Monday, September 23, 2013

Unexpected Layover at Taoyuan International, Conclusion

Our service in the boarding gate was nowhere near this polished, but it was appreciated.

[Part 2 of a story begun last Friday. Part 1 is here]

OK, where were we?  Ah, yes... my aircraft had experienced some technical difficulties, and I'd been disembarked (along with more than 300 others) back into a boarding gate at Taoyuan International airport in Taipei, Taiwan. We should have taken off for the West coast of the USA several hours before, but here we sat. I'd already taken a sleeping pill for the long haul, and had been fighting sleep off for a couple of hours. All of us were a little displeased, at the least; some more vocal than others. There. That's the Tweet Version. Here's the rest of the story:

By now we were well past 02:00, and my sleeping meds were in full swing.  My head dropped down any number of times, and occasionally I'd wake myself back up with a loud snort - to the delight of two nearby Chinese children, grateful for any kind of diversion in this bare gate environment. It took another 20 minutes or so for the rumbling at the counter to die down, but many of the people weren't placated by the assurances of the gate employees, and they continued to grumble as they found a spot to sit and stew in their own juices.

Speaking of juices, shortly after we'd plopped into the gate chairs to wait, carts from the plane (I guess) appeared, serving us all juice, water and soft drinks.  Wisely they didn't choose - or weren't allowed to - serve alcoholic beverages, and who could blame them? Irate travelers in the wee small hours are difficult enough; boozing them up wouldn't make things any easier for much of anyone.

I toyed with the idea of hauling my camera out and documenting this misfortune, but 1) there really wasn't much to see, and 2) the people around me were not festive folks.

About 30 minutes or so later EVA carts with what would have been our flight meals came wheeling off of our plane, with the stewards and stewardesses pushing them along.  When you're in your seat as the meals come by you don't get much of a look at the boxy carts they push along the aisles, but out in the open in the gate area they look pretty beat up, most likely from being slid in and out of racks on- and off-board. At least, that was my guess by the scrapes along the sides.

Dining in an airplane seat behind First- or Business-class can be an adventure, depending on the over-spill from passengers seated next to you. Sit between two wide-body travelers and you're likely to end up eating your meal looking rather like a preying mantis. In the gate area there were people sitting in chairs, on window ledges, on the floor and a few actually stood, balancing their tray on one hand while eating with the other.  This led to further entertainment for the nearby kids, as one tray tipped and its cargo slid noisily to the floor.  Woke me up, anyway.

To a captive audience, most anything's entertainment...

I don't know where they found the replacement aircraft - and I probably don't want to know - but with EVA's main hub being there at Taoyuan International it was probably just a spare of some sort.  A round of applause rose as we saw it pull up to the jetway, another 75 minutes after the food had rolled off of our first "ride" and it had been taken back to the stable, so to speak.

Announcements for boarding were made, and a worse-than-usual crushing queue of passengers assembled to get back on board and be on their way.

Strapping myself back into my seat I was fighting sleep big time, but I did pull out a pen and paper to note the time on my boarding pass: it was now 05:34, and the sky was beginning to glow on the Eastern horizon. The entire mess had taken a little over six hours, and has been - so far - the most strange flight delay I've been a party to.  The loudest of the "I'm gonna be late" guys was still going on about it, vowing to get free flights out of the mishap, and perhaps he did. There were gracious offers made when I wrote a letter or two to the Northern California and Taoyuan headquarter offices, and I just as gracefully accepted.

Those letters, though, would come a few days later. Now I just re-set my watch to "home" time, put in my ear buds, leaned against the bulkhead by my window and was out in a minute flat. I slept through take-off and whatever else happened for the next eight or nine hours, waking up to the smell of breakfast somewhere late in the afternoon, according to my watch.

So, not quite an unexpected overnight layover, but a layover nevertheless. I don't remember when I've been as happy to stand in line to have my passport stamped and hear the agent say "welcome back."

That extended and unexpected layover was an experience, but I don't need to have it pop up again any time soon.

Immigration at SFO

Friday, September 20, 2013

Getting Laid (Over) At Taoyuan Airport, Taipei

It had been a wonderful month in the Land of Smiles, but I had run myself ragged, as usual, so I was quite ready to return home. The privilege of travel is a valued commodity - in my mind, anyway - but at the end of it there's truly nothing like getting back and sleeping in your own bed.

Wistfully, I sat in the Taipei EVA lounge, watching people in the immigration lines one level down. "One more long nap and I'll be doing that," I thought to myself, polishing off the last of my pork bun and salad before folding up a Chinese newspaper for a friend back home, tucking it into my book bag and getting up to head out to the boarding gate, down the escalator and through the assortment of boutique name-brand and duty free stops. It was closing in on 23:00, or 11:00pm.

I don't know about you, but that stretch through the airport - in my case from upstairs at the lounge, out along the gate walkways and down to where you check in for the flight home - can sometimes seem like a couple of miles.  The excitement that makes the outbound journey has faded, I suppose, replaced by travel fatigue and the knowledge that the realities and responsibilities of life are about to take their standard stranglehold on my time. On the outbound legs I walk with a spring in my step, but on the way home I tend to shuffle a bit. Or a lot.

A little different view of some of the duty free shopping at Taoyuan International in Taipei

The flight from Suvarnabhumi to Taipei had been on time, and after a reasonable layover I was scheduled to leave on a later flight home from Taoyuan this trip. I was looking forward to the longer flight so I could adjust to the time difference and just maybe cut down on some of the jet lag I usually wrestle with. Boarding began, and I settled into my seat.

Because I don't sleep as soundly on planes as some folks I know I take advantage of an aid prescribed to me by my old "family" doctor.  By "family" I don't mean he's a relation, but let's say he'll never marry and sire children like many of my friends have. It was one of the reasons I started seeing him 30 years ago. For the first handful of years, when I lived a more colorful life, I was probably a difficult patient. Since I've changed habits we now have a deal that he rarely prescribes anything I'd likely want more of, and if he does it's with good reason, and in a limited quantity. I sometimes get an odd look from the pharmacy folks when I turn in a prescription for four sleeping pills before a trip, but so it goes.

This time I was glad to have them, and as I headed to the gate I washed one of them down with the last of the water I'd picked up in the lounge. The aircraft that was waiting when I got there, and I was happy to see that the staff were already shuffling papers as I waded in among the other 300-plus passengers. Soon a young woman took the microphone to announce they'd begin boarding shortly, and most of the crowd rose as one to press toward the boarding queue, as usual.

I waited until the wheelchair folks and "those traveling with small children" were taken aboard, and then joined in at the back of the bunch. When my class was called I worked my way through them, boarded, and settled in for my trans-Pacific nap. I don't often eat much of the meal served after take-off if I'm planning to sleep, so I buckled my seat belt and watched the ground crew scurry around on the tarmac around our aircraft for a few minutes before closing my eyes and cat-napping a bit.

The cabin crew going through snapping the overhead bins shut soon woke me up, but as the regular announcements were made and I felt the gentle push of the plane's movement away from the gate I again closed my eyes.  We moved out along the tarmac towards our departure runway, but stopped just short of actually heading out to it.  There we sat for about 10 minutes before the announcement was made: "Ladies and gentlemen - we're experiencing some technical problems with the navigational system of our aircraft this evening, and the captain is trying to isolate it. We appreciate your understanding while we try to resolve this problem."

OK, I thought. Just a short delay. Another 10 minutes passed before the next announcement. "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for waiting. We will be taking off shortly. Flight crew: please prepare for departure." Having missed our original place in line we moved out and joined the back of the queue of waiting aircraft.

Shortly before I'd have guessed we'd be next to turn onto the main departure runway there was another announcement. "Ladies and gentlemen - we're still experiencing some technical problems with our aircraft this evening, and we'll be moving out of the queue to resolve it. Our captain has elected to re-boot the main computer system." While this announcement was being made you could hear the engines powering down just after we'd turned onto the last possible side area so as to allow other aircraft to pass us. There we sat for another 15 minutes. Finally the engines apparently began to rev up again, and a collective murmur of relief went up throughout the cabin.

Most of us aboard probably thought as I did: we were moving along to circle back and re-join the departure queue, but that wasn't the case. The public address system popped on and off a couple of times, and then there was another announcement. "Ladies and gentlemen - our captain has decided to return to the gate to allow a maintenance crew to come aboard and check the systems. Please remain seated and we'll keep you updated." Didn't bother me... I was close to zoning out, anyway, but I pushed myself to stay awake so as to hear what the problem was. After all, this was the metal tube that was to hurtle me five thousand miles across the ocean at 30,000 feet, and I'd rather have them find out what's wrong before we take off... wouldn't you?

We sat. And sat. And sat. For nearly an hour.  Finally, the words none of us wanted to hear crackled from the speakers above: "Ladies and gentlemen - we're sorry to tell you that our captain has decided we will be taking another aircraft this evening, so we'll be asking you to disembark from this aircraft and return to the boarding gate. Another aircraft will be brought to that gate as soon as possible."

As the ground crew moved about frantically below to attach the jetway and begin the process of removing all of the baggage and cargo a low, rolling round of complaints began to rise from folks in the cabin around me, with "You've got to be kidding me" and "I'm going to miss my connecting flight" seeming to be the loudest. One man stood up, shouting, and banged his head on the overhead baggage compartment above him, which didn't improve his mood any. Somewhat bent over he loudly went on to the people in the rows behind him about missing his flight, as if anyone sitting there listening to his tirade could do anything about it - or, indeed - cared.

It took a while for them to prepare for our disembarkation, and as is often the case people assembled their carry-on items and packed into the aisles, pushing toward the front exit doors and packing themselves in a fashion those of you who are familiar with military basic training may remember as "nut to butt".  I sat in my seat, figuring that due to our circumstances we were going nowhere fast. I let the thundering hordes off ahead of me and then took my time getting off the aircraft.

Once off the jetway we were directed into another boarding gate to wait. People jockeyed for position at the counter, waiving their arms and creating a somewhat musical cacophony of concerns and complaints. "Two parts Stockhausen, one part Yoko Ono, and a smidgen of some other form of concrete," I said to myself, but out loud. The man next to me almost made the connection and replied with "Sounds more like a bunch of cats in a burlap bag being soaked with a hose."  He might have been closer than I was.

[The conclusion to the story on Monday]