What 30 hours in ‘no man’s land’ taught me about disruption

Welcome to Hong Kong Airport no man's land

I was recently invited to attend my school’s 100 year anniversary reunion in Australia. It gave me the opportunity to catch up with many in my home town that I had not seen for many years. In order to keep costs down I searched for the cheapest, acceptable flights on my preferred dates and was overjoyed to find one of my favorite airlines and Star Alliance partner, Swissair, offering flights via Zurich and Hong Kong.

Strangely, the flights between Hong Kong and Sydney were codeshares with Cathay Pacific, members of the competing One World Alliance. I thought nothing of it because the flights actually had Swiss flight numbers and I presumed I would have the same Star Alliance gold member status treatment throughout my journey. That was my first fatal misconception.

The long three-stage flight to Sydney was remarkably uneventful – checked-in at Paris Charles de Gaulle, bags tagged all the way to Sydney and all ongoing boarding passes issued. Pleasant surprise boarding flight from Zurich to Hong Kong being upgraded to business class on Swiss – fabulous. But it all ended in Hong Kong.

Cathay Pacific would not allow use of its lounges because I was not a gold One World member. I get that, but then all the Star Alliance lounges refused me entry because I was flying a One World carrier to Sydney despite holding a Swiss boarding pass and flight number. My first experience with being in no man’s land.

The real fun occurred at Sydney Airport for the return when I checked in at the Cathay Pacific counter. Unlike my experience coming over, Cathay was unable to issue the ongoing boarding passes from Hong Kong, despite being able to tag my luggage all the way. They told me it would be no problem because all I had to do was visit the transit counters in Hong Kong to have them issued. Little did they know!

On landing in Hong Kong, and with no prior notice by Cathay Pacific staff on board, we entered a world of total pandemonium. When you get off any international flight you enter a transit zone – an area where you are not yet in the country you landed in (because you have not completed immigration formalities) and you apparently have no identity or rights – you are virtually stateless in a sort of “no man’s land”.

You never think much of this because you either go straight through to immigration, go through security with your next boarding pass (or the one you pick up from the transit counters) and enter the departure level where all the restaurants, shops, bars and lounges abound.

But none of that happened on this very day because protestors had effectively shut down the airport’s operations, presumably by taking over the check-in areas. What this meant for me was that all flights, including my next flight, were cancelled and, for whatever reason, the airlines decided to close all the transit counters and send staff home.

Those with boarding passes were allowed to go through to the departure zone with all its amenities but many thousands, including myself, were left to our own resources in “no man’s land” cut off from the rest if the world with limited seats and water bubblers to keep us sustained. The only staff left advised against leaving the airport for safety reasons and all would be OK next morning when protesters would disperse, and staff would be back. OK, so only eight hours to kill.

In the meantime, A call to Swiss in Zurich resulted in my being rerouted next evening to Bangkok on EgyptAir connecting to Thai Airways. I was sent an electronic boarding pass to get me out of transit, but security staff would not accept them from EgyptAir.

Another four hours passed, shuffling from seat to floor, when I received notification that the EgyptAir flight for the next day was also cancelled and I would be moved to a Lufthansa flight the next evening. I should point out that most flights to Europe leave Hong Kong in the late evening, hence the wait.

With the subsequent boarding pass, acceptable by the authorities, I was able to escape no man’s land and enter what I thought would be nirvana in comparison. Wrong again. Everything in the usually glittery and busy domain was closed and the only choice left was to camp outside Singapore Airlines (Star Alliance) lounge until it opened at 6 am.

What a relief to get something to eat and a cup of coffee. The staff there were fabulous and sympathetic offering a blanket, a quiet corner and a shower. I did not realise that would be my home for the next 17 hours because the protestors decided to return and cause the same havoc all over again.

I sat dismayed as flight after flight, including my own, came up as cancelled. The lounge staff kept telling me not to give up hope as they had received a message from Lufthansa that it was going to do its best to get at least one flight out that night. Close to midnight I was ushered to gate 217 where myself, and 137 other trapped souls, were issued with new boarding passes and connections and whisked on board a waiting Airbus 380. It was like a scene from a movie, but one we were all so grateful for.

This is the background to the point I want to make. How is it, in this day and age, where we boast about our advances in technology that institutions like airports can be brought to their knees by disruption that could so easily have been averted. Yet it is quite a common occurrence.

In this case the model used in India for years would have been so easy to implement and was the following day – nobody without a boarding pass be allowed entry into the building. But how could one of the world’s busiest airports simply shut down without informing the people trapped in it what was going on. What contingency plans were in place? What risk mitigation was discussed, let alone effected? Why did so many people have to suffer and so many millions of dollars be wasted by disruption that could have been circumvented?

The lesson? Try to ensure you have ALL your boarding passes in hand before boarding any multi-sector flights and best stick to one airline group, where possible, to avoid your own trip to no man’s land.

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