.
As we're approaching Taipei, the pilot announces "Cabin crew, 30 minutes until landing" again. I had a sense of deja vú at this point, like I had heard her said those exact words before.
But I passed time by talking to Jim about programming, dreams and neural pathways in the brain and we landed alright in Taipei. Everyone on the plane did the usual thing of unbuckling their seatbelts the instant that the seatbelt sign was turned off and they stood up to get out their luggage. Jamming up the aisles with a mass of bodies and luggage.
We waited there for about 20 more minutes without moving. During this time Jim and I talk to another passenger, a teenage boy from Taiwan, on his row who was actually connected to Taipei through Hong Kong and this boy was really happy that the plane had diverted, even if everyone else wasn't. It would mean that he could just get off here with everyone else, eventually. I certainly wasn't happy as I had missed my connecting flight out of Hong Kong back to Sydney by that time (the layover was only an hour and a half), and therefore also the breakfast/lunch I had scheduled with some international friends who were arriving at the same time, or near enough.
The captain came over the PA yet again, annoyed still, and said "There's been a change of plans. We are now in the process of refuelling this aircraft and changing the crew. We are now going to attempt to fly back to Hong Kong and land there. We really apologise for any inconvenience that this has caused you. We will inform you of your options when we get you to Hong Kong." An American guy behind me sighed loudly and whined that he only wanted to get outside so he could smoke. Long haul flights and smokers aren't compatible, it seems. He caught a passing flight attendant who quickly dismissed him with a short "no". He said it was worth a try and continued talking with Jim and I as everyone begun putting their bags back up in the overhead compartment to prepare for the flight back to Hong Kong.
I had wrote the first part (the part about the little girl) of this post on my phone as kind of a short blog post which I thought was an interesting story. I never thought it would turn into this!
So to recap: I've been paid $100 to swap seats with a random stranger, missed my connecting flight to Sydney through Hong Kong, met a couple of new temporary airfriends and have no idea when we're going to Hong Kong or when I will finally get back into my nice, comfortable bed in Sydney. At this stage, it certaintly feels it would be easier just to stay in Taipei on a permanent basis. I hear the people here are nice.
The plane, with fresh crew and unfresh passengers, left Taipei airport somewhere between an hour and two hours after it arrived there and flew back to Hong Kong. We were stuck in the holding pattern again and the new captain, this time a guy, came over the PA: "We're stuck in a holding pattern over Shenzhen waiting to get into Hong Kong airport. Due to the typhoon, there's a large number of planes waiting to land in Hong Kong at this time." mhm. Heard it all before, buddy.
But eventually, we did land. It was just after 1am. As soon as we landed, everyone on the aircraft performed that perfect Pavlovian response to the seatbeat sign again and crowded up the aisles. After a couple of minutes of waiting, the pilot comes over the PA again and says: "Uhh... we currently have nobody to operate the airbridge in the airport. We're going to be waiting a few more minutes for someone to do that. Please wait." Massive sighs and a couple of bouts of nervous laughter spread through the cabin.
About 10-20 minutes later we all get off the plane and we are all directed to wait outside the gate, where the crew are giving directions to people who need them. Eventually, we're lead away from the gate area and down towards the Transfer area in the airport. Along the way, there's hundreds of extremely-tired looking people who are just sitting on the ground or milling about, waiting for their flights. I had an urge to ask them how long they'd been waiting for, but didn't ask. That was silly.
What happened next was an utter disaster. I tweeted about my experiences during the whole thing thanks to the free airport wi-fi. Probably the only thing that kept me relatively sane / calm through the entire debacle.
Our "tourguide", a short, young Asian man, directed us to an empty spot by a shop and told us to wait 20 minutes. He said he needed to go to Head Office to get some clarification on what would happen. We waited for over an hour, perhaps two, and he didn't come back.
After that, I lined up in one of the impossibly slow lines that looked vaguely like it was going in the direction of the Cathay Pacific desks. Where you would normally expect an orderly queue would flow into an orderly counter area with a 1:1 ratio on clerk to passenger, actually formed into this zombie-mosh-pit of tired travellers. As I was waiting in the line, the Woman and Child came through and actually pushed in front, about 8 people ahead. I was a little angry, but too tired to really care at that stage.
I waited for 3 hours in that line, speaking to various travellers about their plans and backgrounds to keep myself entertained. When I got to the front of the line I actually realised I was also the back of the line. The other people who had been behind me had obviously either pushed in front or had found alternative ways out. The guy behind the counter looked absolutely exhausted and I thanked him greatly for his work. He assigned me a ticket for a flight out of Hong Kong at 9am the next morning, as well as two $40HK vouchers for spending in the airport as a consolation for the flight delays.
I looked around for some seats to crash on but a couple of hundred other people had the same idea as me, so I was relegated to sleeping on the ground which was basically slightly furry concrete. An airline had handed out "consolation blankets" (my name, not theirs), thin airline blankets that people could use if they needed to. I grabbed one and used it as a base.
When I laid down, I noticed two buff black guys near me with deep South African accents were talking. I thought they would eventually fall asleep, and was proven wrong over the course of the next three hours. Every time I tried to fall asleep one of them would laugh or raise their voice and I would be alert again. At about 6:30 I gave up on trying to sleep and listened to their conversation. Surprisingly, they were fashion designers from South Africa. They just didn't look like the fashion designer type to me.
I rolled out of bed at around 7ish and went upstairs to get some breakfast. I had no idea what exactly my vouchers could buy, so I bought McDonalds as a safety. It was McDonalds, and approximated food well enough that my stomach was not wanting to detach itself and go hunt on its own. Upstairs was packed with bleary-eyed people, probably the same people from the night before who had also missed their connecting flights.
After "breakfast", I made my way to the gate and set an alarm incase I fell asleep. Thanks to the wonderful sunshine streaming in through the Hong Kong airport there was no chance of that. Eventually 9am came around and I got onto the plane, absolutely tired out of my brain. When I sat down, I felt alright, but later on when I went to the toilet again I looked in the mirror and my eyes were bloodshot and I looked the most tired I had seen myself in years.
The flight back to Sydney was non-eventful, apart from some children on the same row as me playing with the blinds the entire flight, opening them and letting in the "lovely" sunshine while I tried to sleep. Oh, and the absolutely cute Polish chick with the bright-green eyes sitting a row back. But at least I slept. We arrived fine. No holding patterns, no typhoon bullshit, just flying as it should be.
I was overjoyed to arrive at the baggage claim to see my bag there. I was worried that it may have not made the flight, but it seems these airline people know what they're doing when it comes to planes and things. Surprise!
After catching a cab back home, I took a shower and brushed my teeth. Then I got into bed. Wow. That was such an amazing feeling. I cannot describe it. It had felt like I had wanted, nay, needed to lay in this bed for an eternity and was finally only getting to it. That was kind of the case. 40 hours in-transit is an eternity.
Now I'm back in Sydney and have just about adjusted back to the fact that it has sunshine at the correct times, ready to throw myself back into doing Real Work(tm) and whatever life can throw at me in Sydney.
America was fun and I'm already making plans to go back there again. But probably not this year, as I've got a conference on in the Ukraine I have been invited to speak at in November, and I would like to do a little bit of touring around my own country (Australia) in December. We'll see.