Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Chaos and confusion on travel

So I’m writing this while sitting on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic at 36,000 ft. I’m on my way to New York for work and on the way back I’ll be stopping in Madrid for a few days to take in the sights and to see my colleagues in Madrid. But today has been an observation in the barely organised chaos that is international travel. To get to New York, I’m going via Madrid, which is fine – I’ve taken worse flights than to have to make a slight deviation in direction for a stopover first. However, this morning’s flight from Geneva was delayed by an hour – not very Swissifficient that - and this afternoon’s flight from Madrid was also delayed by at least 40 minutes. It turns out though that by the time I touch down at JFK the flight should more or less be on time.

Airports themselves can be a really curious mix – unsure of whether they want to display the wares of the country people are leaving from, or what they think people want. Geneva airport, which is not a big airport by any means, has a mix of shops of both Swiss brands and international luxury brands. While you’re waiting for your flight to anywhere that is not Geneva, you can browse through Swatch, Montblanc, any number of Swiss watchmakers such as Raymond Weil, Frederic Constant or Omega, and buy as much Toblerone as you please. If your credit card limit stretches that far, you can also buy up a storm at Hermes, Cartier, Ralf Lauren and Chopard. (Seriously, Chopard? Who has the cash and the time to lay down $10,000 or more on a Chopard piece at an airport?!) The Swiss brands at Geneva airport make sense, as do the luxury ones given that Geneva is a city with some seriously wealthy people.

So after arriving in Madrid and browsing the airport shops while going from one delayed flight to the next, I was stunned. I thought I had maybe landed in some alternative Switzerland or a remodelled Geneva airport. The shops in this Spanish city’s airport were, in fact, all Swiss. The Montblanc, the Swatch of Geneva airport was to be found everywhere at Madrid airport; there was a predominance of Swiss brands and nothing Spanish. Startling. I had expected to find at least one shop selling espadrilles. But nothing.

But if airports are sometimes an object of curiosity, the act of boarding a plane can make people especially so. In Geneva, apart from the uncustomary delay of the plane leaving, the departure process was a model of Swissifficency. A polite boarding call, an orderly queue to board, people quietly finding their seats and sitting in them; no problems. But never have I ever seen anything so farcical as the boarding process at Madrid airport.

First, according to the flight departure boards, the flight was on time, then it wasn’t, then it was, then it changed gate, then it didn’t. Second, they don’t make announcements to make you aware of those changes. In the end, while boarding commenced on time, it certainly didn’t end so. There was one solitary lady that was processing the boarding passes for the entire full plane load of mostly Spaniards and Americans. Being a Transatlantic flight, the plane is not a small one either.

I don’t know what it is, but as soon as the purser looks even close to announcing the boarding call, people congregate outside the gate as if they must be first on the plane – even though they will simply sit on the plane for the next 30 minutes while everyone else boards too – or as if it will leave without them. So this seemingly innate instinct in some people naturally caused a small crowd to develop around the gate. Then, when the actual boarding call came, it became a mob. And with one lady checking the boarding passes of over 350 people, boarding quickly became a mess. Americans complained loudly, both to each other and to the poor Iberia check-in lady. Spaniards also complained, in quiet, albeit mildly irritated, accents. The immigration policies of the US before leaving the country of departure also don’t help, with anyone not American or from the EU pulled out and asked to provide more details.
The 'queue' at boarding at Madrid airport

Once I actually managed to get through boarding at the gate, I was met with the ludicrous sight of not boarding a plane, but a bus. Turns out that they suddenly had to switch planes and the new one was in a different location. On the plane, it didn’t get any better, with passengers haggling over seats. The seat allocation on the boarding pass is actually supposed to prevent this, but it still didn’t stop a group of people debating in the aisle next to me over whether they could swap seats with other people just so they could sit next to their friends, while already pissed off people from the delayed flight and farcical boarding process got even more pissed off at being further held up. Honestly.

I enjoy travelling, and even when it goes wrong it pays to have a sense of humour. As a people watcher, I find it also pays to have an appreciation of the idiosyncrasies of others – in fact vital, as it can make things quite entertaining when you’d otherwise just be joining them in being frustrated, pissed off and annoyed. And that’s not meant to be part of the travel experience.

Update - 10 June

So about a week after I experienced those delayed flights and a few days after I posted the above, the situations has gone from farcical to hysterical. I was supposed to leave New York for Madrid last night at 9pm, but with severe thunderstorms, many flights were delayed, and incoming flights were diverted to other cities, including the one that we were meant to fly on. So with our plane diverted to Pittsburgh, our flight from JFK was inevitably cancelled. But that was just the start. There was confusion on where to collect the bags from. We were told that the buses to take us to the hotels would be leaving at 10.30pm. Five buses were needed to take all the passengers - I was next in line to get on the third bus when I was told it was full, and actually ended up being the very last person to board the last bus, at 11.45pm.

The scene at JFK while waiting for a bus to
take about 200 passengers to hotels
It was nearly 1am by the time we got to the hotel; because ours wasn't the only cancelled flight, all the surrounding hotels were full, so we had to schlep out to Long Island, over an hour away. I managed to get a room at the hotel relatively quickly having used strategic tactics to get towards the front of the line. Finally I get to sleep at 2am.

The next morning, we're told that the buses will pick us up to take us back to JFK at 12 noon, but being Iberia, they don't show up and leave until nearly 2pm. Which means that the 3.30pm time the flight was going to leave is now not possible and after boarding the plane at 5.30pm, we finally take off at 6.30pm.

I'm sure you can't blame me, if, after all that, I say that I refuse to fly with Iberia ever again - except to get home to Geneva of course. Stay tuned for the inevitable disasters on that leg...

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