Friday, November 27, 2015

The Airport and Airline From Hell – Trying to Leave Port Moresby via Air Niugini is Outrageously Stressful

I just returned from 25 days on a diving liveaboard boat in Papua New Guinea (PNG), with my friends Douglas and Emily Seifert, and Howard and Michele Hall.  The boat was the Golden Dawn, run by diver and PNG resident Craig de Wit.  I'll talk more about the boat and the diving in a future blog post.  The diving at some sites was off the charts.  

However, the one thing that I will remember about this trip is how incredibly stressful it was to get out of Port Moresby on Air Niugini. 

Air Niugini and Port Moresby Airport to Me: F*** YOU.”

I'd like to warn other folks traveling to PNG about my very stressful experience trying to get on my Air Niugini flight from Port Moresby to Brisbane, Australia a few days ago.  Trying to get on the plane through Air Niugini and Port Moresby Airport's multiple security checkpoints resulted in the most stressful 1.5 hours of traveling in my 30 years of traveling. 
Some of this was my fault and a lot of this was the fault of Air Niugini and the airport.  I can tell you that I am not eager to repeat the experience so probably won't be traveling back to PNG because of this. 

Airlines and tourism boards should realize that if they wish to attract tourists, and keep tourists coming back, they should make it easy, rather than difficult, to travel.  As an example, perhaps 25 years ago, I had a horrible experience with Qantas Airlines giving me a lot of grief for carrying on a big telephoto lens on a plane.  In the ensuing 25 years, every time I’ve thought about using Qantas, I remember the experience – and I choose another airline. 

Yes, I tend to come onto a plane with a lot of carry-on stuff.  I am a professional photographer and I need to arrive in a location with my camera gear. Therefore I tend to carry on a lot of stuff.  These days, I am forced to bring any lithium ion batteries on board with me rather than putting the batteries in my checked baggage.  That means that I am carrying on even more stuff. 

I've developed tactics for traveling over the years, where I would carry a lot of heavy items like batteries in my carryon baggage and backpack. I did not heed the warnings from numerous websites, and ended up sweating like crazy, begging, and running thru that airport to check and re-check my normal carryons.

I travel with a Lowepro rolling carryon case, which is filled with camera batteries, video light batteries, hard drives, a change of clothing, various chargers, camera bodies, lenses, and other essentials.  I carry a backpack that ranges from very large to normal sized.  In the past year, I've been carrying a small soft cooler on top of my rolling carryon case that contains a small amount of items like granola bars, strobe batteries, etc.  In the US, Scotland, and Costa Rica, I've had no trouble with this arrangement.  This is because I am a frequent flyer and I am familiar with airline practices -- and the practices of just about every airport in the world as well.

In every single airport that I've been to in the past 30 years of traveling and diving, the place where you have to pay excess bags, and the one place in the airport where anyone cares about your bags, is the ticket counter where you check in.  As long as your carry-on bags are within reason and pass the scrutiny at the ticket counter, then the folks at the subsequent security checkpoints rarely care how many bags you are carrying onto the plane. 

I've only been stopped once by an airline for having too many carry-on bags.  The soft cooler that I have on top of my rolling case is purely for convenience and to get stuff off my back.  I simply put the contents of the soft cooler (granola bars, an apple, a water bottle, a port for my housing) into my backpack, and shoved the soft cooler into my backpack also.  Presto – no problem. 

Well, after my experience in Port Moresby, I have learned my lesson.  I am going to put everything that I can into my checked baggage and pay the excess baggage charges, particularly when going through third-world airports like Port Moresby.  It’s still going to be difficult to meet the rules of a place like Port Moresby, because I have to bring lithium ion batteries, camera bodies, my laptop, and other essential items on the plane with me – and Port Moresby strictly enforces a limit of 7 kg for carry-ons.  Here's what happened, and hopefully other folks can learn from this. 

I booked my travel through Air Niugini's website, and they had a flight that left from Alotau (Milne Bay) to Port Moresby, with 1.5 hours in between to get on the Port Moresby to Brisbane flight.  This fairly short connection was APPROVED and TICKETED by Air Niugini.

I arrived into Port Moresby on time, 12 noon.  I collected my checked baggage, and then walked the cart over to the international terminal.  I waited in line until about 12:30pm, and finally was able to check in for my flight which was to leave at 1:30pm.  At this point, the agent told me that I had to pay for my excess baggage. It was something like US $60.  Fine.  I never like paying for excess baggage, but it's just something that we divers and photographers have to do. 

The problem in third-world airports, however, is that if you have to pay excess baggage charges, then you have to walk across the terminal to another office, usually a window, where you have to wait in another line to pay your excess baggage fees.  I had to use a credit card to pay my fees, and in this case, like all cases, the wait to get to the clerk took a long time, and then the wait to have the clerk write up all the paperwork and process my credit card took a long time.  On the outbound leg of my journey to PNG 25 days earlier, I stood in line a full 30 minutes before getting this done, but I had a three-hour wait before my next flight.  This time, I started getting nervous since I only had 60 minutes before my flight left.  I needed to get on that plane!

I cut in line by asking (thanks folks) and the woman surprisingly only took about 10 minutes to process my excess baggage stuff.  Great.  I rushed back to the check-in counter, showed the agent my receipt, and got my boarding pass.  I collected my rolling carry-on case, the small soft cooler, my backpack, and a photographer’s vest that I had stuffed with heavy-ish items like plates for my underwater tripod, Ikelite strobe batteries, and the batteries for my Phantom drone. 

It was my mistake to carry on the vest and soft cooler along with the backpack and rolling carryon.  In my defense, in nearly all other airports in the world, I would have been able to get through security and on the plane with these carry-on items.  The one time I've been challenged, it was an easy matter to take the items out of the soft cooler and put everything in my backpack.  In this case, however, I was in a rush.  The plane was to leave in 45 minutes, and I did NOT want to miss the flight and end up spending the night in Port Moresby, one of the crappiest and most dangerous cities in the world. 

I took the escalator to the second floor, where the security checkpoints were (and the first of three sets of guards, I was to learn).  In front of the doors to the X-ray machine stood a first set of guards.  One of them steadfastly refused to let me through, after weighing my rolling carry-on in his hands.  He said it was too heavy, and he was also unhappy that I had the soft cooler and vest.  If I had been more careful and knew what was going to happen, I would have worn the vest rather than carrying it in my hands, and put the soft cooler and its contents inside my backpack, which was pretty empty.  As it was, I put the contents of the soft cooler in my backpack and showed them that I could put the vest in there too – but that was not good enough for him. 

Air Niugini has a stated weight limit of 7 kg for carry-ons. No other airline in the world enforces a weight limit for carry-ons, as far as I have encountered.  If I had a rolling carry-on and a backpack only – which I did at this point – I would have been fine in just about any other airport.  However, this guard told me that my rolling carry-on was too heavy.  He would not let me transfer anything in the rolling case to my backpack, and told me to go back downstairs to check it in and pay the excess baggage fee. I begged and pleaded with him to give me a break and let me through, but he was immovable. 

I was close to panic at this point. My flight was to leave in about 35 minutes, and there was just no frigging way that I was going to be able to pay excess bag charges and make it on my flight.  I ran back to the check-in counter and told them the situation.  I was sweating bullets, on the verge of freaking out, because I needed to get on that flight. 

Fortunately, Emily and Douglas Seifert were checking in there and helped me.  They convinced a manager to go up with me to the first checkpoint, to tell the guard to let me through.  She did so.  It was now 30 minutes to flight departure.  The manager convinced the guard to let me go through. 

I went through the glass doors to encounter the staff operating the X-ray machine.  I had to beg and plead my case all over again.  The manager had left after telling the first set of guards to let me through.  The X-ray guys finally relented and let me through and much insistence and groveling on my part.  I had to ask one of the first guards to vouch that a manager had OK’d my carry-ons. My anxiety was increasing as departure time drew closer. 

I rarely panic, and I always try to allow plenty of time between checking in and the departure time.  In this case, however, I had trusted Air Niugini to schedule a connection that proved to be too short.  I had put myself (and was put) in a situation where I had too little time, and I was nearly hysterical.  Any diver can tell you that panic is no help in any situation, but here I was.  I had previously filled out a yellow exit immigration form, and I asked to cut to the front of the line when I got to the immigration counters.  The officers stared at me but one let me come to his window.  When I got there, I realized that in my mad dashes around the terminal, I had lost track of this form.  I had to step aside and fill out another form.  My sweaty hand was shaking as I filled out the form as fast as I could.  Thankfully, a kind female immigration officer let me through after questioning me.  She was suspicious about my activities in PNG until I mentioned the name of Walindi, a dive resort that she knew about.

I now had about 15 minutes to departure time, and I rushed into the main gate area to find my flight.  The flight was to leave from Gate 3.  I ran to Gate 1 and 2, which were clearly marked, and then ran past a sign pointing to Gates 3 to 5.  I ran to the end of the gate area and saw no signs for any gates.  It turns out that in the Port Moresby Airport departing area, Gate 3 is unmarked.  This was not helpful.  I asked some folks waiting in a cafe if they were going to Brisbane, and they told me that they were, and showed me the unmarked door that was Gate 3.  Fortunately, the staff had not yet started boarding the plane.  I had made it!  So I thought. 

About 10 minutes later, I was able to go through the gate to the plane, but was surprised by yet another checkpoint.  I had to go through all my arguments once again as a guard opened up all my bags, and told me that I had too many.  I begged and pleaded for mercy again.  I was drenched in sweat.  The guard called someone else over, they conversed, told me that I was a bad, bad person; I agreed and said that I would never do it again, like a schoolkid. 

I finally got to the entrance where a passenger gives up his boarding pass, to be allowed through the hallowed tube to the sanctuary of the plane itself.  She looked at my boarding pass, looked at me, and told me that it was the wrong boarding pass.  She was correct -- it was the boarding pass from my earlier flight, from Alotau to Port Moresby.  I could not find the correct boarding pass!  Panic again.  Blessedly, an Air NG manager (the only white guy on staff there that I ever saw) came up holding my boarding pass.  I had dropped it at the last checkpoint a few feet away when arguing my case.  I finally was able to board the plane. 

After all that, the flight was about 33% filled, and there was plenty of room for my carry-ons. 

I know that airlines have to have rules, but Air Niugini's strict enforcement on the weight rather than the size and number of carry-ons only causes problems.  I can tell you that I will avoid Air Niugini like the plague for the rest of my short life.  I hope that those of you who read this will also avoid Air Niugini, or take my experience to heart, and carry on a minimal amount of stuff.  Either that, or pay to join Air Niugini’s Executive Club and buy a business class ticket so that the staff won’t mess with  you. 

PNG is a great place for diving, but I am not sure that the hassle of getting to good destinations there is worth the trouble.  There are now only three liveaboard dive vessels in PNG waters, and only a few really worthy land-based diving operations.  Walindi is one of them, but I can't stay there because none of their bungalows has air-conditioning.  I have health issues if I get too hot, and the one time that I stayed at Walindi twenty years ago, I had a pretty difficult time trying to get comfortable in the heat. 

I will always remember my time in Port Moresby as the most stressful 1.5 hours of traveling I have yet to go through.  Sweat and adrenaline dripping off my body.  Almost in tears as I was forced to beg and plead, "I promise I won't do it again!" to not one, not two, not three, but four fucking checkpoints on the way to the plane.  Driven to hysteria and panic so that I lost critical pieces of paper, having to beg to cut to the front of lines, having to fill it out these forms again with my sweaty hands shaking from panic and stress.  Not good.  Hopefully never again. 

As a final "F*** YOU", Air Niugini lost one of my bags. Once I arrived in Brisbane, I had the good luck to be forced to stick around the airport another two hours to look for a missing bag and file a claim.  That's always fun, being the last person at the baggage carousel.  I said to myself "I love to travel."  It was great to get some exercise by walking all around the cavernous baggage claim area several times to look for said missing bag, being questioned repeatedly by the same Aussie customs officers about my customs forms and what I was doing.  It was a lot of fun, I have to tell you.  A real "adventure."

I have spent the past few days at home trying to track down someone at Port Moresby airport to try to find my bag and barring that, to send me forms to claim this lost bag.  It has not been fun. 

Air Niugini and Port Moresby Airport gave me a big “F*** YOU” when I tried to leave.  That's unfortunately the first thought that will come to mind the next time someone mentions diving PNG.  Airlines and tourism boards should realize that if they wish to attract tourists, and keep tourists coming back, they should make it easy, rather than difficult, to travel.  


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