Monday, August 19, 2013

Computerised Check-In vs Manual Check-In

I am born in the 'dinosaurs' era and the word, 'computer' was not found in any dictionary yet.  In the 80s, I was already fascinated with fax machine when it was introduced.  I was wondering how could a whole text be transmitted over and via a telephone line.  It was simply magical.  

I started work at Changi Airport in 1982 handling passenger check-in, arrival & departure and manifestations.  Computerisation for check-in at airport was already put in place but not for the company that I worked for.  We were still doing manual check-in for passengers.  Imagine a Boeing 747 full flight which can carry more than 300 passengers, we had to type the name of all the passengers on a passenger manifest which will be used for our check-in at the counters.  If we had 6 check-in staff, we had to print more than 6 sets of passenger manifests.  Preparation works prior to each departure were normally done a day before.  Frankly, typical human error such as missing out a booked passenger or typing a wrong name was inevitable.  When the counters were closed half an hour prior to departure, this was where tension was at its highest.  In that short half an hour, a person will have to record all the names of the checked-in passengers, their nationalities, the total number of bags and weights while another person will rush over to print out the passenger manifests.  Printing was not done by photocopier machine but on a noisy printing machine which may tear the paper apart if placed wrongly.  Weight had to be calculated manually and indicated on the loadsheet for the captain.  It was always a mad rush in that short half an hour after counter closure.  Sometimes, it can't be helped when a passenger turned up late and insisted to be check-in.

When computerised system was finally introduced, margin for error was definitely minimised and workflow greatly improved.  I joined KLM in 1985 and the check-in function was handled by our ground handling agent, CIAS.  On one fateful flight, their newly installed computerised check-in system suddenly went kaput.  Everything had to be halted while waiting for the system to be up and running.  The breakdown continued on and we then decided to fall back on manual check-in to avoid further delay to the flight departure.  Most of the check-in personnel were never trained in manual check-in.  They were so used to computerised check-in.  Queue was getting longer and longer and passengers were getting irritated.  I then decided to take over the check-in functions from our ground handling staff.  Fortunately for me and some of our older colleagues, we belong to the 'dinosaurs' era and we definitely saved the day.  Manual check-in is 100% fool proof and best of all, we do not have to worry about breakdown.  One up to manual check-in and the rest is history.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Another Check-In Encounter @ Changi Airport

This is another encounter when I was with KLM in the late 80s.  I was supervising at the check-in counter which was handled by our ground handling agent, CIAS.  It was another of our usual evening departure to Europe via Amsterdam.  I noticed a check-in staff was taking longer than usual to check on a passport, she was flipping from page to page.  I then walked over to see if I can be of any help.  At the check-in counter, the staff must ensure validity of our passenger's passport must be more than six months to expiry and depending on his final destination, we have to check for the visa too.  In those days, we have to refer to our hard manual if we are not sure if some nationals need visa for the country they are visiting.  Human error is inevitable.  Failure to check all these will sometimes land the airline into trouble with the authority concerned.  It is therefore safe to say that some authorities will simply push the problem back to the airline, sometimes even fined the airline for its lapses.  During my 5 years with KLM, I witnessed just too many times.  The airline usually ended up with the shorter end of the pole, whereas the people with the stamp of authority are always 'deemed to be right' - rather unfortunate to say.

The passport belonged to this Caucasian male passenger.  The check-in staff was looking for the passport expiry but just couldn't find it anywhere.  I then took over, hoping to find the expiry too.  We flipped from front to back, back to front and to no avail.  Everything was printed in French.  Normally, even French passport will have some English words especially on the validity column but this particular one was extraordinary, not a word in English for our comprehension.  Finally, the passenger got agitated.  He asked what were we checking for and I replied we needed to know his passport expiry date.  He shot back saying, "Didn't you guys go to school?", assuming we should know French language from onset.  I did not pause a second to give him back.  I said, "Sir, we don't go to school to learn French, we study English and if we cannot be sure about your passport expiry, we will not be able to process your boarding pass."  Reluctantly, he flipped on the page which showed the passport expiry in French and he had to translate for us too.  Satisfied, we then proceeded with the check-in.  Thank you for flying with KLM.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Mount Kinabalu Trek 2013

Somewhere near the rest house on the way up, it was more than 3,000 metres high

It is my fourth consecutive climb to Mt Kinabalu climb and barring any unforeseeable, I should be doing my fifth climb next year.  I do not organise many trekking events but Mt Kinabalu is always close to my heart.  It has been an annual ritual of sorts to pay homage, something words can't describe.  Last year, I led a group of 20 and this year, I had 14 comprising a motley group of outdoor enthusiasts, eight men and six ladies from The Philippines, Myanmar, Belgium, India and Singapore.  The oldest member is close to 60, Jimmy who is a friend of mine and he is joining me for the first time.  I must admit the ladies were surprised when they learnt of his age.  Further, he does not look anywhere near 60 age range, one even guessed he is in his 30s.  He even proved that look age aside, he has the fitness and physical strength to reach the summit.  I am impressed, I must say.  Months prior to the trip, some of us did organise a weekly step training at one of the 40-storey flats in Toa Payoh and a 2-round trek up Gunung Pulai in Pontian.  On whole, I was confident this group will do well.                

These ladies were among the first to reach Timpohon Gate after a successive climb

Though it was my fourth climb but each experience is always different.  I developed acute mountain sickness (AMS) in my first climb in 2010, was ill-prepared for that then but with much perseverance, I barely made it to the summit.  The weather is always unpredictable at that high altitude, fine one moment but totally disastrous the next.  We must always prepare well if we do not wish to be caught 'unprepared'.

Our departure was on 2 August by AirAsia from Singapore and it was a late afternoon flight at 1740 hrs.  Our arrival will be late at 2000 hrs and we will have some two hours coach ride to the national park for a night stay at the resort.  13 of us left on the same flight.  Only Jonathan had arrived one day earlier.  Our arrival was on time and very quickly, we cleared the immigration and customs to be met on arrival by our guide from Borneo Trails, Ryan.  A late dinner in Kota Kinabalu town was arranged for us before we set off for the national park.  After our last minute shopping at the kiosk nearby, we were ready to move on.

It was past 2300 hrs when we finally arrived at our resort for the night.  The weather was cold though it was not raining.  Soon, I released the seven keys to everyone.  Milan shared the room with me.  It was too cold to take a bath even though there is water heater.  After brushing my teeth, I went to bed immediately.  I needed as much rest for the climb the next morning.

At 0700 hrs, we were ready to check-out and headed for breakfast at the restaurant near the national park office.  It was cold at about 1,500 metres high.  Three mountain guides were introduced to us.  They are young lads, 19 to 20 years old but they can only speak halting English.  Majority in the group do not need porter service, even for some of the ladies.  They will carry their own load up.  In the midst of arrangement, I realised one member wanted to pass a 1.5 litre of mineral water to the porter to be brought up to the rest house.  No offence to him, I questioned his wisdom.  Why would he want to bring up that extra bottle of 1.5 litre of water when he can top up as much water as he want at the rest house?  Further, he had his own 1.5 litre of water with him which was more than enough.  That bottle of water costs RM1.50 which weighs about 1 kg and the porter will charge RM10 per kg.  This bottled water of his is probably the most expensive in the world if carried up by the porter.  We had a good laugh and when common sense finally prevailed, he took the cue.  The bottle was eventually 'donated' to our tour guide who was not following us to the summit.

We were transported to Timpohon Gate, about five km from the national park office.  We had our group picture taken at the gate before entering the first check point.  Our guides had a brief discussion with us and once done, we were ready to move.  As the expedition leader, I was at the back.  This is to make sure no one is left behind.  Vanja, our lady member from Belgium and friend, Jonathan should be among the first to reach Laban Rata rest house.  Both of them are strong athletics.  The distance from Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata is six km.  If it is walking on flat ground, it will take less than one and an half hour to finish.  We moved off at about 0900 hrs and generally, most should reach before 1500 hrs.  The weather was still cold but no rain.  I was wearing a tee and was in Bermuda shorts.  I did not feel cold as I was on the move.  Further, it was so nice to trek in such a cool weather and I hardly sweat.  Those with me at the back were Jimmy, Huiwen, Swie Min and Rio while the rest quickly disappeared in front of us.  Our pace was steady but not fast, we took about 40 mins to cover one km.  I have learnt a valuable lesson not to walk too fast.  We need to slowly acclimatise to the altitude as we trekked up.  I even made sure I took Diamox pills one day prior to the climb.  The five of us were mostly together up until about four km mark.  One member was complaining that cramp was slowly building up on her but she still pressed on.  I was all the way behind, so too were our two mountain guides who were also carrying our loads.

One member suddenly cried out in pain.  She had pulled a cramp on one of her legs.  I quickly lifted up her leg and pressed hard on the feet in bid to loosen her hardened muscle.  When I thought everything was fine, her other leg started to act up.  Without warning, her cramps started on her left thigh, her right thigh, her left calf and her right calf.  She was in great pain.  I applied muscle relief ointment on her, massaged on her but the pain persisted.  It continued for quite a while.  At this juncture, I was not sure if she could make it to Laban Rata, which has another two gruelling km away.  Jimmy and the rest had already moved on.  After consulting with the two guides, we decided to bring her to Layang Layang which has a living quarter for the rangers.  She probably had to spend the night at Layang Layang if her condition did not improve.  The duty ranger attended to her, brought a pail of warm water to soothe her aching legs.  She downed three glasses of salt water that I made for her.  Ointment was rubbed on her and she rested at Layang Layang for about half an hour.  Fortunately for us, she had recovered enough to resume but this time, I told her to just concentrate on walking while I will carry her backpack.  We took all the time in the world to walk up.  We had plenty of rest.  Finally, we reached Laban Rata which stands more than 3,200 metre high.  It was about 1630 hrs and just about time for dinner too.  The rest had already checked-in and rested.  I heaved a big sigh of relief that she could make it to Laban Rata.

They were the first few to reach the summit and it was really cold 

After dinner, I retired to bed early.  I know from my three previous times, I will not be able to sleep at such altitude but rest is important before making the final attempt to the summit early in the morning.  I was at the restaurant at 0200 hrs and all the ladies were ready to move off.  However, our guides were still not around yet.  We can't move off without our guides.  Early breakfast was served.  I didn't take much, just two slices of blank bread.  We wanted to move off earlier and when I saw our guides, I told them we were ready.  At exactly 0230 hrs, we set off.  The weather was cool.  I was hoping it will remain so for the longest time.  There were many climbers leaving around that time too.  It was still pitched dark and we must have our head light on.  Again, I was covering behind.  Shortly after, one member told me that she was breathing hard and she decided not to carry on.  This was definitely a sign of AMS.  Wise decision for her.  The weather suddenly turned cold and wind was howling at about 30 km per hour.  I was wearing my jacket but did not zip up.  I felt the chill when the strong wind continued to pounce on us. I had to zip up my jacket up to my neck and pull the hood to cover my head.  Adrian, Raymond, Wai and Jimmy was with me.  The wind was so strong that it almost threw us off balance.  We had to hold on to the white rope to balance ourselves.  There was a group of students from Manchester.  One boy was severely suffering from AMS but he was coaxed on by the leader.  I had suffered from AMS previously, I know what was it like and I empathised with the young lad.  He just pressed on.  Along the way, I saw a young Caucasian woman throwing out.  It must be awful for her.  Raymond was breathing hard too.  I was hoping he was alright.  The wind did not seem to have relented.  The howling sound was deafening.  Jimmy was clearly tired but he persevered on.  It was just behind Jimmy and we had to walk on four while balancing on a steep part.  Suddenly I heard something dropped out of Jimmy's pouch.  I saw his new IP-5 sliding down and with a quick hand, I managed to hold on to it.  Had I missed, the phone will slide all the way down.  Lucky for him.  We cannot take too long rest as it was too cold to sit still.  We were near the summit and it was already way past 0600 hrs where first light was supposed to be seen but the foggy weather camouflaged any slightest sign of light.  It still looked like in the dark of night near the summit.  The final ascent to the summit required some physical strength but the joy of reaching the summit simply pushed any tiring climbers to go the extra mile.  I can see that in Raymond, Jimmy and Adrian.  They were too exhausted but they were not prepared to give up.  By then, some of our members were already on the way down.  Among the first few to reach the summit were Jonathan, Vanja, Milan, Swie Min, Rio, Suvidha, Hong Choon and Eunice.  They could not stay long at the summit.  It was just too cold.  All 13 of us reached the summit except for one.

On the way down from the summit

Another picture showing climbers moving down after the summit  

It was a good trip and everyone co-operated and gelled well.  Each of us has personal story to tell and share.  For some, this was their first attempt at such high altitude and nothing beats having achieved such a feat.  I have had enjoyed this outing with this group although it was already my fourth climb.  The one thing that has impressed me greatly is the ladies in our group.  They are so organised, so united and raring to go.  Their overall fitness is awesome too.  For us, guys we certainly have much to catch up but we are not too far off either.  Hooray to all!