In the past 6 weeks I have spent a week in Bologna, Italy, a week in Prague and a week in Beijing.
I am totally sick of airports.
Last week I was in China on a work trip that combined two of my major fears; Chinese toilets and public speaking (I was running a training course).
My trip also involved a major hatred of mine; long haul flying.
I was pleasantly surprised that my fears did not manifest themselves. Beijing is a forward looking city and the toilets I encountered were all decent and western style (as opposed to the disgusting squatters that are still commonplace). My training course went without a single hitch and my fear of standing in front of (at most) ten people and waffling on for four days never actually manifested into anything more than a dry throat.
My Chinese colleagues were excellent hosts; the hotel was perfect and the food was some of the best I have tasted (though I did avoid pig brain as a delicacy).
However, the flights were a bloody nightmare.
It all started off well enough. I caught a domestic flight from Manchester to London Heathrow and arrived in plenty of time for my connecting flight. I even managed to acquire my Chinese currency without a hitch. Moreover, the flight to Beijing boarded on time and at the correct time, I was sitting in my seat, next to an elderly Chinese gentleman, waiting for the plane to push back.
That’s when everything turned to rat shit.
First of all, the captain spoke, saying something like, “We have a minor technical hitch that will delay us for about ten minutes. We’ll hopefully be on our way in due course.”
The temperature in the aircraft began to climb.
Ten minutes later, the captain came on again.
“We’re still waiting to resolve this technical issue. We’ll let you know more in fifteen minutes.”
The temperature in the aircraft continued to rise.
This process was repeated several times until two hours after our allotted take off time. By this time, it was like an oven in the aircraft. The stewardesses had offered us water and apologised about the temperature but “there’s nothing we can do.”
Finally, the inevitable happened. “We’re sorry – we can’t fix the fault and there isn’t another aircraft. The flight is therefore cancelled.”
What followed was a series of barked instructions about how to leave the airport, get hotel vouchers etc. The majority of the passengers were Chinese and, although they were all informed about the problem in Mandarin, every last one of them that I saw looked worried and confused. I was lucky in a sense because I could leave the airport and get a head start as I am a UK citizen. I managed to get off the plane, through immigration and collect my baggage while the poor Chinese people were queuing and trying to explain why they were coming back into the UK.
However, it took ages for me to get to my hotel. Getting the hotel voucher and meal tokens wasn’t too bad. It was the shuttle bus service that was terrible. We had vouchers for this but I discovered that they cost £5 a pop for a one way trip normally. In a lot of other cities I've been to, hotels offer a free shuttle to the airport - not in London where they take every opportunity to releive you of your cash.
The service is infrequent and, once you have found out which one to catch, it takes bloody ages to get to your hotel via numerous others.
What a bloody rip off.
When I finally got to the hotel a couple of hours later, I had to queue to check in with others from the flight.
And I was drenched in sweat. I was paranoid that everybody around me were about to pass out, overwhelmed by foul body odour - although in truth I reckon everybody else was suffering from the same bout of paranoia.
Checking in took ages too. I finally got to my room and I was ravenous and desperate for a cold beer to cool me down. Sadly, the “dinner” I was offered was just a weird buffet and beer was not an option.
I ate it (I would have eaten pig brain at this point) and then found the hotel bar to satisfy my thirst for a cold pint of San Miguel.
As I sat watching the dying seconds of the Champions League final, I saw lots of unfortunate Chinese people from my flight just arriving, having suffered my trauma to get the hotel but far, far later than I did.
I retired to my room and informed my manager and my Chinese colleague, who was supposed to be meeting me, that I wouldn’t be arriving until a day later.
The next morning I had a semi decent breakfast and asked reception about the bus service. I had to get to the terminal again by ten o’clock. At eight o'clock I checked the queue for the shuttle bus and found it was enormous. I ran back to my room, threw all my stuff in the suitcase and checked out of the hotel to join the queue. I was prepared to grab a cab but there were none to be found. The first bus arrived and within minutes it was full. I had to wait for another hour before I managed to get on a bus.
There seemed to be no scope for ordering emergency buses to accommodate the vast number of passengers wanting to get to the airport.
I ended up standing up for half an hour hanging on for dear life as the bus swung around corners. If I didn't have a voucher this journey would have cost me five bloody pounds.
I arrived at ten o’clock and marched up to check in again only to find that the check-in desk wasn’t quite open. One very eloquent Chinese person came to ask me in broken English about checking in and I told her the situation. Other Chinese people saw this and then came and started asking me as well.
Before I knew it I was attracting confused Chinese passengers like a magnet attracts iron filings.
Being a nice guy and desperately wanting to help, I tried my best to inform them in simple English but as I did so, I noticed that some of the airport staff’s techniques were to simply raise their voices – as if speaking louder made their English clearer.
You would have thought that they would have made a staff member available who spoke Mandarin just to assist on a rescheduled flight to Beijing.
Well, needless to say I finally made it on the plane and arrived in Beijing a day late, meaning that I had to rush through my five day course in four days.
The return journey was not a problem, thankfully - that is until I reached London Heathrow again. My flight back to Manchester took off an hour and a half after its scheduled time. I arrived home last night, totally exhausted and crawled into bed, in a state of total bleariness having had no sleep for almost 23 hours.
Regular readers will know that I love travelling but hate long haul flights.
And do you know what? This is the second time I’ve been delayed for 24 hours – the last time was flying back from Thailand. On that occasion I almost had a fight with a man who accused me of pushing his wife.
After that event, I decided this time to approach the situation with a calm demeanour and, although I was fuming, I had a smile on my face – well in public anyway. Inside, I amazed and shocked myself about how many expletives were racing around my brain trying to find their way to my mouth.
To conclude this post, I just want to reassure that I think travel is wonderful – it’s getting to your destination that is the hard part.
I'll tell you about the other trips in the next week or so but until then I only have one thing to say:
I bloody hate airports.