Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The sometimes unique experiences of PNG Aviation


When passengers call the shots in PNG Aviation

Getting to the field in PNG often requires a lot of patience.  Flights are cancelled anytime from days in advance up until you are in the air and the weather looks dodgey, or something in the engine sounds dodgey...  And this isn't just the Cessna charters to the final destination.  The main carriers in PNG, like AirNiugini, Airlines PNG, and back in the day Talair and a half dozen other small carriers who have come and gone.   The "schedule" and "confirmed" bookings are hypothetical concepts.

Once I just missed my flight from Moresby to Wau, but was told to stick around because the plane would be back soon for a second trip.  I was escorted to the VIP waiting room, with its broken coffee maker and some magazines about aviation spare parts with articles like "Optimal fuel ratios for the  MC 2048."  After several hours waiting, the staff went from ignoring my inquiries about my plane's return to just hiding from me.  One secretary dashed into the ladies room every time I approached, or maybe I somehow triggered a sudden urination reflex.  Anyhow after about 5 hours of waiting I said I would just come back tomorrow and everyone eagerly agreed that was a great idea.  They really didn't know when the plane would be back.

That night at the Inn the evening news described how a plane had been hijacked this morning.  The plane I missed and waited for.  Apparently someone was tipped off that the plane was carrying payroll for a mine near Wau.  Passengers made the pilot cut his radio and forced him to land at an abandoned airstrip.  They somehow damaged the plane so it couldn't take off and they ran into the forest with the loot.  After that most of the airlines stopped taking passengers on payroll flights and many chartered helicopters to move money.  It was just another inconvenience for me.

Once and MAF twin otter that we had chartered and loaded with 1000 lbs of field gear was to take us from Goroka to the Huon Peninsula for a survey.  As the MAF ground staff loaded the gear, Deb and I hopped across the street for a last coke, before diving into the field for a month or two.  We were only gone about 10 minutes, but when we got back to the hangar we watched the tail of the twin otter disappearing into the blue off the end of the runway.  They'd left without us.  Our charter.  The ground guy apologized but said the pilots are in charge and they wanted to go.  They wanted to get in some coffee runs after dropping us.  We were helping subsidize some commercial business.  Sadly he said, there is nothing he can do.  Deb and I were swearing up a storm.  The plane was out of sight now, climbing out of the valley.

Deb went behind the caged counter with the large Staff Only! sign.  She grabbed the radio where we could hear the pilots signing off.  She keyed the mike and said something like "you guys left without your passengers, so we are not going to pay you for the charter."  There was a long pause and I imagined the nice Christian pilots in the Otter muttering a few words they might have to beg forgiveness for later.  The pilots checked with ground staff.  Yes, we haven't been paid yet.

Far away toward Mt. Michael we could hear the drone of the MAF engines change pitch.  The mountain air is so clear, sound travels well.  It was circling back. 

I must say, I've never seen two pilots less happy to see their passengers.  I reminded myself they could easily kill themselves if they tried to kill us.   Even in the roar inside the airborne twin prop we felt an awkward silence.  We made it to our destination and the plane couldn't have left us soon enough.  Pilots don't like having their flight plans altered by passengers.  Sometime not to long after that MAF changed its policy to only taking flights paid in advance.

After a field survey in Lakekamu we were all tired and eager to return home to Goroka. The return trip meant going first to Moresby and then catching the Airniugini flight to Goroka.  We got bumped once, then again and had to spend the night in Moresby, then be back to the airport at 5 am, only to wait until mid afternoon.  Several flights to Goroka were bumped and the departure lounge was filling with cranky tired people all trying to get to Goroka.

Finally we were called and given a boarding pass.  Trouble was, we were given passes for the Fokker which held like 90 people and the plane was a Dash 7, holding half that.  As we piled on we discovered people in our assigned seats and people with seats in rows that did not exist.  They had tried to put two bumped flights on one.  By now nerves were, to say the least, a little frayed.  Tempers were ready to flare.  A bunch of us were piled up outside the plane on the steps, which as it turned out were part of the door to the plane.

A burly highlands warrior in front of me muttered "they can't leave if we don't get off the steps."   Non-confrontational, mellow Andy behind quickly recognized the truth of this statement and happened to repeat it to the big guy behind me "he's right."  they can't leave unless we get off the steps."  That guy joined the ringleader...  "nobody leaves the steps except to get on that plane."  You tell'em!

The flight attendants had nothing in their training about quasi-belligerent  resurrections.  Walkie talkies were whispered into, more and more official people in uniforms lumbered across the hot tarmac to look upon the sweating passengers who would not leave the steps.  I could see the pilot craning out his window to see what the matter was.  I'm not a lip reader, but it looked like "sonoffabitch... 

The big warrior in front of me was our spokesperson by default, with some quiet encouragement from the tired white guy behind him.  "they can't treat us like this!"
Finally someone in a more official looking suit arrived and said they would sort this all out.  Our leader said that the people waiting the longest should get first priority and these people who hadn't even been bumped once need to share a taste of the delay.  I don't know where he came up with such eloquent words.  Everyone on the steps agreed.  The sweating people cookinging in the cramped fuselage just wanted out.  Authority person instructed everyone back to the departure lounge.  All baggage was unloaded and brought to us.  Those with the tickets from yesterday pointed out our bags, they were sent back to the plane, and a new batch of boarding passes were issued.   The passengers just on their first or second bump got to watch us walk back to the plane under the gaze of its I-can't-believe-this-job pilot and smiling flight attendants (it was the ground staff's mess up). 

We eventually made it back to the sweet cool air of Goroka.  I think Airniugini put in place some policies about whom to bump how often and probably started confirming the number of boarding passes approximates the actual number of seats on a plane.   This is the sort of thing I love about PNG.  Had we held an insurrection like that at a US airport, I'd probably just now be getting out of jail.