Fly the friendly skies

I felt sor­ry for the guy in the Air­bus office at Jakarta’s Domes­tic Ter­mi­nal 1, Zone C. There he was, in a grot­ty lit­tle, dark and rather dirty room just before the lug­gage carousels. Like most offices in places like this here, the paint was stained from years of smoke, there were wires held by duct tape on the walls, and a hand writ­ten name on the door: Air­bus Liaison.

He looked French, and like­ly was, and whilst his friends had been sent to New York or Syd­ney or Shang­hai, this poor guy had drawn the short straw and, because Man­dala Air and Air Asia had both bought rea­son­able num­bers of his company’s prod­uct, he’d been shuf­fled off to one of the hell­hole air­ports of Asia.

To be fair, parts of Jakarta’s expan­sive air­port are almost ok. Ter­mi­nal 2 (Inter­na­tion­al and Garu­da) has pass­able lounges & cafes, clean toi­lets, and like most inter­na­tion­al air­ports around the world now, free (and very fast) wifi.

How­ev­er Ter­mi­nal 1 seems stuck in the age it was built, the mid-70s, after which it won awards for its design (and the bones of that design are still evi­dent – but only just these days – how­ev­er, it’s poten­tial­ly quite stun­ning). It was meant as a Sukarno show­piece back in the day when he was start­ing ludi­crous wars and try­ing to take over the world, whilst qui­et­ly bank­rupt­ing his own nation. They’d not got around to start­ing the place before he was deposed, so instead, like much of Jakar­ta, it stands as a mon­u­ment to the cor­rup­tion and gross fail­ures of his suc­ces­sor. The grandeur of it all is still there in the long open fin­gers that take you to and from the depar­ture lounges with gar­dens in between. Sad­ly, half the light bulbs seem always blown, the paint is chipped and grey, wires hang every­where and it feels now like a third world mil­i­tary bar­racks rather than the cen­tre­piece of any­thing you’d want to admit to.

1C is inhab­it­ed by two air­lines that we’ve used. One, Air Asia, was one of the ones exon­er­at­ed from the recent ran­dom inspec­tions of air­craft at this air­port (on the oth­er hand 7 of 9 Garu­da air­craft were ground­ed on the spot – which throws major ques­tion marks over its attempts to get back into Europe which, some would say, wise­ly, banned all Indone­sian Air­lines from its air­space a cou­ple of years back).

Air Asia is Malaysian essen­tial­ly and remains one of the few air­lines here I’m com­fort­able board­ing, even if their flights tend to be ran­dom in their depar­ture times, as are all in this country.

The oth­er in this sub-ter­mi­nal that we’ve used is the afore-men­tioned Man­dala Air. These were the guys that, when their plane crashed into a sub­urb of Medan in Suma­tra, famous­ly gave the rel­a­tives of each vic­tim a bag of rice and few litres of kerosene, to kind of act as a sor­ry token and a memo­r­i­al to their charred rel­a­tive. I guess it saved on a more per­ma­nent mark­er or a park.

But to be fair, again, they, on the sur­face at least, seemed to have upped their act, got a fair­ly aggres­sive man­age­ment team, includ­ing a New Zealan­der (lets not men­tion Ánsett), and bought a bunch of new planes to replace the some of the 1970/80s vin­tage 737s – hence the poor guy in the Air­bus office.

That said, though, last time we flew with them, less than a year back, they left 15 min­utes ear­ly, seem­ing­ly with­out all the pas­sen­gers, and for­got most of the onboard safe­ty demon­stra­tion – not for­got the parts of it, but for­got to do it.

So, I was hop­ing that with all the hype they’ve had, flash new offices and so on, they’d resolved all these sorts of things.

We flew from Bali to Jakar­ta on Air Asia; on time, clean and pro­fes­sion­al. To Ter­mi­nal 1C.

The ter­mi­nal is an absolute shock­er, and rates as the worst I’ve seen. Penang and Macau are the oth­er two shock­ers we’ve seen in the region– Penang because it’s filthy and run down, and Macau because it’s just dull with ter­ri­ble food. Ter­mi­nal 1C is all those things and much more, includ­ing being very smok­er friend­ly with­out AC.

It may be the only air­port in the world is smok­ing, via the adver­tis­ing every­where inside, is actu­al­ly encouraged.

So, after a day in Jakar­ta, we strug­gled out, through grue­some traf­fic – 2 hours for a 30-minute dri­ve, to check in for the Man­dala flight to Semarang. After the taxi dri­ver tried to take us across to the wrong ter­mi­nal (I’d hap­pi­ly go via Ter­mi­nal 2 but it was not to be), we even­tu­al­ly strug­gled into 1C and went to check in.

The flight was delayed by 5 hours. The nor­mal prac­tice in Indone­sia is for delays, and there are many, per­haps most flights, to be noti­fied by SMS to pas­sen­gers. Man­dala, it seemed, had known about this for a while but not both­ered. But we had our allo­cat­ed seats, 13B & 13C. Cool – I’m not super­sti­tious – or wasn’t.

With no a/c, and only a few bro­ken seats in the smoke-filled ter­mi­nal, we asked if we could sit in the lounge?

Not unless you pay.


Yes – and go away.

Can we talk to the manager?


So we sat and fumed, I obvi­ous­ly took pho­tos of the staff, and then we decid­ed to wan­der out­side for a stroll/think.

Out­side was the airline’s sales office, so we strolled in and explained to a girl, our prob­lem and asked if we could go into the lounge for the next few hours.


Who do we talk to?

The man­ag­er, inside.

He won’t see us – who do we com­plain to?

Say­ing noth­ing, she got up and walked away, and from the oth­er end of the counter began talk­ing about us to oth­ers, point­ing and laugh­ing at us.

Fine, thought we, it’s got a/c, com­fort­able seats and the counter is a per­fect place to stretch out and read for a few hours. That, as we’d placed our­selves there, they were no longer able to access cus­tomers from that half of their office was real­ly nei­ther here nor there.

So out came the books and mag­a­zines and we smiled at them and set­tled down. Even­tu­al­ly about 40 min­utes lat­er, a guy came and sat down and asked if he could help. Yes, we said and explained our problem…

Why don’t you go to our lounge?


Yes – free of charge

And off we went, tow­ing our bags behind us, to the Man­dala lounge, through the smoke-filled rooms and into the wee room with free water and pas­tries. The lady said she’d tell us when it was time to board so I set­tled down to surf a bit, and read, and I wrote a rather more con­cil­ia­to­ry ver­sion of this post than the one that appears here now.

A cou­ple of hours lat­er the nice lady came out to say that it had been slight­ly delayed again and the flight would board at 6.50. And we each got a piece of KFC and some rice. Ta… I think…

At 6.55 I wan­dered up to the desk to ask when the plane was going to board. 6.50 says she. It’s 6.55 I say. Run she says…

So run we did, check­ing the sign at the x‑ray machines. Gate C5 – so down to C5, where the sign over the door says RI292. Cor­rect, and in we go to five or so con­fused look­ing non-Indone­sians and a young girl behind the desk.

Ke Semerang? I ask?

She smiles and giggles.

After a minute or so we sensed that some­thing was wrong so we wan­dered out. C4 had a sign on the gate with a flight to Semarang, but with a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent num­ber & time and marked as can­celled. So I walked in, looked around for a Man­dala staff mem­ber how­ev­er none was to be found any­where. There were, how­ev­er, lots and lots of peo­ple with KFC box­es. Brigid sug­gest­ed that, pur­suant to nor­mal Indone­sian air­port dis­in­for­ma­tion and con­fu­sion, this may be it.

After a minute or ten, some­one arrived and grabbed a microphone.

RI292 to Semarang board­ing

With a great deal of being pushed, quite vio­lent­ly by the KFC engorged mass­es, as the rush turned into a scrum and a brawl (and whilst Mandala’s just arrived staff mem­ber looked vacant­ly on and did noth­ing) we final­ly found our way to the door of the plane and went on board. It was, joy, one of those very ancient 737s that Indone­sian air­lines are so fond of, usu­al­ly passed down through sev­er­al own­ers. We walked down the aisle: 11, 12, 14.…..

We held tick­ets for 13b and 13c but they didn’t exist. The host­ess seemed not to care either way. So we sat in 15c & 15d and wait­ed. And we wait­ed as the brawl to get on tum­bled past our seats and no-one asked why we were sit­ting in their seats. No-one at all.

But three oth­er peo­ple turned up with the same seat num­bers for the same non-exis­tent seats that we’d been allo­cat­ed. That made five who want­ed the seats.

The air­craft staff wan­dered around tak­ing lit­tle notice or car­ing that there were not only sev­er­al peo­ple with tick­ets for non-exis­tent seats but also too many peo­ple for the plane’s seats, real or otherwise.

Peo­ple seemed to squeeze in some­how but as we reversed out to taxi one guy remained standing.

Once again, nobody on the air­craft seemed to care par­tic­u­lar­ly until he decid­ed to make a noise and demand a seat. Mov­ing a baby onto its mother’s lap they found a place to seat the guy as we head­ed towards the runway.

We, Brigid and myself were seat­ed in the emer­gency seats, beside the exit. It’s stan­dard prac­tice on these flights for staff to explain to the occu­pants the emer­gency pro­ce­dure and check to ensure the floor is clear. In our case they did nei­ther, pre­fer­ring to chat amongst themselves.

And then we flew.

When we land­ed, the whole air­craft shud­dered and the engines screamed as we had quite clear­ly land­ed far too fast (hav­ing land­ed at least 200 times on com­mer­cial flights around the world over the years I trust my instincts on this). Con­sid­er­ing the infa­mous Garu­da flight into Jog­ja a cou­ple of years back when the same caused quite some loss of life, you’d imag­ine this sort of thing wouldn’t hap­pen again, but it did and the pas­sen­gers as a whole were rather shak­en by the experience.

The crew said nothing.

Return­ing to Jakar­ta a few days lat­er we wan­dered along to the Man­dala lounge, with the day’s board­ing pass for the flight return­ing from Semarang and asked if we could per­haps, as (suf­fer­ing) Man­dala cus­tomers, wait in the lounge for our Air Asia con­nec­tion, and offered to pay.

No, she said, the lounge is only for Man­dala cus­tomers, and you are not as you’ve landed.and I guess it clear­ly won’t be us again as it will be a cold day in hell before we return to Mandala

I guess it clear­ly won’t be us again, as it will be a cold day in hell before we return to Mandala

These guys are banned from the skies of Europe and one can rea­son­ably see why. Their staff were rude and incom­pe­tent (with one excep­tion) and their board­ing and onboard sys­tems and pro­ce­dures were at best described as appalling.

One won­ders what their main­te­nance is like.

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