61 - Flight Experience

I had been in Beijing for some reason—I forget what—and was flying home to Xi’an. The new terminal at Beijing had not long been open and for this reason, for the Chinese like new, was crowded.  I entered the upper, airy and open concourse already resigned to long queues and a slow journey through the people-handling business.

As usual, I went to find out which of the maybe 400 desks will be handling my flight. Let’s assume it is G8-12; I find the G area (eventually, Y also seen) and join the current queue with the fewest people but the longest line (lots of luggage but not many people). I pull out my book and read while intermittently shuffling forward. Eventually it is my turn to present my passport to the guy sat behind the desk (why don’t they have chairs that put our heads on the same level?), answer “Xi’an” to what I presume was “Where are you going?” and then wait for him to do his thing. I am a little surprised when he reaches for the phone and fires sounds down it. Even more so when he puts it down, says to me “Could you keep your bag with you?”—the habit is to get rid of it, but it is not heavy, it just makes all the checking easier; so I say something like “If you want”. The phone goes (off) on his desk; he gives a very short reply, prints out a boarding card, hands it to me and says in good English “You might want to hurry”. So I look at the card and he has put me on an ‘immediate’ flight, some 40 minutes away, not the one that I was booked on in most of another hour after that.

There’s not much choice about the time it takes to get through security, so, quite happy that I’m on an earlier flight, I wend my way through the system. I have learned enough to strip my pockets into the shoulder bag and am just happy that I’ve not got things that will trip the security alarms in the other and bigger bag I’d normally have consigned to baggage. Reaching the other side of security, I have 20 minutes before boarding. I recognise the gate number as being as far away as it could be, which will be about a kilometre. I walk faster than most people, so the ‘hurry’ injunction is merely a swift walk, ten minutes. I arrive at the end-of-building-wing position as I expected, to find people sat all over. The relevant gate desk is manned (personned, in this case) and the young lady has no queue so I (suspiciously, in a paranoid sort of way) check the notice screens. These say the flight is ready for boarding, so I go present my card to her. She says very nicely that they’re not quite ready and would I please take a seat. So I go read the notices again. It looks as though there was a flight earlier in the day that has been delayed six hours (by now) by technical faults, flight imminent. This is my new flight number. So presumably some people have found other flights to Xi’an—there is about one per hour—and that has made space for me to move up to take a space. I sit on the floor and read for a while. After 20 minutes there is a tap on my knee and the young lady has come to fetch me. What the..? think I, but women react so oddly in China to foreigners—to some of them, European men are absolutely gorgeous, even this odd bod—I don’t think too much of this. She ushers me to the gate, swipes my boarding card herself and waves me through the gate. I think it is a little strange that she did this herself and that no-one is following me but, on past experience, it is quite likely that the plane was filled with people some time ago and they’re just adding me and a few others to the empty seats.

So I get to the plane and am given an effusive welcome by the one visible stewardess at the door. She waves me to a seat at the front of the craft and a steward comes from further back down the plane to fight with the external door. Immeditaely, which is very odd, but I’m sort of wafted along by the host of questions: Would I like some slippers (what? What’s wrong with my shoes?)? A beer? (yes, please). This is a very wide seat. A can of beer is put in my hand, my bag disappears overhead and not by me and the girl says something like “Hold on to it” as she gives me the beer.

No wonder. The plane moves immediately onto the runway. As it heads to the start of its run I look around. I am in First. On my own.

So what did I do wrong in Beijing? They’re not coming to take me away, they’ve arrived and caught me and I didn’t notice until too late....

The plane climbs into the air as I dare a first sip of beer and the young lady re-materialises, asks again about footwear (I take the shoes off to see what is wrong with them and put them back on), she gives me a range of newspapers in English (more than one!) and she asks about food. Well, yes please; it’s the only meal I’ll have before bedtime (it’s now about 17:00, I last ate around noon) and the flight is two to three hours…. And would sir like some wine with that? Well, why not? The steward appears and disappears and does that again, but this time carrying food on trays, which he takes past the curtain behind me. I look to see what I can, and see only more stewards. The first class meals really are—really good food, if a little too much in volume. Well this is an upgrade and a half, I think to myself. When the young lady comes back to ask if I’d like “another wine and a maybe a brandy later?” I’m flabbergasted.

What is going on?
Well, she says, you’re the passenger.
No, but why am I in First?
Because you’re the passenger. 
She tinkles a laugh.

There’s the flight crew just the other side of the wall six feet in front of me; there’s the stewards and stewardesses partying in ClubLand just behind me; there’s the sweet young thing [SYT] serving me. There’s no-one else on the plane. When she says I’m the passenger she means I am The Passenger: the only passenger.

So the penny drops, albeit with some disbelief.

When a plane is empty it incurs all sorts of penalty charges if it flies empty; therefore it is in the interests of the airline to put at least one passenger on a hugely delayed craft. They still need it in the right place for the next flight (in this case in Xi’an & tomorrow morning) and they need a passenger so as to avoid those penalties. I came along just nicely in time. They had managed successfully to put everyone from this flight onto other flights and had been waiting for an excuse (that’s me, an excused human) to fly. They then held things up while they gained permission, a slot to fly in, got me on boars—and took off.

This is the way to fly; disgusting comfort, cosseting, individual service. The other staff leave the SYT to it. I realise now they’d all gone to sleep, military style [two things you can never have too much of; food and sleep].

At Xi’an, I’m ushered off the plane and kept company by the group of airline uniforms with the same destination, the big city. Baggage handling is unnecessary, ‘cos the bag is in my hand. It is truly weird to walk across the concourse as the only arriving passenger.

Just to make the journey completely perfect, the taxi driver who brought me to the airport on the other side of the weekend is already waiting for me—an already-paid-for chauffeur service that we had planned, but since I’m most of an hour early, quite unexpected.

What an experience.

Next time you’re moaning about bad experiences flying, just remember that, just occasionally, there is a compensatory fantastic experience on the other side of the distribution. I’m not saying this is a symmetrical distribution at all, I’m sure it is skewed to the left, less pleasant side. Thanks to living in China I’ve had my share of those bad ones. On the other hand, I’ve also seen how ‘the other half’ lives and I like it. Mind, I’m not sure yet how much I’m prepared to pay for that same experience…..

The trip was some time like 200704.

The picture at the top is of an ekranoplan, which is a surface vehicle designed for high speeds on—really just above—water surfaces. First found in Russia, as far as I can tell. It is the ground effect that allows the plane to be relatively under-powered or alternatively to carry far more load than you’d expect on a plane. Thus these don’t / can’t fly at height. A sort of high hovercraft. Very useful on large lakes. See wikipedia on Ground effect vehicles. This suggests to me that putting short stubby wings on a conventional hovercraft could be a smart move, and maybe one would turn the skirts fans off for some water crossing. These vehicles don’t respond well to rough water, turning can become difficult and interaction with other water traffic is problematic mostly due to speed difference. The idea deserves more research. I’d also suggest that this wold work in combination with other motive locomotion, say with mag-lev on trains. See also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSeZ1eQzDvI

© David Scoins 2017