Thursday, May 26, 2005

 

Flight from Poland

Not so EasyJet

Don’t get me wrong. I had a wonderful time in Poland, and will gladly recommend such a trip to any American considering traveling to Europe of the paths usually beaten by American tourists. But we had spent eight full days in Poland, and made our emotional farewell with Nina yesterday. What’s more, virtually everything was shut down for the Corpus Christi religious celebration, and after having spent a couple of days – touring the Auschwitz Museum and the Kazimierz neighborhood – contemplating the dark side of Polish-Jewish relations, I was not in the mood to be immersed in Polish Catholicism. It was a good day to leave the country.

DSCN1067
At the Krakow airport, people line the observation deck to wish their friends and family bon voyage. Or are they just happy to see the back side of me?
Which is why I had just a teensy bit of anxiety about the boarding policies of our cut-rate air carrier, EasyJet. First come – first served, no guarantee of a seat if they overbook, and only one flight per day to our destination, Berlin. For any European history buff like me, no trip to central Europe is complete unless you have the experience of spending several hours standing in lines at the transport terminal while anxiously wondering whether you’ll be able to get out of the country.

For once, I was on exactly the same page as B, who goes into a kind of refugee survival mode even when flying from Chicago to LA, and we agreed to shoot for reaching the airport three hours before our departure. The airline was recommending checkin two hours prior to departure, and we figured that if we strove to be first in line, we’d have better odds of clawing our way onto the plane.

From my new cosmopolitan vantage point, I now see that U.S. airports, for all their unpleasant post-9/11 hassles, are fairly well organized. Other than the rare experience of being bumped due to overbooking, you know that you will stand on three lines (ticket counter, security and boarding), that you will in fact get on your flight if you arrive at the ticket counter an hour before departure, and that the only chaotic and unruly line behavior occurs at boarding. There, when the flight is called, the departure lounge is activated like an annoyed beehive, with passengers jockeying for position and milling around, often creating the false impression of standing in the boarding line when in fact they are only waiting for their row number to be called.

In the Krakow airport, the entire scene from the moment you walk into the terminal to the moment you board the plane is like that boarding-line chaos.

There were lines and people milling around everywhere. B and I waited, first, on a line to inquire where we should go to line up. We were told that that location would not be disclosed until two hours before flight time.

You see, there are far more airlines flying out of Krakow than there are ticket windows, so airlines do not have their own designated ticket counters marked by their corporate logos, as in U.S. airports. And for reasons that defy my humble understanding, Krakow airport does not tell you what ticket window you must go to until they’re ready to start checking you in. Perhaps it’s because they want to discourage anticipatory lines, and they know that Poles are great line-formers (in the days of communism, they would line up for hard-to-obtain consumer goods and grocery items like some Americans would for Springsteen tickets).

So we waited for an hour, eyes glued to the monitor that would eventually flash the ticket counter number for our flight, and poised strategically to dart in any of several directions. At 1:30 (five minutes before two hours before departure) it came up: counters 1-3. We bolted. We ended up third in line.

For our efforts, we got a boarding card filled with numbers and letters. “Bus number 1" followed by a mysterious “11,” then “section C” but it turned out that the significant symbol was the letter A, written in green highlighter, indicating that we could board the first bus. (In Poland, you are taken between the terminal gate and the plane in a bus.) The first bus did not guarantee us a seat on the plane, it was explained, but it should improve our chances a great deal.

We next lined up for passport control and security baggage check. I must say that the armed Polish soldiers in camo were somewhat nicer than our own TSA workers, and did not make me take off my shoes.

At this point, B and I found ourselves, still about an hour and a half to go, in a vast departure lounge sporting not one but three gates from which about five flights would be taking off before ours. Again, the information about which gate for your flight was withheld until the last minute, and again lines seemed to form in a chaotic, first come– first served manner. Would our letter “A” count for anything in this waiting room jungle?

When our gate was finally called (my own clever series of deductions to predict the correct gate having proven miserably wrong), B instantly sprung from her chair and maneuvered us like a dance instructer through a mosh pit to – again – the third spot in line.

Soon we were on the bus, almost the first to board. But here is a trap for the unwary, and here, my powers of discernment actually functioned well. Surmising that the principle of “LIFO” (“Last-in-first-out”) would apply to a crowded bus, I suggested to B that we eschew the seats in favor of a place standing near the door.

I couldn’t have been more right. After the bus stood at the gate for what must have been 20 minutes, we finally drove toward the plane. B and I leapt from the bus almost as soon as the doors opened and raced for the waiting plane, where, again, we were about the third ones on.

It turned out to be a comfortable, relaxing hour and a half flight into Berlin. We even had an empty seat next to us, because – did I mention? – the plane was only about two-thirds full.

***

Comments:
It's such a pleasure, travelling over your shoulder like this.

Though I'm not sure it would successfully calm my inner refugee to get a flight out of Poland and into... Germany.
 
Heh. American airports may have it better than those in Eastern Europe, but you describe the daily NJ Transit train commute from Grand Central Station in Manhattan quite well. I've spent many an hour watching the board, waiting for the track number to be displayed, just like in your Polish airport.
 
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