Twas the night before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the airport
Not a store was open, not even a food court;
The passengers are milling about without a direction,
In hopes that one convenience store would be a distraction;
The children are screaming in their restlessness;
While parents are flustered with helplessness;
And airline agents keep counting to end of light,
While the crews rush to their last flight,
Mom and I gratefully slink into the lounge and forgoe
The choas while we bid farewell to Santiago.

 

Feliz Navidad, peeps!

You can’t make this stuff up: Nairobi Airport, post-fire

As luck would have it, the day of the international news headline Nairobi airport fire… was the day my family and I were supposed to fly out of Kenya.

My family’s route deserves a post of its own. They eventually made it out a few days later. I ended up having to wait until the following Tuesday, 6 days after my planned departure, to fly out.

My friends and my colleagues like to use this statement: “You can’t make this stuff up.” Often in reference to an experience or a story so bizarre it can only be true. My experience out of Nairobi airport, the reopened version fit right in that category.

I gave myself three hours before departure for commute, airport back up, and check in process.. It was sufficient.

First was the sheer traffic getting into the approach to the “terminal”.. it’s jammed and there is barely any length for cars to pull over and drop passengers off. Cars are not permitted to loiter, but given the little room to work with and the likelihood that foreign tourists will travel heavy, delays were inevitable. The cars crept once approaching the airport.. some passengers just unloaded early and dragged their suitcases by foot, weaving between the vehicles.

The drop off / pick up point looked like this from the car:

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We had to push/pull our bags through what would normally be the driving in area of the international terminal. It was quite a scenic route. First, the Kenyan Airways checking tent and waiting area, for the domestic flights:

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And, of course, I wasn’t going to not at least attempt to get a snap of the infamous building, even with the fire out. Apologies for the blurry nature of the photos.. my p&s was dying with the focus not working as well as it once did, even in low lit situations.. this set of photos would be its last job.

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We actually checked into our flights at the actual international departures building. We just couldn’t get to the upper level where the “secure” area would have been. We went to our airline counters, checked in as normal, then queue up for the longest line to immigration.

A few passengers tried to cut the line, especially when an airline representative came around calling for Swiss passengers and that the flight was boarding. Surprisingly, the immigration officers snapped at the passengers who abruptly rushed up, stating firmly that there was a line and they were to respect it. Honestly, it was unexpected in a culture where rushing up en mass was not unheard of. Fortunately for those harried passengers, the rest of us in line told the immigration officer we were fine with letting them go ahead of us to catch their flight.

After passing immigration, we had to backtrack into the check-in hall, walk to the end of the building, and run our bags through x-rays before walking through a rather obscure door… that was where it got fun…

Because the door was normally used by the baggage handlers:

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Our “lounge”, and, yes, there was even a sign indicating that, was a large banquet tent pitched in what is normally Gate 9 for the plane to park.

Someone with a megaphone would yell boarding announcements.. most of which was garbled because in addition to a thick accent, he was placing the mouthpiece too close to his mouth. So of course no one understood him. A friend commented “Maybe that’s the point?” Passengers for announced flights would step forward from the tent. Depending on where the plane is, passengers would either walk or be bused over once their boarding pass is checked.

British Airways was the only airline that had its special set up to include an x-ray, after passengers queued up and got their tickets scanned at a kiosk. I can’t blame them. I found the x-ray “after” immigration to be lax. Heathrow and BA had every right to insist on a check. They not only x-rayed all bags, but also selected every second or third person for a manual bag check, which was quite thorough.

I was impressed. Vastly amused initially, but ultimately impressed. Passengers didn’t throw temper tantrums or demanded answers with hostility. There was a lot of confusion given the lack of signs and the gibberish announcements but people were surprisingly patient with the situations.

Likewise, the ground staff were amazingly organized. All wearing reflective jackets, if they didn’t know answers, they directed us to someone who would. They approached every passenger emerging from the secret wardrobe door to ask which flight, which airline and directed the individual where to walk. Not that much of it made any sense, but they didn’t wait to be approached, but were proactive in approaching us.

Our flight departed 10 minutes late.

Dulles and Heathrow do worse in a fully functioning airport with a clear weather day.

Snow and Heathrow.. ouch

It’s been a while since I was at the airport, staring dumbly at the departures board, watching flights get canceled. I was did just that in January, at Heathrow.

I should have known something was wrong when I couldn’t, from the night before, until I got on the bus to the airport, check in on-line, when I never had a problem before. The notice came to my email about 2 hours before scheduled flight time, when I should have been checked in and past immigration at the airport.

I rebooked to the last flight out, but the desk agent warned me that the flight schedule was not looking good. Sure enough, after four hours in the lounge, I saw my flight canceled. I know it’s snowing- I’m watching the plowing through the window. But, surely, while the snow fall was more than “flurries” it isn’t, in my New Englander experience, considered “heavy.”

What was most disturbing was British Airways was the only airline canceling. All the other flights were taking off. Few with much delay. Don’t tell me BA pilots don’t know how to fly in inclement weather… if that were the case, I would seriously question the quality of the airline.

I couldn’t resist. I asked the customer service agent what the problem was.

I never thought I’d be so relieved to hear this explanation:

Because Heathrow’s landing and take off slots are so tight, the inclement weather slows down the throughput. As a result, British Airways, the major and local airline takes the brunt of the cancellations.

So, tucked that little bit of knowledge for my future planning and had a full refund issued for my canceled trip. Lesson: In the winter, fly foreign airlines out of Heathrow.

A Case for Outsourcing

I love airport business lounges. Aside from the usual perk of getting free food and waiting in an area more serene and quiet, I find them a great people watching area. Airports in general are great for people watching. The business lounge, though, gives me a reflection of the country’s society.

Here I sit in one of Tokyo airport’s lounges and I see many Japanese, a smattering of foreigners. The subservient culture of service providers is evident in the scattering and ducking female attendants. But what struck me the most is the sheer volume of Apple notebooks, iPods, and iPhones used by the Japanese clientele. We’re talking about a nation that exemplifies the example of a tech gizmo crazy customer base. Japanese electronics are flooding and taking over the American market. Just look at our living rooms. Here, we have the Japanese toting Apple gadgets, wearing jeans, carrying laptop backpacks. Oh, the classical staid formal black-suited Japanese businessmen were present, but even their styles are beginning to loosen up with corduroy slacks, jeans, or *gasp* a gortex jacket.

This isn’t just a case of Apple’s success but, to me, an example that, despite the economical woes we are riding through right now, American ingenuity still trumps all the fast growing emerging economies. The difference is we are no longer a major exporter of products and materials. Face it. The days of Ford manufacturing power are very simply over.

That brings us to the thorny issue of outsourcing. As American standard of living went up, so did the cost of labor. You can’t expect the American factory beltline worker to live off $3/hour when a gallon of gas is more than $3. But how many of us can afford a $300 pair of sneakers for our kid just to be able to participate in physical education class in school? That would be my guesstimate of how much sneakers would cost if they were made by the American workforce. For me, $100 is already expensive for my regular running shoes.

Outsourcing is painful as we learnt the past ten years. But necessary. It is a business being efficient in leveraging a global market. If we export our brands, we have the same capability to export our labor distribution. Companies are learning to cut costs and utilize a whole new scope of resources opened to them. That’s smart business. The union Joe and Jane might have been hurt in the paycheck, but the overall American consumer benefited.

Back to my airport lounge. What we continue to underestimate is what we do export. Our image and our standard of living. Countries in East Asia are adopting American styles, in dress, in fashion, but indirectly also in thinking. Fifteen years ago, the stereotypical Japanese businessmen couldn’t be any more starched and proper in appearances than if they came out of a bronze cast. Today, the younger generation of Japanese business travelers are relaxed and electrically lit up as any Manhattan yuppie.

Nor is Japan alone. China has a huge domestic market of material consumerism. While they don’t buy American brands, there is no doubt the Western styles hugely inspire the domestic brands. Everywhere I go, people are fascinated to find out that I am an American and constantly pepper me with “is it true that Americans have…” questions. We clearly still maintain the bar of a good life in many foreigners’ eyes.

As long as major names such as Facebook, Google, Apple, Twitter, Palm are forefront everywhere we go from providing Egyptians a means for a grassroots protest to being the primary business tool for business, we prove that we also maintain the bar in innovation.

We’re not perfect by any means. We’re also stuck on the notion of being a manufacturing powerhouse. We base our comparison on the post World War II success and accession to global power. We are less of those images today than we used to be and we keep bemoaning the loss of “the golden years.”

Times change. Countries change. We are no exception but we can’t seem to collectively understand that.

As long as we cling onto the image of being an exporter of the 1950s, we loose our objectivity in planning for the future. Archaic and misplaced notions make us less adaptable to the change we actually face. Outsourcing is good for our companies.. and our workforce has not picked up on that as quickly as the firms.¬† Admit it. Union Joe is not the foundation of our future economy. He’s of the past. We will continue to rock in the unpredictable economy until we realize that to maintain our footing and launch on, we have to establish a different idea of what American productivity looks like.

And we will. It just may take some adjustment. We need to take our frame of reference away from the mold of the Henry Ford example. Those who do work in manufacturing will take a hit and some of them will take a long time finding an alternative, if ever. The context of a successful American workforce is different from what we are familiar to think of it. Fortunately, for us, we still have the the Jobs, Levis, and Zukerberg who are willing to be creative, pursue their personal ideal. Whether or not an individual achieves their levels of fame and credibility, anyone who aspires to achieve on his or her own individual way as they had ultimately help us maintain our edge in the global economy. And that ambition is exactly what it means to be American.

As I wrap up here in the lounge, the guy sitting next to me has a phone going off. And the ring tone? Lady Gaga’s Telephone.

So, how can I not think¬† that we’ll make it out OK?

Bare essentials

I just breezed through security with a full bottle of water in my backpack. Hm. I have yet to go to the gate so perhaps there’s another security check-point. One hopes.

It’s not that I think bringing a bottle of water is bad. I prefer to be able to keep it. But I went in knowing full well I would have to toss it if I didn’t get thirsty first.

As a frequent traveler, I have the dilemma of trying to figure out what to carry on and what to check in. I long gave up on solely carry on, especially with the liquid restrictions and my tendency to bring some forbidden object such as tweezers, a pocket knife, or a leatherman.

Some seasoned travelers such as my father have it down to a science. I don’t.

At the very least I will have on my being:
– a travel journal and pen,
– travel wallet with all necessary papers and documents
– cash in US dollars
– two credit cards
– chapstick
– two packets of tissues
– a point-and-shoot camera
– an iPod and headphones
– a sweater or jacket
– dental floss

For trips where I don’t trust my suitcase to get there with me or where I know I can’t get an easy replacement in the hotel:
– Base basics in toiletries
– Set of clean underwear and socks
– Fully charged mobile
– Writing paper
– Reading material
– SLR camera

A lot of it also depends on which airline I fly. I have huge confidence in Thai Airways. Singapore Airlines I know I don’t have to even think. United is quite good with providing basic amenities to a business traveler.

With all the flack about air travel, the fact is airlines providing international travel so still provide an excellent level of provisions, all things considered. Blanket for the cold, shower facilities for long layovers if one has enough mileage status to access the lounge. Plenty of water refills in flight to the point I have to plead them to stop refilling so I don’t have to keep going. (if you must ask why I feel obligated to drink it’s because they top off the glass to the point it will spill when the plane hits turbulence.)

I consider it a matter of pride that I know and do go through the metal detectors without a beep. Some security checkpoints now ask us to not only lay out our laptops apart from the bag, but also our mobiles. I have yet to do it. From my engineering standpoint, I fail to see the difference between an mobile from an iPod or camera. And with all the times I passed through, they never called out my bag to dig out the mobile, validating my belief that the pointless exercise would not be worth my hassle.

Back to my bottle of water. I wonder if it will fly with me this afternoon. It’s my first time departing from this particular airport, so I’ll have to report back once I get through this leg of travel.