08 January 2009

Come Fly with Me, Carib Style

Okay, so it's November, the Montauk pool is covered, ice frosts over the nameplate on the Yamaha outboards, our heating oil dealer is smiling again, and it's time to take the ten-day trip to Paradise, open the shutters on the cottage (err, "Villa", excusez moi!), poison the resident scorpions and dengue mosquitoes, and make the page-long list of things needing repair.

But you have to get there first. Easy, right? Fly 2,000 miles in comfort in a bulkhead seat (the advantage of having flown a million-plus miles on that carrier when I was a working stiff), and then one arrives at the newly constructed terminal in Phillipsburgh,St. Maarten. Completed last year, the place is gorgeous. A triumph of architectural beauty. Soaring ceilings, 48-inch round pillars supporting 60-foot high steel arches, acres of gleaming terrazzo floors,a zillion cubic feet of air conditioned space, the whole bit.

Ah, but if only just one on that team of expensive architects had ever actually been in an airport before and navigated to a connecting flight. Two years ago, making the transfer from AA to the Winair plane for the ten-minute flight to Paradise was simple: You exited the big jet via an outdoor stairway directly onto the tarmac, strolled about a hundred yards in the delicious hot sun toward a collection of one-story attached corrugated buildings, and before reaching the steaming cowshed that was the "main" terminal, you ducked into a door marked "Transfer" and in two minutes (if the person attending the Winair desk was actually at the Winair desk) you were at the Winair gate. After some pushing and shoving, you were allowed through a door which put you back on the tarmac for a brief stroll to the tissue paper and balsa wood plane that carried smiling people to St. Barths. (The uninitiated sometimes stopped smiling when they realized their luggage was a day behind. Hey, it's the Carib.)

Now, in the new building, it is all much more "efficient": One exits the jet via an air conditioned finger, walks (no people movers) about .3 mile, descends a flight of steps and walks to a series of five immigration lines. Each bears a different redundant sign (i.e. "immigration", "transients" "transfers' etc, but all empty to the same area. Why five different labels? I dunno. Walk down another flight of steps, and you are in baggage claim. Take your bag to a nearby unmarked counter which sometimes has a person attending to it. If he is there, check in to Winair. If not, then you take the hike. That is a 50/50 bet. If no one is there, walk your luggage about .5 miles to Winair check-in desk at the extreme far end of the terminal, passing through a "Customs" area where two uniformed guys are chatting. In the several trips through that area, I have NEVER seen them stop anyone, check any bags, ask any questions, nada. At the Winair check-in you learn there is a 60 euro (80USD) charge for your second bag. But that attendant will not take your money. Instead, you walk to another line at another Winair counter. This is deceptively long line; it moves quickly because almost all the people on line think this is Winair check-in, instead it's only where Winair TAKES checks IN. Pay your money, and then walk all the way back to where you started (do not collect $200) wait in line at a passport control counter, walk up a flight of steps, wait in a switchback maze to get to another passport control check-point, then another switchback corral to reach the single lane security check. The management recognizes this is a burdensome process, so they provide entertainment: while waiting in the corral before the second passport check, the public address system reports:"All Winair flights are delayed." Get through the passport check and while shuffling along in the next corral, one hears yet another announcement, "All Winair flights are FURTHER delayed." Huh? Whatever.

One then walks then walk another half mile to the Winair departure gate. Here you see technology at its finest. A large flat panel monitor lists all Winair flights that day. All are marked "On Time." Actually, none are on time, and at least three flights back from the current hour have not left at all. At the gate itself, there is another large monitor, flashing the flight number and the status, such as, "On Time", "Boarding", "Departed" etc. All lies. When one inquires of the sulky clerk, one learns, "Oh, that's just the signs. Don' mean nuttin." Thank you very much.

If Winair finds a plane they can actually fly that day,they call your flight, you hand in your boarding pass and go through the door leading to the plane. Well, not exactly. That door leads to another staircase, at the bottom of which is another door. And is it closed. The passengers are now being held in a new sort of holding pen: a flight of steps with locked doors at top and bottom. As you can imagine, they are very happy. Eventually, an attendant unlocks the bottom door, and you board... A BUS, which takes you to your toy airplane.

Is this progress, or what?

Aside from the stupidity of the geography, the process is mind-bending. Why three Winair counters when one would do? And why two separate passport checks? Is there really a terrorist-infiltration threat to the St. Barths infrastructure? What infrastructure might that be? The road system here is already barely one level up from hardened goat paths, there are no bridges, no traffic lights, and the water plant is already frequently inoperable for one reason or another. What do they fear bad guys would do, blow up the hardware store, storm David Letterman's house?

But we persevere. We must. We live here.

A bientot.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home