Life consists of different worlds – some are passionate, some are full of suffering. We can play our roles with a degree of liberty and individual choices. Other situations see us as rather passive beings, following a pre-meditated stream of actions and procedures- we adopt these for the sake of the greater good. But giving up liberties always introduces an element of vulnerability. Guess what happens if procedures fail? Nobody is responsible, a realm of uncertainty, frustration, and hope rains. It’s the grayzone.
It had been a cloudy day – torrential rains in Miri, Sarawak, with flooded roads leading to the airport, followed by a slightly bumpy flight around towering black clouds that hovered above the South China Sea.
When I landed in Kuala Airport International Airport, bound for Amsterdam, I was in good hopes to see my young children soon – I knew they were waiting for me on the other end of the world. When I reached the departure gate at 2230, a sign above the gate showed: flight delayed until 0030. The gate was still closed and the many passengers bound for the flight either camped on the few benches of the corridor, or sat on the clean polished ground, their backs against the glass window wall.
At midnight, the gate opened, a slow queue formed gradually filling the departure hall. The view gave to a dark, cloudy night. The last planes were leaving, destinations such as Tokyo, Seoul, and Shanghai. Our plane hadn’t arrived yet. Then, the scratching sound of a microphone, a metallic sound of an announcement sounded through the room:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, sorry for the delays, we have to inform you that, due to technical problems, we’ll not be able to depart before 0200. Passengers can collect dinner vouchers. Both the Deli France and Burger King restaurants are still open.”
I put myself in the lane for the vouchers, got mine after a wile, and walked through the empty airport to the Deli, where I lined up in the next queue. The voucher stated RM 25 (= about 6.2 USD). I got two short cheese baguettes, plus a small bottle of mineral water, for a total of RM 23.
“Do you have anything for RM 3,” I asked the sleepy looking water.
“ No Sir, the cheapest is the muffin for RM 6.”
“Could I have then, please, RM 3 back?”
The waiter showed me a humorous smile, shook his head and walked back to the kitchen, where the shop packed up under the rattling noise of dishes, falling iron curtains, and rustling garbage bags. I took my food and walked back to the gates. The last shops were closing. Only one luxury handbag shop was still open, featuring Guzzi and Blueberry or so brands. Two scarfed sales girls stood behind the empty counters of the empty shop, and their faces looked as quaint, innocent, and boring like the handbags in some of the illuminated glass boxes. I wished I could find a computer or electronics shop, something to stimulate my mind.
“Welcome to KLIA, the most beautiful airport in the world,” a panel showed above the corridor leading to my desperate C3 gate. ‘B’ can stand for beautiful, or boring? I went back to the departure hall, and sat down on one of the few empty chairs.
Finally, at 0130, the delayed plane arrived from Jakarta. Transit passengers poured out from the gangway, and quickly populated the remnants of an already full departure hall. Then, the aircrew left, seemingly in a great hurry. The lights switched off in the plane, and its dark face looked with a mysterious, evil grin toward us, the sleepy and grouchy passengers. It was an aging KLM jumbo jet, bumpy scratched nose, patched paint here and there, the “City of Atlanta,” that must have made thousands of journeys over the Atlantic to finish its pre-retirement hauling up and down crowds of Indonesians.
“Listen to me, you blue-white junked aluminum sausage, you’ll be sold to the Congo, soon,” I addressed the jet, that continued to grin at me.
I smelled a rat. It didn’t feel things were shaping up in good order. And there was another scratching noise from the microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are very sorry to announce, that the departure of KL 810 will be further delayed to 0800, due to problems with the fuel pump. Unfortunately, nobody can leave the transit area.”
Forms for contact addresses were distributed. There were screams of protest originating from the crowd that had gathered already since a while around a panel of tired airport officials. Some people were crying- connections were lost for good, and some winter holidays had gone sour.
“We are so sorry, but there is nothing we can do for you right now. All planes bound for Europe have left already. There is no capacity in the transit hotel of ten rooms only, and we cannot issue the transit passengers with Malaysia visas,” repeated the (ethnic Indian) officer with a pitchy and tired voice. Blue blankets were redistributed. I caught one.
Ok, I told to myself, here we are. Welcome to the grayzone! The aircrew has run away, as quickly as they could, no airline representative had turned up yet, and the rest of the world was following procedures whilst babies were crying, and elderly ladies searching for a corner of carpeted concrete floor, for a rough night ahead. This was so typical! Something had gone significantly wrong, and nobody was around to manage the situation, or to assume at least a minimum of responsibility.
In a last ditch effort, I showed my gold card and business-boarding pass. A panel of pitched-voice officials sent me to the business lounge, which closed, however, in front of my tired eyes. The official in a green vest avoided any eye contact, and pulled the rattling key out from the other-side keyhole. I tried also the transit hotel, but all rooms were fully booked already, as I was told.
Finally at around 0230, a KLM representative appeared. It’s a Mr. Yeoh, a pale-faced man. He tried his best to calm an increasing desperate crowd, but he doesn’t seem to be in a position to do much. By now, people were crying and shouting. A frustrated mother requested a nappy for her little baby. Mr. Yeoh disappeared, boarded the junked plane, and came back with one nappy borrowed from the ill- fated jet.
I huddled on the last empty bench on the gangway. It was located beneath a powerful air condition vent that blew down onto me with the ill will of a misplaced winter storm. I was seeking shelter under my buffalo leather coat, and tried to snooze until the morning. How terrible it must feel for homeless and clochards, which spend their lives and restless winter nights out on the street, I thought, me, the spoiled bastard.
Around 0400 the first planes were leaving, and I woke up at every announcement, blowing right into my ears from a loudspeaker somewhere up on the ceiling. These announcements concerned flights to Jeddah, the Emirates, Muscat, Kota Bahru and other places of Mid-Eastern culture.
At 0630, an uneasy sun was rising above fog and touched our foul jet lingering idly beyond the gate. It was all lies, lies, and lies! Nobody had been out there during the night, nobody had done repair work, nothing has happened. It had been a dirty lie, so that the airline could avoid hosting overnight the stranded passengers!
A scratchy sound indicated a new announcement:
“Dear ladies and gentlemen, unfortunately we have to announce that the departure of the plane will be delayed until 1200. A critical spare part, a fuel pump, is flown in from Singapore. Thanks for your patience. Breakfast vouchers will be distributed soon.”
So, here we were! Kuala Lumpur the great, Kuala Lumpur the beautiful. Kuala Lumpur, the most beautiful airport of the world! A problem? Singapore! Help! Heeeeelp! Heeeelp!
“No wonder,” the elderly lady from Sidney, who sat next to me, grumbled. “Never heard so noisy engines, as on this last flight from Jakarta. I knew something was wrong,” she said nodding her head. Obviously, the aircraft had crossed the Strait of Malacca with possible malfunctioning engine(s).
I went for breakfast, this time to the Burger King, and munched a double cheeseburger with bacon, on my own account, because I was supposed to have breakfast in the KLM Plaza Lounge. At 0800 I was back in the departure hall. Slowly the crowd of strangers started to form elements of a social structure. I recognized the stoic Indonesian family in their leather jackets, the couple from Australia, the brown-eyed sleepy girl from Jakarta and the loud-voiced drunken Caucasian matsale with Eastern-European accent.
Most tried to give consolation to each other. We were in the same boat, kind of.
Outside, some works had started on the jet. Yellow hoses were lying around beneath the plane’s patchy body; some people were obviously doing something.
At 1000 a scratching announcement haled the arrival of the requested spare part from Singapore. Things were pulled in and out, and two compressors were rolling in to pressure up flow lines. Dark smoke rose from the compressor exhaust pipes. A lady from England gathered complaints and passenger email addresses. I felt very tired. I didn’t trust the situation, the repairs, anything. Was this perhaps one of the so-called doomed flights?
“Scratch… Scratch… ladies and gentlemen, we are happy to announce the expected departure of flight KL 810 at 1200. Thanks for your patience.”
The new crew finally arrived at 1100, received with applause by some of the Dutch in the crowd. The crew threw some cheeky comments back, and made it to the gate, almost running. They must have had a wonderful night in a good hotel, whilst we, the customers, were going to hell. I hated them, but wished them (grudgingly) a bit ofgood luck.
As the pre-boarding started, I caught a very tired-looking Mr. Yeoh, and asked him to rebook me on the next available Malaysian Airlines flight.
“I’m not boarding this plane,” I told him with a grumpy voice. He nodded, and disappeared with my ticket. As the passengers boarded, I finally received my new boarding pass, departure time: 2300, and a voucher for the Pan Pacific hotel. A kingdom for a bed, I said to myself.
Standing in a long queue at the immigration counter, I realized my pain wasn’t over, yet. I must have looked like a jungle pig: Unshaved, pale and with reddened eyes. After another half hour of queuing and waiting, I made it to the immigration counter, occupied by a young lady officer, with a scarf.
“I’m very sorry, Sir, but you have to go back, pick one of the immigration forms, and queue up again.”
I tried to explain my situation, but she didn’t seem to listen. I was about to explode. Immigration officers can’t be thin-skinned. Finally, I almost screamed to her: But I’m from Saraawaak!
I had almost given up, when the lady looked at me somewhat friendly, and pointed to a stall at the corner of the hall. “Please see my supervisor,” she said.
I was lucky, after all. I received another purple stamp, and could pass through immigration toward the ticket office. Soon I would be in a proper hotel room, smell perfumed towels, and feel the softness of a true bed. It would be heaven, I thought. I got to my room, and it felt like a dream that had come true . I slept a few hours, after a good hot shower.
The alarm clock woke me up at 2000, it was time to reorganize my stuff and get a bite. After all I had been given a dinner voucher and I wasn’t in a mood to let this one go, not even a penny.
The restaurant my voucher indicated was an Indian one. I was guided to a non-smoking table, and one of the waiters scribbled a blue wax color sign on the paper towel. I had no idea, what that meant. I collected my meal from the buffet, and regained my table where a glass of ice water had been placed. The food tasted excellent. But what about drinks, I thought. The pregnant supervisor avoided eye contact, until I really felt I had to challenge the situation.
“Could I have a drink,” I asked, a little shyly. “Sorrry, Sir,” said the pregnant Indian lady, looking friendly but firm from behind her wooden fortress. “Stranded passengers with KLM vouchers are served only ice water, or hot tea or coffee.”
“Give me a coffee, please,” I said.
The coffee tasted good. The first “saloon girls,” dressed in glimmering shicky-micky dresses, entered the scene, and were trying to hook up some lonely stranded male foreigners. I wondered how these girls really looked below their hooker uniforms, and ample multi-layered face paint.
It was 2100. I pulled my luggage back to the plane through immigration, and a few more corridors. Metal shop doors were closing again. Finally, I boarded my MAS flight. This happened after twenty-four hours of delay – twelve hours caused by faulty systems and procedures, twelve further hours by my own suspicion and distrust.
© 2007 by Franz L Kessler