Man-made chaos, but no man-made solution

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 November, 2009, 12:00am

On the morning of November 1, when my parents set off for Beijing Capital International Airport for a flight of less than three hours to Guangzhou, little did they know they were about to face more than 30 hours of hell.

Both in their late 60s, they were stranded in the cold airport waiting area, then boarded the aircraft, then were kicked off the jet back into the cold waiting area. When they finally took off, it was the afternoon of the next day, last Monday.

Like tens of thousands of passengers that day, they became hapless victims of the massive man-made chaos triggered by a huge man-made snowstorm. Ironically, highly respected Conde Nast Traveller magazine had just named Beijing's one of the best 15 airports in the world for its layout and flight information, among other things.

My parents' horrible experience says a lot about the mainland's crisis-management mechanism, lack of co-ordination among government departments and utter failure to put into practice the government's much trumpeted motto of 'putting the people first'. The cash-rich mainland may have the best facilities, including gleaming modern airports and new jumbo jets, but its soft power, as projected in services, is still way off.

When my parents arrived at the airport more than an hour before the 11am scheduled take-off of Air China flight 1315, the snow was already heavy. But the airline's ground staff mentioned nothing about a potential delay and checked them in.

Lacking the wisdom of frequent fliers, they then began a long wait in a cold waiting area. They were given no food or drink, contrary to state media reports of such a service provided to delayed passengers. And they were stonewalled when seeking flight information.

At around 5pm, they were told their flight had been cancelled, and they were bumped to another flight. Then they were taken by bus to a Boeing 747 along with more than 300 other passengers. From 6pm to 2am, they sat in the plane before being told the flight had been cancelled and they had to leave. Confused, hungry and angry, my parents, along with other passengers, engaged in intensive arguments with the airline ground staff, who refused to say when the next flight would be available and would not take them to a hotel.

At 5am, the airline staff relented and put them on a bus to a hotel nearby. Then my parents were told to get ready to meet a bus going back to the airport at 8am, but the bus did not turn up until three hours later. They finally managed to get a China Southern flight to Guangzhou at around 4.40pm last Monday after more than 30 hours.

To their great dismay, one Beijing newspaper they read on the flight was full of articles praising the airlines and airport staff for initiating emergency systems and going out of their way to help stranded passengers. A weather forecaster at the Air Traffic Management Bureau was quoted as saying such an early snowfall had not been seen for 22 years, and it was totally unexpected.

But it was not. According to the state media reports, the snowfall - which dropped more than 16 million tonnes of snow on Beijing, delayed air travel and left city residents shivering - was man-made. From 8pm on October 31 to 2am on November 1, the Beijing Weather Modification Office blasted 186 sticks of silver iodide into the clouds to induce snow to help ease the drought in the city.

But the officials apparently failed to notify other departments, including aviation authorities. A China Daily commentary fumed that 'this arbitrary government decision disregarded the interests of the people'.

The Beijing weather office was not the only one. The airport and airlines may have launched their own emergency management systems, but there appeared to be little interdepartmental communication. The result was total chaos, with little information available from anyone.

The bad service made the situation even worse. For instance, Air China offers a toll-free hotline, which was understandably jammed that day, but in this age of the internet, its website provided no updates on the status of flights, leaving anxious passengers and relatives in the dark.

As well, even after the flights resumed on the afternoon of November 1, airport controllers cleared the backlog of flights not according to the length of their delays, but by the ranks of officials on board, according to insiders.

A week has passed, and nobody has come forward to take responsibility or apologise for the made-made chaos, let alone learn any lesson. Future chaos can be reduced if Beijing learns from other countries by setting up an interdepartmental task force to handle airport delays resulting from unusual weather.

As the Beijing weather officials yesterday forecast more rain and snow on the way today, and over the next few days, passengers need to brace themselves.