Most travelers in China must have noticed the huge improvement in the service of the various domestic airlines. This achievement is particularly impressive as the three major carriers are hard pressed to cope with the exceptional growth in passengers in recent years.
But the aura of success hasn't been able to hide a glaring blemish that was shown up by the heavy snow last Sunday that seriously disrupted air traffic in and out of the capital city.
Many travel writers and commentators have long complained about the lack of initiative on the part of airline staff in the handling of exceptional situations. Such complaints were most obviously validated in the many long queues on Monday in the vast hall of Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International Airport.
The airport management spared no effort in assuring anxious passengers in repeated broadcasts that it was doing its best to clear the runway for takeoffs and landings. Although most flights in and out of the airport were delayed, and some others were cancelled, there was little doubt about the efforts of the airport authority in battling the obstructions put up by the heaviest snowfall in many decades.
There are many airlines operating flights out of that terminal. Air China is, of course, the largest operator among them.
Showing up in mid-morning on Monday, I was dismayed to find that no airline had bothered to put up signs telling stranded passengers where to re-schedule their flights. The harassed attendants behind the airport enquiry counters directed irritated passengers to the ticket sales counters.
Only three windows were open and the queue in front of each was long. There was no one posted in the area to keep order. But the waiting passengers, tired and impatient, were quietly waiting their turns.
The lines were moving at glacial pace. Standing at the back of one line, I heard a man up front shouting: "I have been waiting more than an hour for my turn, and you tell me no seat is available?" Those in the back of the lines with me looked at each other while their hearts sank.
I was expecting to hear the sound of shattered glass. But instead, I saw a dejected middle-aged man trudging a trolley loaded with luggage between the lines of sympathetic passengers away from the counters. By then, I knew what to expect when my turn came.
Sure enough, the impassionate woman on the other side of the counter behind a glass screen told me through a microphone that all flights to Shanghai were full. I asked her why they haven't posted a sign telling those waiting in line of that fact. She just looked away.
But the huge crowd of people in the airport that day, frustrated they might be, had behaved in the most civilized way. There was no pounding on the counter by anyone and heated arguments between customers and airline staff were rare.
Although I couldn't fly out that day, I didn't consider my trip to the airport a total waste of time. In fact, I had a surprisingly delicious meal at one of the restaurants there at a reasonable price. What's more, the charming airport attendant at the elevator waiting area gave me a big smile as I tried to squeeze into the car that took me down to the taxi stand.
(China Daily 01/08/2010 page9)