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Better Luck Next Time, Sydney Airport

The plane hits the pavement. I look at the clock.

10:51.

Check-in for my next flight closes at 11:45.

I do the math slowly in my head. 54 minutes to get through customs, collect my bags, and make it upstairs to check-in.

Easy peasy.

Well, it should be easy peasy, except for one problem – this is Sydney Airport. Things don’t move so quickly in Sydney Airport.

Ten minutes pass and we’re all still sitting on the plane. I peek over the heads in front of me, trying to see what’s going on, but all I see is a long queue of vegetating passengers.

I have a bad feeling about today. I have a feeling that, I dunno, maybe Sydney Airport is out to get me.

Finally we start moving. I don’t have a watch, or a phone, but I glance at the time on the girl’s phone beside me.

10:59. 46 minutes.

I should make it.

As I get off the plane, I walk briskly down to arrivals, ready to head straight through as I’ve filled out all my forms on the plane. Or so I thought.

“Ebola form, everybody needs to fill out an Ebola form,” I hear a lady saying. I head over and take one, and start trying to fill it out while walking through the crowd. “Why the f**k didn’t they give me this on the plane,” I curse under my breath.

I’m starting to think I was right. Sydney Airport is out to get me.

As I get to customs I head straight to the Smart Gate machine, which should help me avoid the massive queue of Chinese passengers that have arrived on my flight. I flip open my passport and slide it in, waiting patiently for the machine to do its thing. The loading circles spin and spin for what seems like forever, and then an error screen pops up.

“We cannot process you today. Please head to the Assistance Desk.”

FUCK. I knew it.

Sydney Airport is out to get me.

I line up for the assistance desk, which luckily moves quite fast. I get to the front within a few minutes and hand my passport to the lady.

“Are you just in transit?” she asks, glancing over my form.

“Yes.”

“When’s your next flight?”

“12:45.”

“12:45?? Are you going to get through in time?”

“Well, I’m trying,” I smile. “What’s the time now?”

“11:12.” 

She hands back my passport and waves me through.

I quickly do the math again in my head. 33 minutes before check-in closes. Phew, I think to myself, relaxing a little. As long as they don’t take forever with my bag, I should get through with plenty of time to spare.

But soon I realise that’s a little naïve. Of all the airports I’ve been through Sydney has always been one of the slower ones, and of course on this day, they decide to take forever with my bag.

A guy stands beside me tinkering on an iPad. I glance at the time. 11:20. No bag.

11:25. No bag.

11:30. No bag.

This can’t be happening.

Sydney Airport is out to get me.

By now I’m endlessly muttering the most horrible of words under my breath while simultaneously praying to all the Gods I can think of. F***, s*** you m***** f****** Aussies can you please f****** bring out my m***** f****** bag already.

At that moment, after almost twenty minutes, my bag magically pops out onto the belt. I roll my eyes, grab it, and rush over to the quarantine line. Ten minutes ago it was completely empty, but as luck would have it, there’s about 15 people in front of me now.

An officer walks past and I stop him.

“Excuse me sir, check-in for my flight closes in 15 minutes, I know it’s a long shot but is there any way at all you can get me through this line a little faster?”

“If it’s in 15 minutes you’ve already missed it mate, ‘cause ya gotta get over to the domestic terminal first.”

“No, it’s an international flight, it’s just upstairs.”

“Well mate, if it’s an international flight and it leaves in 15 minutes you’ve missed it as well,” he laughs.

I’m not sure if he’s an idiot or just being stupid on purpose.

“No, it’s an international flight and the check-in closes in 15 minutes, I can make it if I can just get through here a little faster.”

He looks at me with a confused look, and walks away.

“Thank you,” I shout as I watch him walk off, quietly muttering a few F words in his direction.

Ok, Sydney Airport. I get it. You’re out to get me.

As I stand in the quarantine line, I decide the battle is over. I don’t have a watch and my phone is dead, but I’m guessing I have about 10 minutes to make the flight, and there’s no way I’m getting through this line in 10 minutes, let alone upstairs and to my check-in counter. I grit my teeth with frustration, and my mind starts cycling through the five stages of grief.

First comes anger. F*** this shitty airport and their half-arse processing.

Next, bartering. Maybe, if I bribe one of these officers to let me through first I could still make it?

Then, denial. No way. I don’t miss flights. I’ve never missed a flight in my life. These clocks are all wrong and I’m still gonna make it.

Then, in the midst of my denial I find myself at the front of the line.

The officer glances at my form and sends me over to an inspection desk.

“Station number two,” he points, waving me through.

I rush over to the table and lift my bag up. Just as I do so, the lady pulls off her gloves and starts walking off somewhere.

“Just give me two seconds darling, I’ll be right back.”

I smile and nod, and then visualise myself punching her in the nose with brass knuckles on.

Sydney Airport is still out to get me.

I turn and watch her chat to some lady for thirty seconds, probably about the latest issue of House and Garden. I grit my teeth, quickly losing my patience. How much time do I have? I have no idea.

Finally I open my mouth to say something but just before the words come out she turns back and returns to the table.

She picks up my card and looks it over slowly.

“Do you have any nuts, seeds, plants, fruits….”

I watch her lips move in slow motion, slowly shaking my head without really hearing what she’s saying.

“Ok, you can go.”

Almost in shock that she didn’t want to check my socks for caterpillar eggs, I decide I might have about 90 seconds to get upstairs before check-in closes. I question for a second whether I should even bother trying, but then I slap some sense into myself. I’m a traveller. This is what we do. NBA players sink three-pointers over a double team in Game 7 with three seconds to go. Lawyers give impassioned closing arguments to swing the jury and win impossible cases. And travellers, we catch flights. This is what we do.

I grab my backpack, throw my jacket under my arm, and I run. I sprint. Flurrying out of the arrivals gate, I draw the attention of almost everyone in the building. Some look at me with amusement, like I’m a Chinese madman overexcited to see his long lost family. Some look at me with terror, as if I’ve just planted a bomb and perhaps they should be running too. But I don’t care.

All those hours in the gym, this is what they were for. I run and run and run, weaving through the crowd, sprinting for my life, gasping for oxygen while dragging 16kg behind me with one arm and holding my backpack under the other. I get to the escalator and haul my luggage up, my arm slowly turning to jelly. Others sense my urgency and move to the side, looking at me with confusion.

As I finally get to the departures floor, I take two seconds to catch my breath while looking at the check-in screen.

Fiji Airways….Fiji Airways……..where the f*ck is Fiji Airways…….

C1!!

I look up at the signs of the counters in front of me.

H, I, J, K.

You’re fucking kidding me. As luck would have it, I’m probably as far away from my counter as I could possibly be.

I guess Sydney Airport really, really wants to get me.

In the back of my head I’m almost certain the check-in closed a long time ago, but as the greats say, better to try and fail, than to not try at all.

I squint and look across to the far end of the airport, seeing counter C way in the distance. Almost instantly, I break into a full sprint once again. I’ve got hardly anything left in the tank, but this is the home straight now. All or nothing.

The counters go past in one big blur; H….G….F…..

My legs are barely holding up, but they manage to keep moving.

E….D……..

As I approach counter C, I see the Fiji Airways sign and stumble over to the desks.

“Excuse me…..

Excuse me..…sir,” I gasp, sweat dripping down my face, half collapsed on the counter.

“Check in……..for Nadi………”

His eyes jump.

“Nadi! Shit mate you better hurry up, it’s about to close in a few seconds!”

He jumps up out of his chair runs over to one of the computers, tapping away furiously.

“Hand me your passport mate. You’re checking in a bag? How much does it weigh?”

“About 15…” I say, still gasping for breath.

Without even putting it on the scale he jams it all into the computer, while I pull my passport from my back pocket and hand it over to him.

I watch his eyes running furiously across the screen, at the same time shouting out orders to the ladies around him. Obviously this guy didn’t get the memo about the airport being out to get me.

Almost like robots, the staff tag my bag, chuck it onto the belt, and process my ticket at light speed. I’m still in a daze as I watch them move around me in a blur. As I stand there, leaned over the counter, I notice the small puddle that’s collected from the beads of sweat dripping off the tip of my nose. I look at it and smile. Have I really made it? 

And then, I finally hear it – the beautiful sound of my boarding pass coming out of the printer.

The guy at the desk slots it into my passport, breaths a sigh of relief, and looks up at me with a nervous smile.

“Far out, mate, literally, you just made it. I have never, ever seen anyone make it by that close. I printed your boarding pass and the check-in closed literally a split second later,” he laughs.

“Thank you man, I really, really, really appreciate it,” I say, still barely able to breathe.

“No worries mate, have a good flight, head straight to the gate please,” he smiles, handing over my passport and boarding pass.

I nod, collect my things, and head straight to the gate.

I quietly wonder to myself whether Sydney Airport will fight to the end, but they don’t. I head through customs and security without issue, leisurely stroll to the gate, and step onto the plane.

In the end, a valiant effort, but it just wasn’t quite enough.

Sorry, Sydney Airport.

You can’t get me.

Photo credit: onefound @ Flickr

Shout-out to Fiji Airways for their awesome staff who managed to check-me in at light speed and also to Sydney Airport for keeping life interesting. Until next time.

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27 thoughts on “Better Luck Next Time, Sydney Airport

  1. “What time is it, GAME TIME!”

    Shot Bren, Glad to hear you made it in the end. Such as good read, Had me hanging in there wondering what was going to happen next!

    Phillip

  2. Sydney airport really sucks!! Caught 8 flights last December/January and apart from Ho Chi Minh City airport (with the stupid visa issue), Sydney airport was the worst to get through. Took so long to get through arrivals, baggage took over half an hour to arrive, and another 40-50 minutes to get through quarantine. Accidentally left a bag back near the baggage carousel so had to wait another 40 mins for it to be brought out. Luckily we allowed 3 hours in transit otherwise would’ve missed our next flight.
    Other than that the food from the Turkish place there was the crappest I’ve ever had at an airport, greasy and fatty meat cut off the rack, definitely didn’t have a good experience at Sydney Airport.
    Daniel

    1. No, I’m not happy to know that at all, you need to go there and beat it back! I think though, it beats quite a few people, and will probably beat me too sooner or later.

  3. We are planning to visit our daughter and my grandsons in Auckland this year, via Sydney. And just reading your horrendous experience discourages me and my wife.We are both in our mid sixties and cannot sprint as you can . Can you pls. advise on what we should do to avoid this .Thank you so much.

    1. Hi Rolando, just give yourself plenty of time in transit when you book your flights. I only had an hour to make my check-in (2 hours to make the flight) – that should be enough time in most airports but probably not Sydney. Give yourself at least 2.5 to 3 hours and you should be fine!

  4. Haha this is amazing – I totally empathise. It seems super slow and frustrating after transiting through Asia. I had a similar experience in Australia when my travel buddy was nearly denied on our flight to NZ due to some visa confusion (it turned out to be nothing) so we ended up sprinting! Not nearly as close as yours though. But in both cases, at least it wasn’t in the US..

  5. Stylish writing … I felt all your emotions in such a thrilling sprint to ultimate relief. I have had a similar experience but not that intense. An hour between connecting international flights is never enough … and not just at Sydney Airport.

    1. Well, it was actually two hours between flight times. So it wasn’t one hour to make the flight, it was one hour to just get through customs and quarantine and make check-in – that should be more than enough time in any airport. In Asia (and even NZ) I usually get through processing in less than 30 minutes, easily. Sometimes fifteen.

  6. Thanks for the clarification Bren! Yes, there are well functioning airports out there, as you’ve rightly pointed out. I did not mean to redeem Sydney Airport’s crapness (oops) in any way.

  7. After reading your post I felt like I was there hahaha crazy! Great writing. I´ll be in Sydney this Sunday flying from Ecuador and then I´m taking a flight to Cairns. I have exactly 2 and half hours. Hope I can make it haha

    1. If I had two and a half I would’ve been fine, so hopefully you will too. Safe travels!

      P.S. Super jealous you’re in Ecuador – miss that place so much.

  8. I had similar experience back in JFK when they took their time to do a body pat down inspection when I failed their palm swapping inspection! The officers left me waiting clueless in a room and by the time they were done, I’m sure I was seen sprinting across like some mad woman with shoes in her hands across all the gates to catch a flight which closed it doors barely within seconds of me entering the plane ! Phew.. An experience to behold and something that I would probably never forget !

  9. Glad it all worked out for you! If you are every flying international into Dallas-Fort Worth (Texas, USA) and have a connecting domestic flight you’re pretty much screwed if you have less than 3 hours. From international to domestic is at least 15 minutes by shuttle between the terminals (that place is huge). Our flight was 20 minutes late landing and I only had an hour (which sounds like a lot). They let me cut in line (customs, bags etc) and everything and I literally killed myself to get there and still missed my flight by 20 minutes -.- I had to wait 5 hours for a new connecting flight and had been up 48 hours by then. WORST EXPERIENCE EVER!

  10. Very well told story, I am not a english expert but I was there anxious to see what was going to happen next! Nice one!

    Sydney Airport never caught me on it’s site but once when living there it sent me back to the city because of an airplane problem, and just a while ago I couldn’t even board in Rio (flying to Sydney). Seems like they had made some mistake with my transit visa and apparently my number was invalid, despite of the letter I received was saying “you have granted your visa” and yeah I didn’t know the airline had the authority to not board me if my visa was “wrong”, I thought I could solve this once landed in Australia, but nah..

    A new visa conceded to me a two weeks later didn’t help that much and obviously I missed my flight and my trip..

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