Last week, right around Easter weekend, Hong Kong, Macau and the rest of the Greater Bay Area was hit by a severe thunderstorm for multiple days. Weather delay happens all the time. When bad weather forces delays or cancellations, airlines ought to do their utmost to keep delayed or canceled customers happy. That wasn’t the case of my recent experience flying Air Macau. Some unruly passengers are not helping the situation either by blocking boarding gates after getting frustrated by flight cancellations.
Inclement Weather, A Small Airport and Crowded Airspace
It was April the 19th, the Thursday night right before Good Friday and Easter weekend. It was peak traveling time and airspace in the Greater Bay Area is crowded as ever.
The thunderstorm came as no surprise. It is Hong Kong, entering mid-April and the rainy season, where inclement weather is bound to occur. I am traveling from to Da Nang for my Cathay Pacific Mistake Fare trip to NYC. I chose to fly from Macau this time to specifically try Air Macau’s business class, as well as the new bus service connecting Hong Kong and Macau via the HK-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge.
Macau is a SMALL airport, by that I mean they only have 3 security lanes in total. It was crowded, but by the time I got to the airport, it was still operating in fair order. The small size is enough to handle Macau’s mostly short to medium haul traffic; the last time Macau had long-haul traffic was almost a decade ago. However, because of the weather, the airport is running full capacity and even facing gate shortages at times.
Because of the thunderstorm, many flights were delayed or cancelled. Red aerodrome warning was issued from time to time and resulting in ground stops for several hour-long intervals. The fact that Macau airport is situated in the crowded greater Bay Area did not help either. the airport is 40 miles to the west of Hong Kong Airport, 30 miles to the south-west of Shenzhen Airport and 18 miles to the east of Zhuhai Airport. Hence Macau is severely affected by flow control in the FIR, which only allowed 1 aircraft operation every 10 mins during weather.
In case you are not aware, Macau Airport’s design made it very easily affected by the weather. Due to noise restrictions, only runway 34 has an ILS approach system. Which unfortunately that day the wind direction only allowed operations on Runway 16, coupled with low visibility, resulted in many diversions as well as cancellations.
Passengers Waited While Air Macau Hid
There were two flights from Macau to Da Nang that day, NX830 and NX876, with the following schedule:
NX830 MFM 1945 DAD 2030 A321
NX876 MFM 2110 DAD 2205 A320
Initially, both of these flights were expected to delay. However, by 8:30pm, Air Macau decided to cancel the earlier NX830 flight citing weather and rebook passengers to the later NX876 flight. Then they swapped the later NX876 equipment from the A320 to the exact same A321 that was meant to operate NX830. Now the problem is, even after swapping to an A321 from the A320, there is not enough seat for everyone.
The dubious decision by Air Macau to cancel one of the two flights to Da Nang on the first day of peak Easter travel season just does not make sense to me. Da Nang is a popular leisure destination, and flights on Air Macau should be reasonably having a very good load. By cancelling the earlier flight Air Macau is well aware that some passenger has to wait for an extra night as it is impossible to book everyone on the later NX876 flight, albeit it being swapped to be operated by a larger A321.
Flying out of Macau Airport, Air Macau’s home base, the airline should have all the flexibility in terms of crew and aircraft rotation. In such an event of a weather delay, Air Macau ought to do their utmost to help their passengers get to their destination as soon as possible. Yet Air Macau chose the easy, irresponsible way out to simply cancel flights and strand passengers.
Then it is the handling of the cancellation. If a passenger was not able to be booked on the next flight, the airline ought to make immediate alternate arrangements with the passengers so they can leave the airport for lodging or food. However, Air Macau instead left cancelled passengers waiting in the sterile area of the departure hall. People with lounge access have better luck, but for the majority of the passengers, it means sitting in the already crowded terminal and waiting for updates, and they received nearly none from Air Macau. No wonder they are pissed later in the night (spoilers) …
…The Lounge Is No better
I booked Business Class for the review, so I have access to the Air Macau Lounge. my flight leaves just after 9pm but I got to the airport early as I was thinking about reviewing the Air Macau Lounge.
It was surprising when I walked into the Air Macau Lounge only to find it is staffed by Plaza Premium employees from the Plaza Premium Lounge. I was told that this is the norm that Plaza Premium manages and caters Air Macau’s lounge. The food and services are good but it just seemed ridiculous to me that Air Macau can’t even staff their own lounge in their home airport. The staffing issue turned out to be a huge problem later when delays piled up and the Plaza Premium staff can’t offer adequate assistance to delayed passengers.
For the most part of this fiasco, Air Macau did not even bother to send a representative to explain the situation, even for business class passengers in the Air Macau Lounge. Not a single time an Air Macau employee came by to inform us about the delay. Instead, lounge staff that are contracted from Plaza Premium was tasked to handle the delay and us the passengers. These lounge staffs are not able to give us an ETA for departure or any information and even relies on the same information screen.
I am extremely sympathetic with the Plaza Premium staffs that service the Air Macau lounge as they are clearly not informed yet are being pushed to face the delayed and canceled passengers. Air Macau was just hiding and evading their responsibilities throughout the time, and being utterly irresponsible.
Related Link: Macau TV’s report of the same incident (Portuguese)
It Got Even Worse At The Gate
Did I mention spoilers? Oh yes, it’s not over yet. As Air Macau finally decided to board the later flight NX876 after a 4-hour delay, a group of passenger from the earlier cancelled NX830 began to gather and soon enough they blocked the gates. If you have read what’s written above, it is understandable that they are pissed. Some people have been at the airport for over 8 hours by now and has not received any confirmed rebooking from Air Macau, that is on top of a ruined holiday schedule for them.
It was a total fiasco at the gate. Passengers booked or rebooked on NX876 just wanted to get to Da Nang quickly as it is well past midnight. However, those passengers on the canceled NX830 that was not rebooked for today was not budging, A few dozen erratic passengers formed a human chain to block the boarding gate, not allowing boarding to commence for the already 5 hours delayed NX876.
The Air Macau gate agents look like they had given up at this time. I understand that it has been a long and hectic day for them, and by the time this new chaos began, it’s already past midnight. So no blame on these front line service personnel, they are doing the hardest task, and most of the blame should be on the Airline’s management team.
Finally, police are called in, but they also did nearly absolutely nothing apart from watching the crowd from afar. As time passed everyone is getting increasingly frustrated. Some of the people blocking the boarding gate are unhappy about my photo taking and decided to just pick a quarrel with me. Coincidentally, a journalist from Macau TV (who is also taking a lot of photos) is on the same flight as me and quickly helped to defend me from the agitated radicals. I was merely documenting the event and the police stepped in eventually and ordered a few of them to stop intimidating me.
Eventually, after nearly another hour at the gate, the Air Macau representative finally decided to face the protesters. The initial offer was to place them on the flight the next evening, as well as free accommodation for the night. This offer was quickly rejected by the crowd, with some even asking for compensation for their first night of hotel in Da Nang.
Eventually, the offer was to place the canceled passengers on the earliest flight possible the next morning on other carriers, as well as the hotel stay for the night. There are other concessions made, but as the protesters moved out of the way and boarding for my flight NX876 began, I did not stay to hear the entire conversation. I quickly went to board my flight and avoided more troubles.
I try my best to sympathize with those blocking the boarding gate and protesting about the flight cancellation. However, in my opinion, no matter how badly your travel plans is disrupted by an delay, it is never the right thing to block the gate and prevent other’s to board their flight. You should never fight for your right by damaging the rights of others.
It is understandable that people are frustrated when their flight is canceled and we know there is only so much an airline can do in weather delays. Heck, even EU261, dubbed the most generous aviation consumer protection law doesn’t cover weather delays. But the management and handling demonstrated by Air Macau is horrendous, there’s no way to sugarcoat it.
This is just a spin-off post to voice my thoughts. Stay tuned for my actual review of the Air Macau lounge and their onboard experience.