11 hours at Gate 116

I never thought I would experience something like this, but I did. Not that I’m special; it’s just that, I try to stay positive for as long as I can when it comes to things I can’t control.

I’ve become accustomed to delayed flights here in the Philippines. I thought I had my worst experience a couple of weeks back (tarmac delay of two hours), but I didn’t let it get to me. It’s the new normal, whether we like it or not. So I didn’t think that an hour’s delay this time around would be a portent of a nightmare at Gate 116, Terminal 3. The flight schedule: 5PM. I was at Gate 116 at 4:30PM.

7:30PM. We first learned about the delay at about the time I arrived at the gate. Three hours later, they started giving out free meals to the affected passengers of flight 5J 349 bound for Kalibo. This was a first for me, so I took it. I thought rice topping of pork strips from Yoshinoya is not so bad. Plus a small bottle of purified water. Before us, a set of merienda were also given to passengers flying to Cagayan de Oro.So this is going to take longer, I thought.

Announcements would be made about the delayed flights of other aircraft from time to time, but not ours. A small group of passengers then started to hover over the two Cebu Pacific crew behind the help desk. I stayed seated, calm and patient. I took it that it was indeed the weather that’s also causing the delay of our aircraft, much like what was happening to the others being announced.

9:00 PM. The crowd was becoming restless. Small children were crying. Other passengers were taking photos and videos with their mobile gadgets. People were asking for the manager, a supervisor, anyone. “Just give us someone who can tell us what is really going on,” was the clamor. One of the ladies who was holding the radio said that their supervisor would come to explain the situation.

10:30PM. The PA system finally announced something about our flight. Apparently, our aircraft had been diverted to Clark due to inclement weather.

At this point, the two poor ladies at the help desk started getting pressure from irate passengers. The two could not get any further update other than what was announced. Meanwhile, other flights that were scheduled later than ours have already left.

After a while, a group of passengers joined us at Gate 116. One of them started making a conspiracy theory about what Cebu Pacific is not telling us. He said he came from Terminal 4 for an Air Asia flight, and was transferred to our Gate at Terminal 3 since both our aircraft are not full. Therefore, he goes on, Cebu Pacific is only making the weather as an excuse.

I was beginning to have personal issues myself. As I was traveling alone, I couldn’t leave my carry-on luggage to get to the toilet or buy myself another bottle of water. I was feeling dehydrated. Besides, the airport stores have already closed for the night.

11:22PM. “All diverted flights to Clark are due to inclement weather”. No further explanation. Later, they said that the aircraft is still waiting for airport clearance to fly. The supervisor that we’ve been asking for is still a no-show. To amuse myself and make things bearable, I joked to the lady beside me that the next thing they’ll be giving out would be pillows so we can have a free overnight’s stay at the airport. What a vacation!

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12:00AM. They said that our aircraft is now in flight and expected to arrive at around 12:30AM. We should be able to board by around 1AM. Meanwhile, my mother has been worried sick since she and my brother were supposed to pick me up at the airport.

One passenger, perhaps out of exasperation, Googled the passenger bill of rights and discovered that any flight that is delayed for at least 6 hours automatically entitles all affected passengers to a voucher that is good for a free roundtrip flight to any local destination — applicable within 90 days (upon double checking the following day, I read that after a 3-hour delay, passengers should have been given the option to rebook or refund in the form of cash or voucher. For at least 6 hours, the flight can be deemed cancelled, and that passengers have the option to get the said voucher. Read the complete law here).

Here’s the thing: Cebu Pacific’s staff are obviously not aware of the law. Otherwise, they would have given us the options stated in the law on the third hour of the delay. But no such thing happened. They kept us all in Gate 116 like prisoners. (I checked later at around midnight that other gates upstairs were also holding passengers “hostage”. As I was told by the roaming guards, they’re all for Cebu Pacific flights.)

Either they’re ignorant of the law, or the Cebu Pacific management is keeping this information from the passengers. I know that as a passenger, I’m supposed to know my rights as stipulated in the law, but you can’t expect passengers to really do that at some point, do you? We’re not even supposed to get flight delays like this in the first place.

12:44AM. Flight 5J349 has arrived, or so they say. The crowd cheered…sarcastically. A woman started to scream at the two ladies by the help desk. I heard her say “80-year old” and “kids”, apparently referring to her companions. She was hysterical about the fact that she’s been at the airport since 8PM. Well, I though, I’ve been here since 2:45PM. Then again, she has an octogenarian and a toddler to worry about.

2:00AM. Boarding has yet to happen. We are now getting convoluted answers from the people a the help desk. This time, they said that there is no pilot available. Umuwi na siguro kasi nga naman delikado magpalipad ng eroplano ang puyat. So, obviously may job opening ang Cebu Pacific para sa pilot positions kasi nga kulang sila. Any takers?

At this point, the ladies at the help desk (there are now about four of them) were being harassed. Some of the passengers were even getting unjustly personal, calling the girls “pangit” (ugly) and “bobo” or “tanga” (stupid or uneducated). To be fair, the girls didn’t break down as I expected them to. They stood their ground, although one of them was being accused of giving the passengers some “attitude”. I looked at her, and I thought, some people just really look like that when under distress.

2:30AM: Some of us marched back to the check-in counter, following one of the Cebu Pacific ladies to get clear answers as to what will happen to us. There, we were told that we have two options: (1) to take the next available flight, which is at 4PM (!), with free hotel booking; (2) wait for the flight as the pilots are said to be on their way. This time, the lady was firm enough in saying that she cannot give us a specific time of boarding. Personally, I think the lady has matured 1000x because of this experience. I salute all of them, and Cebu Pacific management owes them big time for leaving them to fend for their own at this time of crisis.

3:30AM. We finally boarded from another gate. As we were about to get off the shuttle bus, heavy rains poured. This didn’t dampen our spirits, as there could not be any more misfortune worse than what we have just been through. Nothing can stop us from getting to our destination at that very moment.

I don’t know what happened to the other flights. I feel for them.

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