Planespotting: Air China goes Irvine Welsh

Air China... boasts the youngest fleet in the sky

Mark Eggleton

It’s not often you get to walk into an airport and know from the outset that what’s about to unravel over the next 24-hours is going to be the worst airline experience of your life.

It began so innocuously – a visit to the gentlemen’s room inside Rome’s Leonardo Da Vinci airport. An officious phalanx of cleaners waved me away as they were in the process of doing their job. Being a patient chap, I waited for them to finish before skipping with joy into what I assumed would be a pristine ablution facility.

Unfortunately, the cleaners may have “cleaned” the toilets by standing in the centre of the room and spinning in a synchronised swimming formation while urinating and yelling in perfect Italian “I’m a man sprinkler”. The newly cleaned toilets seemed to have been smeared with a generous film of urine, faeces and human sweat.

It was a tough decision but I decided to continue with my lifelong habit of using the porcelain amenities inside the toilet to deposit my excess baggage and continued relatively unperturbed to the check-in counter where Air China’s not-so-attentive Alitalia proxies decided checking-in passengers was a luxury they could ill afford. I cheerfully stood at the front of the line for 90 minutes while Alitalia’s disinterested staff blinked blank-faced at their computers and chatted among themselves. The IT system was down although no-one bothered to explain or suggest an alternative. Elsewhere, other airlines checked-in passengers and lines generally flowed smoothly.

Things could only improve and amazingly, after the issues on the ground, our Air China flight left on time and everything seemed right with the world again.

I had noticed during boarding despite the boasts of the fine people at Air China (who suggest they run one of the youngest fleets in the sky) that the Airbus A330 was not so youthful. It was the sort of rickety old plane you’d expect an arms dealer to use. What’s more the toilets were Trainspotting bad. They were cracked and full of filth. It would seem the human sprinklers in Rome had spent some time onboard. One of my fellow passengers had decided the sink sat at a more natural level for a toilet (maybe he/she played basketball) but then again it was early in the flight so it may have been from a previous trip. In another toilet I found a couple of chunks of half digested pineapple lying in the sink.

After suggesting to a rather surly flight attendant that her duties extended to keeping the toilets clean onboard she indicated the only way they would be cleaned was if I wanted to use my toothbrush and a used napkin from my meal.

Trainspotting… when art imitates life?

Speaking of which, the meals onboard were an interesting study in the culinary arts. Imagine an airline that hadn’t actually ordered the inflight meals. Twenty minutes before take-off a group of harried flight attendants burst into the airline catering kitchens and rummage through the offcuts and leftovers from every other meal prepared that day. What it translated to on the tray was a cross between prison food and something conjured up in a Dickensian orphanage.

Unfortunately things got worse. We arrived in Beijing and we were lucky enough to go through Chinese customs twice as we transferred to a domestic Shanghai flight even though we were international transfer passengers who’d had no opportunity to grab some contraband in the sky. Maybe even the Chinese authorities thought we’d come in on a smuggler flight.

Moreover, we boarded an even older plane. I missed our gun-running A330 immediately as we climbed aboard the aircraft equivalent of a dirty standby taxi. The toilets had the Italian cleaners touch and the food was slightly worse than the fare conjured up in Rome airport’s industrial kitchens. The service was a wee step beyond non-existent as we winged our way gently to Shanghai.

On arrival, with a fixed thousand yard stare I wandered through Shanghai’s near empty terminal to the transfer gate and the same dirty old taxi. Outside on the tarmac an old Qantas Boeing 747 glistened like new and I pined to be on it.

In a hallucinatory moment I could see Qantas CEO Alan Joyce beckoning me onboard to be served by Qantas’s unhappy ageing staff but I was happy. I could see food, clean toilets, a semblance of service and entertainment choices beyond the Politburo approved oeuvre of Victor Mature. I smiled and fell to my knees and cried … “All is forgiven Qantas, I love Jetstar and whatever your strategy is Mr Joyce … I’m with you.”

Sadly, I was still a long way from home.

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