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.

Really?

Yes – and go away.

Can we talk to the manager?

No.

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.

No.

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?

Really?

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 now..here.

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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