OCTOBER 5 — “Do you know him? Do you know him?”

The bald African asked loudly and firmly, one by one, from the group of people staring at him as he held another man, who looked Middle Eastern or South Asian.

He wanted a sign from them — people he now called his tribe of queue adherents — to allow him to banish the alleged perpetrator to the back of the queue, maybe as far back as the airport parking lot.

The held man said in his defence, “I have been here for five hours, I am one of you.” He claimed he just stepped out of the queue for a short while.

Everyone denied recognising the man. A woman almost did vouch for him and then backed down. He was forced out. It could have been worse since the crowd was starting to lose its mind.

This was Istanbul Airport, the morning of October 2, 2023. Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday anniversary, was about to witness the exact opposite of Ahimsa (non-violence) at the main transfer desk for Turkish Airlines.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s pull this back 18 hours. Before the Odyssey to get home began.

Never laugh at the flight gods

A fortnight at a seminar completed, I sat coyly at the Irish pub in upmarket Friesenplatz, Cologne on a Sunday afternoon.

Biding my time for the return flight from Cologne-Bonn Airport. I mused about the brief 100 minutes ONLY transit time in Istanbul before embarking on my longer flight home. Nice, just under two hours to wait, very decent, very fortunate, I thought to myself. Bad move, very bad move.

The email notification flashed.

The flight is now delayed by over two hours. No reasons given. Four days prior I was informed the flight departure was retimed to 10 minutes after. From 7.45pm to 7.55pm. I laughed it off.

I underestimated the value of losing 10 minutes, and in return the universe set to teach me about lost time. To turn a 16-hour journey to double its time — 32 hours.

When I arrived at Cologne Airport, both the Turkish Airlines office and check-in area which are adjacent to each other were both packed.

I opted to ask the general office rather than check in first, because a two-hour delay meant I would miss my connecting flight. This was also my first experience at how this airline managed queues.

Their officers sit at their counters — in this situation three — and let the customers organise the queue themselves. They did not bat an eyelid as one main queue morphed into two and then several. It was very Zen. If your mind forms a queue conceptually, then you can bloody well be anywhere you want to be.

The problem was that by every minute — not to mention, they had already postponed the flight twice by this point — more people fail to arrive for their connecting flights in Istanbul. That growing realisation among the crowd increased the building anger.

When I did get to a reservation agent, rather than assure me, he instead gave me a riddle.

I could either stay another night in Cologne, and get a fresh flight calendar for the next day or the other option, work the odds. He said Istanbul Airport had massive delays affecting a huge number of flights. There was a chance my connecting flight would also be delayed the same amount of time and therefore my readjusted flight would still get to my other readjusted connecting flight to Kuala Lumpur, therefore happy days!

It's a bit like the math question asked often, if train A left station B averaging 100km an hour while train C left station D averaging 65km an hour and two Amish travellers counted corn stalks from their window, would there still be trains, or even train tracks, or all of it just vanishes.

The readjusted time matching the readjusted plan was all outlandish, but then again I am a guy who reads unsolicited emails with subject headers which begin with “Very important news...” or “Proposal accepted...”

Against reason, I chose to head to Istanbul — whenever the plane was ready — with hope in my heart, like Liverpool in 2005.

After I cleared a lengthy check-in queue, security barrier and passport control, I headed to the café by the gate to use my food and beverage voucher from the airline.

European Union Law 261 stipulates many rules and compensation for air travellers related to flight delays or cancellations. One of the stipulations is sustenance if forced to wait.

From 10.20pm it moved to 11pm and eventually 11.51pm. By now, the flight is delayed shy of four minutes of four hours. The compensations are even higher when delays are longer than four hours, so the designated Expected Time for Departure (ETD) tries to avoid bleeding the airline any further.

I suspect the EU is less interested in ETDs and more compelled by actual departures.

It was way past midnight when they bussed us to the plane on the tarmac.

A Turkish Airlines aircraft taxis at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, Turkey. ― Reuters pic
A Turkish Airlines aircraft taxis at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, Turkey. ― Reuters pic

Constant people better than instant bulls

It was way past 4am Turkish time when we disembarked at Ataturk.

I was resigned to the fact I missed my connection. I was, however, expecting Turkish hospitality to see me through to the next flight — Turkish Airlines flies once daily to Kuala Lumpur — 20 hours later. A complimentary ride to a hotel to rest and ferried back for the next available flight.

Whatever false notions of salvation I had trickled out of me when I arrived at the largest collection of people ever at the transfer desk. At Cologne it was one TK flight delayed and to be managed, but here at their central hub a slew of flights in and out went off timing and their victims had piled up.

This was my third major queue in less than 12 hours, but it was set to be the longest queue for service in my life. Six hours it took. What I expected would be sleeping time was spent standing and trudging along every 15 minutes.

Curious things were observed. Several airline officers approached those in the queue, enquired their destination and nationality. The EU citizens were whisked away to what I imagine are other places to process quicker transfers. Those remaining — still a sizable and growing crowd — were Asians, Africans, Pacific Islanders, Russians and Americans.

The Turkish Airlines officials in Istanbul did the same as those in Cologne, they let the crowd sort itself out. This mushrooming crowd of strangers from around the world was expected to show decorum.

Naturally, following every psychological test on overstressed humans' ability to retain order, like Pavlov’s rats we descended into chaos.

Organically, dissenters formed new mini queues at all the eight counters and ignored the official queue line. This emboldened more from the back to circumvent, and the further back they were the more willing they were to snake into the front.

The actual queue stopped moving, as we were moving towards a free for all. This is when some of us started shouting to the airline to restore some kind of order.

An official emerged, looked set to do his job, moved a few stanchion posts and queue belts. And disappeared back behind the counters. The crowd merely ignored and moved about as it wished.

We started to raise our voices again, this time shouting at the officials. Another dude comes out, chastises a few people, sends one or two away. He turns to us, exasperated and asks those who were committed to the actual queue, “If they do not respect queues, what can we do?”

Beat them, was one instant thought that ran through my brain. What is it about Turkish airline officials and posing ethical questions to customers?

It might have been the hours standing, the thirst, the hunger, sleep deprivation, but for once in my life, on Gandhi Day no less, I missed Singaporean orderliness. Seriously, this would not happen in Changi Airport no matter what the challenge, order is non-negotiable.

Yes, it was the lack of sleep.

‘I’m Spartacus’

The airline abandoned us to our own devices, and we rose to the challenge. We policed the lines. Shouting and shaming ensued. It escalated to us confronting queue transgressors which then led to my new “colleague” shoving several out physically.

Black, white or any other hue, united in respect for queues and disdain for those who cared only about themselves.

We organised ourselves and brought discipline to our corner of the airport. In my excitement I exclaimed, “Queues break down because people are passive. You have to protect the queue, everyone has to do their bit. Don’t be indifferent and expect things to work!”

I guess I went too far when I ended with, “This is how nations collapse.” There were more than a few quizzed looks.

Eventually I had my turn, did I say after six hours? The lady just gave me my new boarding pass and the flight was four hours away.

I asked what about a meal and hotel, according to EU Law 261? She said she would check, but she was just buying time. She relented but commented it was too close to my flight to offer me a complimentary hotel room and for the meal I have to join another queue.

It won’t surprise anymore that the new connection was also delayed several times, from the initial 3:50pm to eventually to 5.30pm.

When the plane finally touched down at KLIA, 32 hours had passed from the first ETD in Cologne. Gandhi Day had passed, it was already Tuesday afternoon when I reached home.

Oh, while I managed to escape Istanbul my luggage was not as lucky. They failed to board it on the plane. The man at the baggage carousel told me so after a quick check on his electronic device.

How quaint. The lesson? Queues tell us more about societies than most care to notice? Maybe.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.