Back when Kacey, Allison, and I were stuck in Houston, I remember telling the United agent that this had never happened to me before, “this” being missing a flight and being placed on standby.
“Well for all you’ve traveled, you are very lucky,” she told me.
And I am. I want to acknowledge that before I describe the absolute mayhem that was my Monday, because the whole reason for the mayhem was understandable. There have been protests in Hong Kong for the past few weeks, and yesterday’s strike was in support of “greater democracy and police accountability” according to CNN. (You can read more about that here.) I also feel that, despite my inconveniences, I was better off than a lot of people, so in no way am I writing this out of self-pity. It was just a shitty day.
I landed in Hong Kong at 5:20am. I didn’t want to be there, because leaving home at the end of the summer is soul-splitting and heart-breaking. I feel snatched out of fresh mountain air and attached by the mouth to an exhaust pipe. It takes some getting used to.
My layover in Hong Kong was a short one, but I envisioned spending it in a cushy lounge with plenty of coffee and maybe a crossword puzzle.
Instead, the gate agent told me my flight was cancelled.
“Go to E2 Transfer Desk,” he told me.
This I did, along with a horde of other displaced, confused travelers. The transfer desk was already mobbed with a long line that grew thrice in size once the rest of us joined it.
Then, an airport employee called out for all Cathay passengers to follow him. This was the majority of the line, and we all followed him over to a large space of unoccupied airport, where he and some colleagues were putting together a makeshift line out of some kind of tape.
Once we’d all fallen into what felt like a corral, we were left to wait. There were no agents at the start of the line. The first person in line appeared to be waiting for nothing; we weren’t being moved from our line onto the official lines at the transfer desk, there were no agents arriving to meet with us. We were just a clump of humans standing in a makeshift pen in the middle of the airport.
It was all very Kafkaesque. I thought about Kafka a lot, yesterday, because these are the exact situations where someone can approach you and say something completely obscure – “Wait in this line for nothing” or “Your baggage is in a basement. We can’t find it. We have to help other people. Go do something.” – and you are helpless in the face of bureaucratic authority.
“What are we waiting for? Who is coming?” asked a woman ahead of me. A frazzled airport employee answered, “We called them! They won’t come! Just wait. We don’t know what to do. We aren’t airline officials.”
While I waited, I noticed my Cathay app had me rebooked on an 8:05am flight to Manila on Philippine Airlines. It was 6:20am now. I had checked 2 bags through to Manila, though I imagined they’d be circling the carousel in a lonely waltz down in baggage now. Or would Cathay transfer them to PAL? I had no idea, and no one who could help me find out.
I got to chatting with some men standing near me, and we agreed that I should exit the airport, find Terminal 2, and try to get on the PAL flight, assuming they had my baggage.
I ducked out of the line – where most people had sat down, playing games on their phones in some weird complacency – and ran for Immigration. (I still wonder if anyone ever showed up.)
I made it through by 7am, sprinted to baggage claim, but found no evidence of where my bags might have been. (Kudos to United, whose app has a “Track Bags” feature! Cathay has no such thing.)
Thinking maybe they’d been sent to PAL, I ran – ran! – from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2, where I arrived breathless and soaked in a filmy airport sweat.
“We don’t have your bags. Cathay does not arrange for your bags to be transferred. You must find them.”
Unwilling to leave for Manila without any clue where my bags were, I headed back to Terminal 1, this time finding a line in the Departures area where two Cathay employees were dutifully helping people. This was bearable. At least I could see where the line was going and who would help.
After 45 minutes, I made it up to the desk. They could put me on standby for an 11:00am flight to Manila on PAL, but they did not have my bags.
“But where are they?”
“They are in the basement somewhere.”
“But can’t you find them using the luggage scans?”
“The basement is very big.”
She was exceptionally helpful, and I’m not being sarcastic. She booked me on a Cathay flight for the next day so I had a backup secured, but also put me on standby for the 11am flight on PAL. She told me it would take, at the very least, one hour to locate my bags, so I should come back at 9:30am and see if they’d been found.
“Why don’t you go to Starbucks?” she suggested, and handed me a $75 HKD voucher.
She’d told me to cut the line at 9:30 and go straight to an agent, which felt terrible. The line had grown longer with all the flight cancellations – over 200, in the end, and a closed runway – and no one likes to see someone flit to the front of a line when they’ve been waiting for so long.
My bags had not been found, so I was moved to standby on a 2pm PAL flight, with instructions to return at 12:30 to ask about my bags.
Sweaty and irritated, I turned and walked straight at a TV camera. There were news crews everywhere, interviewing frazzled passengers, and I hope I was not somehow captured in any of this footage, wearing day-old clothes marinated in sweat from my terminal sprint. No one wants to see that on the news.
At 12:30, I returned and waited in a short line before being told that my bags had been located! Hooray!
“Yes, but to make the PAL flight, you need to go and collect them from the basement first.”
“OK, great. When can I go?”
“That will take possibly until 6pm today. Someone needs to escort you past security.”
“But…they found the bags. Can’t they bring them up?”
My next instruction was to go to the baggage office and either a) have them bring up the bags or b) see if they could check the bags onto my 4:30pm flight scheduled for the next day.
I waited in another line, filled with unhappy people. A few girls to my left filled out lost luggage forms (see, it could have been worse) while a man in front of me asked if they couldn’t send his bag on an earlier flight to India so he could claim it when he arrived.
“We have not found your bag yet,” said the man. “It is in the basement.”
“But I need my instruments! It is why I am going there. It would be like a doctor arriving for a surgery without his tools.”
When it was my turn, they said that yes, they had located the bags, but they could not release them to me.
“They haven’t been logged yet.”
“You could wait until this evening. We’ll be here until midnight.”
“When do you think I could have them by?”
“There is no way to tell.”
So I opted to have the bags checked directly onto the 4:30pm flight the next day, which required going upstairs and waiting in another line to check in for the Cathay flight. Still, I had a guaranteed flight, and my bags were supposedly going on it, too.
Any seasoned traveler knows that when something like this happens, you insist the airline put you up in a hotel. You insist they give you a voucher for clothes so you aren’t stuck in the same underwear you’ve been wearing for 20 hours.
But I am no good under pressure or stress, and I did not think of any of this. Instead, when I looked up nearby hotels, I found all of them booked. Instead of waiting in a line for another hour in hopes of getting a voucher, I wanted to guarantee a place to stay. So I booked some weird hotel a mile from the airport at a place that looked like a water park.
I had read that the strikes were impacting subways and other forms of public transit, so I didn’t ask Elliot to stay with him or look into better hotels near the city center, because what if I couldn’t get back to the airport?
At least this one was close.
I found a cab, but he only took cash, so I went back into the airport to get cash, and then drove for 30 minutes to a hotel that was clearly a family-fun bayside resort. I waited in another line because check-in took ages.
A man in a Hawaiian shirt checked me in. At this point, all I wanted was a shower and to hide from people for the rest of the day.
“Do you have room service?” I asked.
“Can you give me a room away from children? One that is quiet?”
This lengthened my check-in time, but in the end, it was worth it. My room had bay views with the biggest bathtub I’ve ever had, that also had its own window overlooking the water.
Now I am back at the airport. I have no idea if I’ll make it back to Manila today. The plan is to get on standby for an earlier Cathay flight, but they can’t put me on standby until they locate my bags. I’m supposed to check back soon.
There are worse places to wait than a lounge. And while my day sucked and felt stressful, I can only imagine how the handful of Cathay employees managing hundreds of discontent travelers must have felt.
The assistance desk had a permanent line of at least 30 people all day, and was staffed by 4 people in shifts of 2 at a time. The same 4 people seemed to rotate in and out all day. It could have been worse. (Although, to be fair, there is still time for it to get worse.)
Categories: Hong Kong