Saturday, August 13, 2011

Eleven hours of fun in Guangzhou Airport

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I'd like to say I had the best flight ever with China Southern airlines, and that my stay at Guangzhou airport was the most fun I'd had in ages.

I would.

However, I'd be a great big stupid liar so let's get this failtrain rolling. It all started a few months back when I booked a bunch of longhaul flight ticket things. Three airports (well, four if you count the one I end up at), three planes and a big load of messing around. Here comes a laundry list of fail:

1) A little while after purchasing the tickets, it became obvious the trip would need to be quite a bit longer than originally envisaged. Most airlines will happily move a return date around if needed for a small fee.

Not China Southern. After being told initially by the company I bought the tickets through that they did it, they then told me "lol nope" and I was stuck with a suckass return ticket that was a big stinky waste of money. Cue another return ticket purchased for a later date - thankfully with another company, as it turns out.

2) Not long before I'm due to fly, I get an email from the travel agent website company who deal with China Southern, telling me "flight information has been changed, please confirm you got this email" - with no actual information with regards what has been altered. Brilliant.

I couldn't get any sense out of China Southern, nor could the travel agency website people do anything as they were closed at the weekend - eventually I had to extract the info from some dude at Schipol airport, who told me all of the flights had been delayed a little bit.

Especially the one from Guangzhou, which was delayed by ten hours.

If you're going to dick around with flights, please - do it at the start of the journey. Don't have me wade through long haul shenanigans then make me wait ten hours for a two hour flight.

When I asked the travel agency if China Southern could suggest an alternate flight, they came back with a jaunt that didn't really seem to reduce the flight time at all.

You know what? I'll stick with the ten hours, thanks.

3) Contact lenses. Regulations for airports state you should "only take as many as you think you'll need onboard" with you - basically a handful at best. In my case, the various delays meant I had something like an hour upon arrival a Schipol to get to the flight to China before it took off without me.

In those situations, there is no way on Earth my luggage is going to make the flight with me. I decided to stick everything into a small carry on suitcase and be done with it. Except the travel agency and the various airlines couldn't tell me exactly how many lenses I could bring. "Ask the airlines", they said - even though it isn't the airlines who set this one. Endless emails to China Southern later, and they wangled out of giving me a straight answer by telling me they couldn't find my flight info, and please call them.

You don't need flight info or anything else, just tell me how many I can bring on board.

In the end, I just brought 30 days of contacts with me, and all I had to do was place them all into two see through plastic bags and show them to the various security gate people. Why someone couldn't just tell me this, I have no idea. Protip: your lenses likely have different strengths for each eye. Write "L" or "R" on one set, as you'll have difficulty remembering which is which otherwise.

4) A few days before leaving, I was contacted again - this time, there was (surprise!) a problem with the flight home. They had to cancel it, or rearrange it, or aliens stole it or whatever. As a result, I had to pick a flight the day before or the day after my (initial) scheduled departure. As I'm now leaving much later (and with a different airline) I really don't care anymore. All the same: what the Hell.

5) Time to fly. While I'd like to whine about crummyness, the first two flights went smoothly (although the longhaul hike to China couldn't give any flight info like local time, distance etc which meant waking up endlessly in total darkness wondering if you were there yet. You weren't).

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And then....and then....it was time for ONE HUGE DELAY. I thought I was ready for it. I've had long delays before. Things got off to a great start when the border patrol guy that greets all foreign visitors sent me in the wrong direction, meaning I almost went through Chinese Immigration and faced the prospect of angry dudes wondering why I was entering the Mainland without the correct Visa.

Protip: If you arrive at Canton airport (yeah,I can't be bothered spelling that "G" word anymore) and you're flying to another destination: DO NOT GO DOWN THE ESCALATORS like so many helpful airline staff told me to. You're heading to immigration. Instead, as soon as you go past the checkpoint dude, you'll see a small area in front of you with seats and things. Turn to your left, walk towards the wall, turn to your left again after a few paces and you'll see a large metal gate "thing" hanging forlornly and an escalator going up.

Go that way.

Then pray for a swift death, because a ten hour delay in this place is much the same thing. For ten hours, I was restricted to a pretty small strip of hopelessly overpriced shops (eight quid for three chocolate bars and a bottle of water? Yep), two food places (only one of which was semi decent) and the most unhelpful "Information Desk" I've ever seen in my life.

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Number one priority was finding some way of contacting people waiting for me at my eventual destination to let them know what was going on. I could connect to some random Wireless points on my Kindle, but everything was in Chinese and I had no idea what to do next. So that wouldn't work.

I went to the China Southern VIP area, attempting to find out what choices I had for internet access as I was stranded here from 6:30AM to 4:30PM.

The response was about as lame as it's possible to be - yes, I know this is the VIP area love and no, I'm not trying to blag my way in. I just want to know what the frak your airline policy is when someone is stuck at an airport.

She basically said "Oh, it's only a few hours, haha". Er, yes. Then she pointed out this was the VIP area again, so I couldn't come in - I think she's missing my point here - and effectively gave me a "lol, not our problem" brushoff.

Thanks for that.

I went to the other VIP lounge for non specific airlines, and was finally told I could pay to use the facilities and get online. Well, the VIP bit did look appealing given the length of stay I'd have here. Just as I was about to get my card out, he says that it's forty US dollars JUST FOR INTERNET ACCESS and that I couldn't use any of the VIP lounge features.

I made my excuses and left.

After a few hours boredom, I eventually worked out that one of the two food places had "free internet" if you paid more than a certain amount for food. As it was morning, almost everything I asked for wasn't ready yet - going well this, isn't it - which meant to spend the dough I needed to get online, I had to buy a spanish omlette, mango juice, a can of Tsingtao beer and a slightly funny tasting can of coke.

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On the bright side, I was able to then hammer their internet for the rest of my stay so I could annoy my contact at the destination with endless time change screwups.

See, I knew something was going to happen with the departure time. Sure enough, the flight was initially delayed by half an hour to 5:00PM.

Then things got stupid. See, my limited internet radius was basically right outside the food place - but the handful of departure time screens were just outside the radius which meant running off, losing the signal, getting flight info, running back, slowly reconnecting to IM on the Kindle and doing that over and over again till I wanted to have a long lie down.

As departure time neared, I noticed the departure board still said "delayed", but was now showing as the original time again - 4:30.

I asked at the information desk, and after the lady greeted me by bursting into loud laughter, she eventually arrived at the decision that yes, the plane was back on time again.

Down I went on the elevator to the departure lounge, and was (not) amazed to see that THIS screen showed 5:30PM as the departure time, while the one upstairs was alternating between 4:30 and 5:00PM.

I asked again at the desk - I think the basic response was "lol, dunno" while hoping I'd just go away. I mean, I expect screwups when flying around the place, it's part of the deal.

But inflexible return dates, changing things while not telling me what the changes are, not knowing what I can bring onto your own aeroplanes, leaving me to wander around a (not very helpful) airport while your (not very helpful) staff give it the "not our problem" treatment and then displaying whatever random times you feel like for the departure gate...oh dear.

Oh dear.

I'll happily avoid Canton airport for the rest of my life, and I'll also avoid China Southern for that same period of time too (if you're still awake, the eventual departure time ended up being 5:30PM, which gave me a grand delay total of eleven hours). Canton airport also places smoking zones (with cigarette shops) at most places where the toilets are located, which means "gauntlet of smoke" time whenever you want to pee. The best bit is that these smoking zones have "Health Certificates" on the wall, or something.

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As a final note, when I arrived at my destination, they couldn't even seemingly park the plane correctly - the plane stopped and powered down, the seatbelt indicators went off and only after half the plane had got up and grabbed their suitcase were we told that we were basically in the wrong place and would have to start doing the taxi dance again.

Ultra mega super derp.

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