Bangkok: Race to the Gate

In 2004 we raced through one of the busiest airports in the world between domestic and international departures in order to make a flight to Costa Rica.  We sat squarely in the middle of the arriving aircraft, waited impatiently to deplane, donned our backpacks, and ran at a full sprint.  Twelve years later we raced through another airport, only this time we were with our son and daughter-in-law (DiL) in southeast Asia.

Thailand is a beautiful country.

We loved every minute we were on Koh Samui.  Our trip to Thailand with our son, Dustin, and our DiL, Rowan, was close to perfect.  This being the rainy season, we were lucky to see sun four of our seven days.  The snorkeling was non-existent due to poor visibility, but the salt water pool, miles of beach, and multiple happy hours easily made up for the lack of colorful coral and fish.  We swam, scootered, read, and relaxed—a much needed respite after three weeks touring India.  As with most things, our trip eventually ended and it was time to head to the airport.

The airport was crowded, but we were already checked in.
Bangkok Passport-01
Passports presented and bags checked, we remained at ease despite a two hour delay.

We presented our passports at the Bangkok Airways ticket counter and checked three bags.  Unfortunately, the flight was delayed two hours; the new departure time was 18:00, also known as 6:00 PM.  No problem, we have a five hour layover in Bangkok.  Bangkok Airways presented us with meal vouchers and asked that we enjoy the local restaurants while waiting for our aircraft.

After a small lunch, we made our way to the security check point, emptied our carry-on luggage of laptops, and shuffled through.  It wasn’t crowded.  The Thai people are nothing if not efficient when it comes to processing tourists through immigration, customs, and security.  Despite a small glitch in the form of a Leatherman Rowan attempted to smuggle onto the aircraft, we were allowed to continue to our gate.

There remains some debate about whether Rowan tried to smuggle the multi-tool on board.  Although Dustin offered an explanation, it seems plausible that he placed the multi-tool in Rowan’s carry-on in an attempt to remain in beautiful, flavorful Thailand.  We’ll never know for sure.

By 5:30 PM, it was obvious we were not going to depart at 6:00 PM.  Bangkok airways was boarding for other flights 40 minutes prior to departure.  We were only 30 minutes and needed to catch a tram to our aircraft.  Since this isn’t about Bangkok Airways horrible customer service, it is sufficient to say that at 7:00 PM they announced our new departure time of 8:00 PM.

It is unlikely we are going to make our connection.
Thailand Aug 2016-0151
The original delay would still give us plenty of time to make our connection in Bangkok.

An 8:00 PM departure meant we would arrive in Bangkok at about 9:10 PM, provided the flight was on time.  Our plane departed Bangkok for Hyderabad, India at 10:10 PM, an hour after our arrival.  We’d already checked in and held electronic boarding passes for the flight to Hyderabad; however, we still had to collect our checked luggage in the domestic terminal, get to the international terminal, pass through immigration for our exit stamp, then get to the gate—all in an airport with which we were absolutely unfamiliar.  The possibility of making an international flight from the domestic terminal looked grim.

I surmised we might have a chance of making the connection if we didn’t have checked luggage to collect at a carousel.  Luckily, we all brought small, roll-a-boards to Thailand.  We only checked them because they contained a couple small prohibited carry-on items and we didn’t feel like fighting for overhead compartment space on the tiny Bangkok to Koh Samui commuter flight.  How do we get our checked luggage back?

Although the new flight time wasn’t announced until 7:00 PM, we knew for sure at 6:01 PM that the plane was delayed again—we just didn’t know how long.  We gathered together for a sanity check.

“Is there anything in your checked luggage that we can’t remove or carry on?” I asked the team.

Dustin’s Leatherman was already the property of the Thai government.  Jeannette and Rowan only had some liquids, perhaps too many to carry on, but nothing they couldn’t live without.  In my case, there was just an old, cheap pocket knife and a cork screw with a small foil cutting blade, both easily discarded.  We needed to get our luggage.

The gate agent was overwhelmed with passengers who were sure to miss their Bangkok connections.  I approached the friendliest looking of the bunch with our request, “Can we have our checked bags, please?”

“I’m sorry sir, your luggage has already passed the security point.  It cannot be returned,” she replied.

If I’ve learned nothing else about the people of south and southeast Asia in the last ten months, it is that provided the right incentive—namely patience, kindness, determination and sometimes, money—they are the most accommodating people on the planet.  There is probably nothing that can’t be done.

You’d like a bottle of Australian wine in your room when you arrive?  Certainly, we’ll send one of our people out to purchase it.

You’d like us to ship you the shirt you left at the hotel?  No problem, ma’am, it will happen today.

You’d like to see two midgets wrestling in front of a pack of lions?  Consider it arranged.

Although they may balk in the beginning, they rarely deny a reasonable request if it is within their power to make it happen.

I pressed on, “Well, if we were stuck here, you’d bring us our luggage, right?”

“Yes, sir, but that is not the same,” the gate agent insisted.

“Of course it’s the same,” I argued, “you just need to go find our luggage and bring it up.”  I continued, “The only way we have a chance to make our connection in Bangkok if is we don’t have to wait for our luggage.  It is all small enough to fit in an overhead.  Just give us a chance.”

“Let me talk to my supervisor,” said the overwhelmed gate agent.

A few minutes later we confirmed that anything not passing the security review would be left behind.  Another short wait and we collected our luggage from the check-in counter, raced back through security—the most efficient security process we’ve ever encountered—and headed back to the gate.  We had our luggage, now we just needed to board a plane for Bangkok.

We are not going to arrive at 9:10 PM.
Clock Sketch
The chances of making at 10:10 PM connection were starting to look pretty grim.

Our attitude about flying has changed in the last twelve years.  We used to worry about missing flights.  Now, we just don’t care.  If we miss a flight, we’ll just stay the night, see the sites, and catch another one the next day.  But if we missed this flight, Dustin and Rowan might miss their flight home.  The next flight out of Bangkok to Hyderabad was scheduled for 10:10 PM the following night, arriving India after midnight.  A missed connection in Bangkok would allow only four hours in India to clear immigration, customs, drive home, collect Dustin and Rowan’s luggage, drive back to the airport, check in, pass through security, and make it to the gate for their flight home.  There was sufficient motivation to make tonight’s Bangkok connection.

We started to board at about 7:50 PM.  Through the line, onto the tram, out to the flight line, off the tram, up the stairs, stow luggage, grab seats and wait for takeoff.  Luckily we were toward the front of the aircraft in row 5.  By the time we departed it was after 8:10 PM.  For the next hour we were at the mercy of the pilot, air traffic control, and mother nature; but there was no way we would arrive by 9:10 PM.

We deplaned at 9:26 PM, allowing us 44 minutes to navigate the domestic terminal, the international terminal, and make it to the gate.  Luckily, we already had our electronic boarding passes.

We raced from the aircraft.
J Running Sketch
This was not my wife’s first rodeo; she is a professional airport runner.

The flight attendant aboard the inbound Bangkok flight called ahead to the ground staff.  As we deplaned, a young Thai woman met us with a note instructing us to go to the international terminal counter on the fourth floor, aisle H or J.  She stressed that we must arrive by 9:30 in order to make our connection.  It was 9:26 PM.

Donning our backpacks and carrying our previously checked luggage, we bolted from the gate.  Bangkok airport is big; the designers spared no space in its construction.  The four of us ran until we realized we didn’t know where we were going.  “Excuse me, where is the fourth floor international departures area?” I asked the woman at one of the airport shops.

“Go this way,” she gestured, “then make two lefts.”

Off we raced.

Two lefts brought us to the CQI area.  We had no idea what CQI meant.  “How do we get to the fourth floor international departures area?”  I asked, feverishly.

“Can I see your passports?” The woman asked.

I handed her a couple of the passports.

“This is the CQI area,” she stated.

I thought, “Duh,” but said, “Right.  How do we get to the fourth floor international departures area?” my exasperation becoming more apparent.

“Well, this is CQI.  You cannot enter here,” she said, more casually than she should have.

“I understand that.  How do we get to the fourth floor departures area?”  I asked again, grabbing our passports from her hand.

She looked shocked.  Apparently people don’t just grab their passports from her very often.  “Go that way,” she gestured, “200 meters.  Then make a right.”

We know as much about meters as we do about mitochondria.  How far is 200 meters?  Would there be a sign when we reached 200 meters?  We were off again, running at full speed down the moving walkway from the direction we just came hoping for a 200 meter sign.

People don’t understand moving walkways.
Moving walkway Sketch
Some places it’s walk-left, stand-right; others it’s walk-right, stand-left. In Thailand it’s stand-in-the-middle but move quickly when sweaty Americans are rushing through.

We ran at a full gallop, backpacks draped from our shoulders and luggage in our hands.  “Excuse me!”  became our rallying cry.  Each shout of “excuse me” was punctuated by an equally voluminous “Thank you!”  Despite lacking an understanding of the finer points of moving walkway etiquette, people moved when they heard us coming.  They may have been frightened by the sweaty, athletic Americans, or perhaps “excuse me” is universal for “get the heck out of the way.”  Either way, people moved.

We ran down the people mover, through baggage claim, past customs, and into an elevator that was heading to the fourth floor.  Upon leaving the elevator, we ran through lines of people to the ‘H’ desks, hoping we were in the right place.

“We need to get to our flight.  They sent us here.”  I said, breathless from our 500 meter run—or thereabouts given we can’t tell a meter from a yard.

The woman at the desk apparently didn’t believe us when we said we didn’t have luggage or need boarding passes.  We handed her our passports, she checked the system, determined we were telling the truth about not having any checked baggage, handed us new hard copy boarding passes, and directed us to the fast track lanes near the ‘A’ desks—200 meters away.

We were off again, racing for the fast track lanes.  We dodged more people, yelling “excuse me!” and “thank you.”  We raced through lines of travelers, lifting the flimsy lane dividers out of our way; and finally reached the next security check point.

We threw our bags on the conveyor with reckless abandon—I’m not sure the Thai TSA people even looked at them.  Then it was on to the immigration exit desks.  The immigration guy checked the paperwork with stereotypical Thai efficiency and smiled as he cheered us on, “Go very fast!”

I left immigration without my companions, thinking I could hold the aircraft or get arrested trying.

How much farther can it be?  200 meters more?

I raced down more people movers.  There were a lot more “excuse me’s” and thank you’s.”  At each turn I thought we were almost there, only to find out there was more running; another 200 meters.  After what seemed like eight to ten minutes of solid sprinting, I arrived at the departure gate just in time to hear them announce final boarding for the flight.  I checked through the gate and waited patiently for my companions.  Thirty seconds passed, then a minute; it felt like a lifetime.  I was sweaty and out of breath.

They finally appeared, also sweaty and out of breath.  They checked in through the gate and we made our way to the bus.  We were the last one’s to board the aircraft, but we were in business class.  The crew brought us water, champagne, and wet towels to wipe away the sweat from our brows and pits.  It was 34 minutes from deplaning in the domestic terminal to boarding in the international terminal—I’m sure we set a new 200 meter record.  We made our connection.

Like icing on a sweet, we-made-our-connection cake.
Thailand Aug 2016-0152
The headline in the newspaper when we boarded our flight to India.

The flight from Hong Kong landed shortly before us in Hyderabad.  We walked toward the extensive queue for immigration.  In the distance there hung a sign, “Wheelchair and business class access.”  I asked the security guard, “Can we go through to business class?”

“Yes, sir.  Go,” was his reply.

We skipped past the line of people, removed the aisle markers, and strolled to the front of the line.  As we did, the entire queue broke down; people rushed the immigration desks.  It didn’t matter, we were at the front.  After all the racing through Bangkok’s airport, we got to skip the queue at immigration in Hyderabad and were in the car heading home within minutes.

Our race to Costa Rica was just as harrowing.
J Looking at Plane Sketch
Just as my wife could see the pilots, they could see her. The pilots must have recognized her desperation and allowed us to board.

When we landed in Atlanta for our connection to Costa Rica in 2004, we were sure we’d missed our flight.  Atlanta was fogged in, so they diverted us to Birmingham for an hour until the weather cleared.  We were going to be late.

The flight attendants asked the passengers without short connections to remain seated so those of us who were going to miss our flight could deplane.  Of course, nobody really listened.  We deplaned and raced through the Atlanta airport.

Our connection was in another terminal, requiring a train ride and more running.  On the train, off the train, then another sprint to the gate.  The doors were closed when we arrived.  My wife went to the window, pressing her face against the glass; she could see the pilots in the cockpit.  I started my argument with the desk agent, “But it’s your airline’s fault we are late,” I exclaimed, exasperated, “the airplane is right there!”

“I’m sorry sir, there is nothing we can do,” the gate agent said seemingly unsympathetic.

Then the phone at the gate rang.  It was the pilot.  They were opening the doors so that we could board.

We apologized and thanked the passengers profusely for their patience as we boarded the plane.  We’d managed to run through the airport and make our flight despite the odds.  Although twelve years apart, determination and luck combined to bring us to two flights exactly when we needed them most.  As Rowan would say, “Thank the sweet baby Jesus!”


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