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Better late than never

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaAn on-time flight is as rare as dragon’s teeth but the mess is manageable. One airline shows how.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Game of Thrones - Dragonair has come a long way

Dragonair has come a long way and is learning to manage incessant China-related delays/ photo: Game of Thrones

THERE’s nothing that quite beats the joy of bounding into your plane a few minutes early, delighting in the knowledge you’ll be airborne soon. And so it was I bounded into my Dragonair flight KA820 on 16 June, 2015, from Hong Kong to Chengdu – a mere two hour catapult across China’s summer skies – to get back to panda town.
It was a short sector, so short that when I scanned the inflight entertainment selection, a pop-up box warned, “Insufficient time – you may not be able to finish the programme before landing.” That’s what I like to see. Planes that really whizz you from place to place in the twinkle of an eye.

By 9.45am, with the surrounding Lantau mountain ranges bathed in morning sun like some classic Constable painting, I was strapped into my seat as I waited for the roar of the engines. The scheduled departure time of 10.15am came and went. At around 10.40am the captain’s intercom crackled to life. Ah, here we go at last.

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He was brisk but apologetic. Hong Kong air traffic control had asked us to stay put as they waited for a go-ahead from their Chinese counterparts. This happens frequently and no one paid it any mind. Perhaps now there would be time to finish a television serial or two.

A half hour later he came on again. China air space – controlled by the military – was closed. The take-off queue grew. Eventually our departure time was set to 12.30pm but we had to remain in our seats. I checked my watch. We would make our appointments by the skin of our teeth. Breakfast was wheeled out. It is interesting being served while still on the ground and it means that service is faster and more assured and hot drinks do not get delayed due to turbulence. This is a technique other airlines might employ. The cabin crew beamed and did their job, never dropping their smiles.

{I waited for the large group in the back to riot and force open cabin doors for a smoke. This is what makes wide-eyed suits quake in their Bertoluccis...

I waiting for the large Chinese group in the back of the plane to riot and force open cabin doors to have a smoke. These are the sorts of reports in newspapers nowadays that make wide-eyed suits quake in their Bertoluccis. There was no ruckus at all. The ongoing delay seemed the most normal thing in the world, so when our flight was rescheduled for 2.55pm, we remained in our seats, disciplined, if silent. And still the crew smiled and paced briskly about. It was a bravura performance.

Many dozed while I pondered why my screen kept insisting there was insufficient time to complete a 30-minute documentary. The captain came on from time to time informing us of the deepening mystery and how we might eventually penetrate the inscrutable bamboo curtain. He offered the option to disembark along with checked-in baggage, and a few took him up on it.

The flight eventually lifted off at 3.10pm and we arrived in Chengdu at 5.30pm with a whisper-smooth touchdown. I clapped my hands and many joined in. I reached my hotel, the Niccolo Chengdu, at 6.30pm. It is a luxe offering from Marco Polo – the first in a new brand line – a friendly, contemporary and minimalist address adjoining the vast IFS mall.

After an eight-hour ‘flight’ I still felt fresh enough to explore Taikoo Li, the chic new hutong district in the heart of town, brimming with spicy Szechuan nibbles, dessert cafes, dancing fountains, local designers and splendid distractions, like Brompton cycles and folding Strida bikes. I have a Strida that folded beautifully into a corner of my house, so often serving as a talking point, I have not had the heart to unravel it again. Friends say it is a lazy excuse. But if truth be told, after my son pointed out my weekend cavorting resembled the pirouettes of a crazed circus elephant on a mini-bike, I decided to retire this particular passion, for now at least.

I also gawped at the remarkable bashed and dented Crash Baggage made from moulded polycarbonate that is as playful as it is practical and wondered if such awesome luggage might strike fear into airlines to ensure on-time departures. ‘Gosh! Did we do that?’
At the end of the day, my regard for Dragonair, a somewhat underrated Cathay Pacific feeder carrier operating largely in China, rose inestimably. The airline is plagued by China air traffic delays and passenger rage. Yet it sails on. The crew handled things brilliantly, with smiles, tact, patience and unshakeably positive energy, proving that it is the service that counts, the software, not the hardware. Bravo.

There’s a lesson here for airlines. Toss out those expensive, old, malfunctioning planes and serve passengers on the ground, preferrably in a plush lounge with ample kneeroom for all, and good HD video of the destination. It’s safer, cheaper for all concerned, and reliable. If you need to simulate turbulence, just hire a couple of tattoed mobsters to toss people about then castigate them for not wearing their seat belts.

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