Sunday, June 2, 2013

Royal Brunei: not the kind of experience I expected

It was midnight when I arrived back in Dubai, after spending the day visiting friends in Qatar. I had two hours until my Royal Brunei flight to London. More than enough time I thought to change terminals. I went to the connections desk as instructed and told a woman there I was transferring to a flight to London. She pointed me to another counter a short distance away.
I replayed my story about needing to transfer to terminal 1 for a flight to London. She began filling out some paperwork.
“Where is your boarding pass for your flight to Qatar?” she asked.
I told her it was in my suitcase, unsure why it was needed, considering I took that flight earlier in the day.
“I need it,” she said, while the clock was ticking toward my departing flight.
“Really,” I replied, shooting her one of those looks that didn’t disguise my displeasure at this unnecessary bureaucracy.
I flipped through some emails on my phone until I found the boarding pass and showed it to her.
“I need you to email it to me,” she said, while her two colleagues sat and looked on.
I obliged, despite the frustration building inside of me. I wondered if they too saw the ridiculousness in this charade.
After finishing with the papers, she told me I needed to return to the first counter I had gone to. A short line now appeared. I handed over the ream of papers and told the woman again that I needed to transfer to terminal 1. I started getting a little anxious. It was now 1:00 am, and I had been here for an hour. My flight to London was leaving in 50 minutes, and I hadn’t yet checked in.
“A transfer bus will now take you to the other terminal,” I was told.
“How long will I have to flight leaves in less than an hour?” I asked.
About five minutes was the reply. I kept looking at my watch. It was as if the second hand was going faster than normal as the minutes ticked away.
The bus finally arrived, but it just sat idling. “Can we go soon,” I blurted out to the driver.   
It took an excruciating 20 minutes to cross the airport and get to terminal 1. Red lights. Slow-moving baggage carts in front of us. It was as if everything was conspiring against me. Finally at the terminal, I jumped off the bus, ran inside and sprinted up the stairs to the transfer desk. The plane was scheduled to leave in 30 minutes and I still needed to check in. My wife says that I would only worry if a gun was pointed at my head (even then I’d think there’s still a chance), but now I felt the tension twisting inside of me.
When the woman at the counter asked me what airline I was flying, nothing came out of my mouth. My brain was saying…Royal Brunei, but the anxiety had rendered me speechless. It took a moment to compose myself before I could tell her.
Hoping that time would stand still, I looked at my watch, while she tapped away at her computer. Without saying anything to me she called her supervisor over, and then both stared blankly at the monitor. “We don’t have a reservation for you in the system,” the man said, looking up at me.
The airline had arranged a sponsored ticket, and I had a print out of my reservation. Because the airline’s communications department didn’t fill me with confidence, I purposely connected with my contact at Royal Brunei earlier in the day to confirm that everything was okay with my reservation, as I didn’t want to encounter any issues.
The man escorted me to the gate, where passengers were now boarding. I told the gate agents that I was writing a magazine article and would be profiling their airline. I produced my reservation, and even showed them the email from the airline’s head office confirming my seat.  
To no avail. Without a reservation in the system, I could not board. Anxiety had now turned to anger. I couldn’t afford to be stuck in Dubai to sort this out. My connections the next two days in London and Brussels were tight.
My only option was to purchase a ticket for 2,800 dirhams, or $800. If I didn’t want this flight, they said I could purchase a ticket on British Airways or Emirates. But my only chance at getting a refund was flying on Royal Brunei.  
Just before boarding the aircraft with 10 minutes to go before departure, the station manager told me that my bag was still over at terminal 2, and that it wouldn’t be coming with me on this flight. He assured me that they would get it on an Emirates flight leaving shortly, and I could retrieve it in London.
Ever the patient one, I never raised my voice with anyone. But seething, and overflowing with anger, I plunked myself down in seat 51H. I can’t remember ever feeling this way. And when I discovered that they put me in a broken seat that wouldn’t recline, I just shook my head. I looked around at other passengers who were now sprawled across extra seats, as we settled into our seven-and-a-half hour overnight flight.
Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to get any sleep, I just wanted to close my eyes and try to relax. But the man across the aisle from me, who had claimed four seats, was snoring. Maybe any other time, I would have been able to block it out, but not now with my heightened state of mind. I leaned over and kicked his seat hoping it would jolt him enough that he’d stop snoring. It didn’t work. I kicked the seat again. He didn’t move. With few other options left, I reached over and pulled the pillow from out under his head and tossed it on him. He sat up and looked around. After a short time, he went back to sleep, but this time he put his head on the other side of the airplane from me.   
Upon landing in London, the airline’s ground staff informed me that my bag would arrive in an hour’s time. The woman at the immigration counter was interested in my ‘round the world adventure, and asked how Royal Brunei was.
I hesitated before telling her that I expected it to be better.