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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

When Patience Fails

A sign at the Labuan Bajo Airport.
Photo courtesy of Becky Gaghen.

Out of the blue, the airline representative approached us in our seats at the back of the plane, bent down, put his hands together as if in prayer, and pleaded with us to give up our seats.  His manner was that of someone whose child urgently needed medical assistance that he couldn’t afford – as though life and death turned on our response.  I was bewildered and a bit terrified.  He said there was a later flight he could put us on.  I was skeptical.

Six months ago, we began planning our week-long cruise among islands in East Nusa Tenggara, or the outer limits, as one Indonesian friend referred to them.  The journey would allow us the opportunity to visit islands otherwise unreachable by air, especially Komodo Island, lair of the famed dragons.

But first we had to get to the boat, which involved taking an unknown airline from Bali to Labuan Bajo.  We had been sitting on the plane for nearly an hour, parked on the tarmac, without air conditioning, before the pilot announced that our 8am flight would be delayed.  By that time, passengers, soaked with sweat, began closing the window shades.  The air was stale; I was barely hanging on.  It felt like I was going to suffocate. 

In due course, we taxied toward the runway, then stopped.  The captain announced that there were mechanical problems with the plane and that we would have to return to the gate. 

While on the bus back to the gate, we began to compare notes with other passengers about what was happening.  We learned that the airline overbooked the plane by two seats and only realized their mistake after handing out two more boarding passes than there were seats available.  As a result, there were no seats on the plane for the two flight attendants, who now had nowhere to sit for takeoff and landing. 

We returned to the gate, where we were told to sit, pending an update from airline staff.  By this time, the airline’s 10am flight to Labuan Bajo was boarding and then took off.  It, too, was fully booked, as was their 2pm flight, and another airline’s 4pm flight.

Several of us were increasingly annoyed that there were no additional announcements from the airline.  Taking matters into our own hands, approached airline staff regularly for updates.  Finally, one, almost in a whisper, informed me that our flight was now cancelled.  She said she could do nothing for us but direct us back to the check-in counter on the ground floor.

There, confusion reigned.  What would happen now?  Would the airline put us up in a hotel?  Which one?  Would they confirm us on a flight tomorrow?  Or were those flights all booked up as well?  It was as though the airline’s staff had hoped we would sort ourselves out somehow; as though the problem – and we – would vanish if they didn’t acknowledge it or us.

I had just written an essay a week before about traveling in Indonesia, and how patience can help.  But, sadly, that approach was getting us nowhere.  After much cajoling, the airline put us up in a 1-star hotel, which we’re told was better than the other hotels where they booked less vocal passengers, and ultimately got us to Labuan Bajo the next morning.  The ordeal made us all the more grateful for our relaxing cruise.

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