Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Airport Woes

I tend to be nervous around airports. I hate the way the check in clerk always seems to frown and then types a lot of stuff, then looks around and frowns again before I get my boarding pass, Security just seems like a minefield of potential problems. Only once my bag is checked and I have found my gate do I calm down. Ethiopian Airlines in Addis validates my worst paranoia.

Episode #1

A few days ago I volunteered to pick Dr A up at Addis Ababa’s Bole Airport after a voyage from Canada involving two overnight flights. I woke up a little early, but my taxi was already waiting so I arrived at the airport at 6:10 am, five minutes before her flight landed. There was a huge lineup, maybe fifty people, waiting to get through security to be allowed into the airport as visitors. When I got near the front of the line, I noticed that everyone had a small ticket, which was being collected and thrown away before they entered the building. The guy behind me explained there is a 10 birr (60c) fee for entering the airport. He showed me the other 50 person long line where I could buy my entry ticket. Oh dear! In an amazing act of kindness, he sold me his ticket for 10 birr and ran off to get himself a new one, somehow circumventing the queue. The kindness of individual Ethiopians sometimes makes up for the awesome inefficiency of the bureaucracy!

I finally got through security and was replacing my belt when I saw Dr A, who had landed on time and got through immigration quickly. The University was supposed to provide a car and driver to take us back to the apartment but no-one had shown up so I found a blue cab, and negotiated a very reasonable fare. Turns out he thought I wanted to go to Kaldi’s , a chain of coffee chops, rather than Karl Square. The agreed fare would be about five times what it should cost to get to the nearest Kaldi’s. I said it was his problem and we had to stick to the agreed price. He was not happy and I was a little worried as he took us on a route I did not know but we arrived at the apartment safely. When we got there the electricity was off, but a guy grabbed Dr A’s bag and insisted on carrying it up three flights of stairs. Dr A was worried, because in most developing countries this would be some sort of scam, but I had seen the guy around and he was just being friendly and helpful.

Episode #2

The three of us got up at 5:00 am for a flight to Gondar to go trekking in the Simien Mountains. We arrived at the airport and were worried by the lengths of the queues to get inside. It was Easter Friday in Ethiopia and the airport was busy. We got inside and lined up to check in. Dr D went on ahead, while Dr A and myself finished checking in. I showed my passport and an emailed itinerary. The check in clerk asked for the Visa card used to buy the ticket. I nonchalantly pulled mine out of my wallet, but noticed Dr A’s face drop as she began to search frantically through her pack for the credit card she did  not have with her. I got my boarding pass, but Dr A was denied one. The clerk suggested that he cancel her current ticket and buy a new one on my credit card, for an uncertain amount of money, at some time in the near future. Meanwhile we should wait quietly, while he processed more organized passengers. Then we got an irate text and phone call from Dr D. Apparently when he made some changes to his ticket, the flight from Addis to Gondar got invalidated.

While we waited we pondered. We had paid a deposit for the trek. If we could not turn up, did we still have to pay for it? Would I go by myself if the others could not go?

For no apparent reason, the clerk then decided everything was OK and issued Dr A a boarding pass. Fortuitously, Dr D turned up at the same instant, so we asked our clerk to give him a boarding card as well, which he did, with no explanation. We thanked him profusely, headed to security, and were in the very last group of passengers to board a full plane. It was a relief to find we had seats and we ended up taking off on time.

I have never known a country where you had to show your passport to enter the airport (or in some cases, even to drive down the road leading to the airport). There is an awful lot of security and everything seems to have to be done multiple times. The Addis Hilton Hotel X-rays your bags and scans you before entering the building, and some other hotels and restaurants use metal detectors on their guests. Somehow this just makes me feel less secure!

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