Escape from Gorontalo

It’s not often you meet a plane crash survivor in a hotel lobby, but that’s what happened to me last week, in the foyer of the New Melati Hotel in Gorontalo, northern Sulawesi. “Good morning,” I said, as I sidled up next to her, waiting for her to finish with the receptionist. She turned, smiled and blurted out, “I was in a plane crash last night. Our plane hit a cow.” [Story updated at end with apology from Garuda]

Indonesia: where the unexpected is to be expected.

The woman and her family had been on the Lionair flight from Jakarta to Gorontalo via Makassar on Tuesday, 7 August. Upon landing the aircraft either hit a cow “idling” on the runway and skidded off into the grass or skidded off the runway, then hit a cow. Both are perfectly credible as Lionair pilots do sometimes have trouble finding the runway, and as we later saw, plenty of animals hang out around the runway at Gorontalo airport thanks to gaping holes in the fences.

Not a cow in sight.

Not a cow in sight.

While uninjured, the woman I spoke with was still visibly shaken — she had only just found out that they had hit a cow (via media reports online). Lionair had told her and other passengers nothing at the time. She said it felt like the plane had hit something before it bumpily halted; passengers opened the emergency exits, but the crew told people to stay where they were, even though they could smell something burning. When they finally got off, they saw it was the grass the plane had stopped on.

But I’m not going to write too much about Lionair today. Instead I’m writing about Garuda: Indonesia’s flag carrier and, according to Skytrax, the World’s Best Regional Airline. Why? Because we had a flight out of Gorontalo to Makassar, then a connecting flight with Lionair the next day from Makassar to Bali. We were due to be leaving the morning I met the cowcrash survivor, on Wednesday 8 August.

No we're probably not flying anywhere today.

No, we’re probably not flying anywhere today.

We had booked back in May two legs: Gorontalo to Makassar with Garuda and Makassar to Bali with Lionair. A month after purchasing the tickets, Garuda advised us by email of a change in the time of the Gorontalo flight, which meant we would now miss the original connecting Lionair flight. When I contacted Garuda to explain the problem, they suggested we change the flights to the previous day — at a cost of 111,000 rupiah per ticket. So even though we were changing the tickets in response to a change Garuda made, we still had to pay the fee. We sucked it up and paid, and were thus also forced to have an overnight stay in Makassar.

Then on Monday 5 August (two days before departure) I received an email, this time from the Garuda office in Gorontalo (which, by the way uses a Yahoo email account), notifying us of another schedule change. The flight was again being shifted from morning to afternoon.

Then, on the Tuesday, Lionair crashed into that cow, closing the airport to 737s (smaller aircraft, used by for example Air Wings and Sriwijaya, apparently used it the following day).

Gorontalo airport cow-gate.

Gorontalo airport cow-gate.

After meeting the cowcrash survivor, we asked the receptionist at our hotel to see whether the airport was open or not. It was closed; so I hoofed it over (geddit?!) to the Garuda office in Gorontalo for clearer information. There I was told the airport was closed, but that we were all confirmed on a Garuda flight the next day, which would allow us to still make our Lionair connection out of Makassar.

Early in the morning on Thursday August 8 (3:17AM!!!) I received an SMS from Gorontalo Garuda notifying a flight schedule change, with flight now departing at 13:50, with a note to call (0435) 830444 for more info. This number didn’t work.

At Garuda allowed our kids to sleep on the terminal floor.

Waiting for… Garuda.

We decided to be conservative and so headed to the airport early. Cost: 280,000 rupiah. Arriving at 11:00, we were first in line and Garuda staff at the ticket told us the flight was “on time”. We then tried to change our Lionair ticket onwards to Bali but were told by the Lionair staff that there would be a cancellation charge of 90%, as “there’s no problem in Makassar”. Cost: almost 3 million rupiah.

As time wore on, we expected Garuda check-in staff to appear. No. At no time did ANY Garuda staff come to address the passengers lined up waiting to check in. Then, at 12:35, Gorontalo Garuda texted to advise that the flight was cancelled (an hour and 15 minutes before ETD from Gorontalo). I asked Garuda staff at the ticket office at the airport what was going on, but they said they didn’t know. Other passengers were told by other staff that there would be a flight at 14:00, then at 16:00. No staff mentioned that the Lionair aircraft had still not been moved and this was why we couldn’t get out. The airport reportedly lacked the equipment to move it — we heard later they tried to move it with an excavator a bulldozer.

Happy Garuda customers.

Happy Garuda customers.

As the number provided by Garuda didn’t work, and the ticket office was a madhouse, I called Garuda in Jakarta at my own expense, spending 30 minutes trying to get advice on what we should do. They were unable to tell me whether any flight was happening that day or the next. With two tired children — and thanks to it being Idul Fitri, not a single shop open at the airport where we could buy water or snacks when our own supplies were finished — we gave up and returned to Gorontalo (cost 200,000 rupiah).

The check-in counter: We're all about service.

The check-in counter: We’re all about service.

Later, back at a hotel in Gorontalo — Garuda didn’t offer transport back into town, accommodation or meals — we spent another half an hour on the phone with Jakarta Garuda. Finally, they told us we had a confirmed reservation on Friday August 9. We then purchased connecting flights (with Garuda) to Bali for Sam and the kids (I was heading to KL). Cost: another 3 million rupiah.

What, do I need to spell it out for you?

What, do I need to spell it out for you?

Other friends who were also hoping to fly on August 9 (with Lionair) head to the airport earlier than us. Upon arrival, staff told the airport was closed to jets; they called the hotel to tell us. We then spent a full 80 minutes in total (across a series of calls) with Garuda Indonesia in Jakarta trying to shift change our departure city from Gorontalo to Manado, a nine-hour drive away. In the middle of this, we received an SMS from Garuda Gorontalo advising the flight is cancelled. Despite being on a confirmed flight on Friday from Makassar to Bali, we were now pushed to Saturday’s flight — which is full, so we were waitlisted.

Though on the first call we were told that charges will be waived if we shift to Manado, as the call dropped out we need to call back — again and again and again. And the final person, to whom we explained the entire scenario again, refused to waive the fee. We would have to pay an additional 2 million rupiah. (At the start of each call, we asked the Garuda agent answering whether, if the call drops out, they can call us back, and gave two mobile numbers. Each time, nobody called back. On the final call the agent told us that actually they are not permitted to call back clients.)

Trying to get a straight answer out of Garuda in Jakarta.

Trying to get a straight answer out of Garuda in Jakarta.

We then chartered a car for the drive to Manado (that’ll be another 1.2 million rupiah — we wonder whether the thought of putting a bus on for the scores of other passengers like us on the first day occurred to Garuda?). One of the kids was now coming down with tonsilitis, but that’s probably the one thing we can’t blame Garuda for. Though if we had been home by now, nobody would have been vomiting during the first hour of the drive, right?

Roughly five hours into the drive, at 18:57, we received an SMS from Garuda Gorontalo advising that a flight from Gorontalo to Makassar was due to depart Gorontalo at 20:10. We had to laugh. It was pretty hilarious after all. Check in is supposed to be one hour before departure; we were given 13 minutes to check in, and Gorontalo airport itself is a 45 minute drive from downtown. We ignore the text as we’re closer to Manado.

Gorontalo airport then called at 20:33 advising that the flight would indeed be departing soon (from Gorontalo). I explained that we were on the way to Manado.

The next morning, the gracious staff at Manado agreed to waive the change fee on the tickets and 1.5 hours later we were, finally, in Makassar. Sam and the kids however were still waitlisted on the flight to get back to Bali. The child with tonsilitis had a high fever return; we couldn’t sit outside the airport for four hours to see whether we would make the flight. Business class seats were available. We called it a minor emergency; the kids were starting school on Monday. We bought the upgrade. Ka-ching — another 3 million rupiah.

What could have been done better?

Nobody expects an airline to use a Twitter or Facebook account to move an aircraft. They do expect it to be used to assist in customer support.
Suggestion: @indonesiagaruda “We’re working with Gorontalo airport to get the Lionair aircraft off the runway ASAP.”

A timely tweet from Garuda in the midst of the drama

A timely tweet from Garuda in the midst of the drama.

While we understand this whole drama was caused by either Lionair or Gorontalo airport’s incompetence, Garuda and its passengers were directly affected and Garuda was in complete control of how it responded to the situation. At no stage did Garuda use social media to address our concerns. We did get one message from an account we hadn’t actually tweeted to, telling us that they were trying to get confirmation of whether a flight would leave Gorontalo. But they never tweeted us again.
Suggestion: @indonesiagaruda “We apologise to our passengers stranded at Gorontalo airport and are working to rectify the situation ASAP.”

Pay attention
In ignoring our tweets, Garuda demonstrated a flagrant disregard for the wellbeing of their passengers. Why was international media able to pick up and respond to our tweets and photos while Garuda was unable to even acknowledge them?
Suggestion: @indonesiagaruda@sagabrown We’re sorry, the flight has been cancelled. Please return to Gorontalo and stay at the Quality Hotel — we’ll fix you up for it.”

Supply updates
In 2012, Indonesia had the fifth largest number of Twitter accounts in the world. Garuda has a Twitter account — one with almost a quarter of a million followers in fact. Why didn’t Garuda use its highly visible account to notify passengers of updates? Why did they pointedly ignore customers who were actively trying to contact them?
Suggestion: @indonesiagaruda “We’ll be running a courtesy bus to Manado for those who want to change their flights (free of charge). Contact the Gorontalo Garuda office for more information.” This was their chance to also supply a corrected phone number.

What did Garuda do instead?

Absolutely nothing.

We think this might make a rather good case study for carriers generally in how NOT to behave when flights are cancelled/delayed. We’d be happy to hear what Garuda thinks — so we’ve left the comments open.

We’re looking at tickets from Denpasar to Rome in September… but not with Garuda.

This one is for you LionAir (Pic )

This one is for you LionAir (Pic )

Final note
If you’re looking for a good argument for travel insurance (which we didn’t have because our preferred travel insurance provider World Nomads unfortunately doesn’t cover us in the country we live) this should be it.

Update: 19 August
I just received the following apology from the Social Media at Garuda Indonesia.
Dear Helpdesk Admin

following up the posting of “Escape from Gorontalo” listed on august 17th,2013, about cowcrush accident at august 6th,2013 in Gorontalo airport that caused cancellation of flight schedule. For the flight cancellation on that moment and airport service were not all Garuda Indonesia responsibility ,however,from the side of Garuda Indonesia, we would like to say sorry for the inconvenience and would like to say thak you for critic and suggestion.And we would hope and try for the best services in the future that apply very well to customer.