a bird in the engine is worth two days in iraq

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When one travels as much as I do you are bound to run into some travel issues. Whether it is the unfortunate confluence of weather-related events, a customs/passport control challenge, the intervention of the airport travel gods, or the less than stellar performance of an airline, these events are to be expected from time to time.

Nearing my 80th country, I have had a string of challenges over the past few months. After the total incompetence of Delta airlines to Senegal in December [two cancelled flights and one mysteriously cancelled ticket – blog post forthcoming] and the cancellation of a Virgin flight to Los Angeles due to a snowstorm in New York in February, I figured I had used up my bad travel karma and should expect not to have any airline scheduling bumps for a while. Or so I thought.

Having spent some time in Iraqi Kurdistan, it was now time to leave. I had booked Austrian Airlines via Vienna, and on the trip back to New York’s JFK I would be spending a night in an airport hotel in Vienna, my next flight leaving the next morning. On departure day, I had traveled several hours by bus from Sulaymaniya in the extreme northeast of Iraq not far from the border with Iran. I then was looking at another four hours or so from Erbil to Vienna.

The Erbil airport is surprisingly modern, and as you can imagine, security is tight. Upon arrival, vehicles are stopped, doors and trunks opened, bomb-sniffing dogs employed, and random drivers and passengers are given the standard pat down security screening [#1]. After that hurdle is cleared, you then arrive at a “Meet and Greet” terminal. This terminal is not for departures or arrivals, it is a separate building at least a kilometer from the actual terminal. Passports and tickets are checked to enter the building, and then you go through a full security screening [#2].

After this screening, you exit the back of the building and take a bus to the actual terminal. Upon arrival at the terminal, to enter departures you must have your passport and ticket checked again. After being ticketed, you then proceed to passport control where your passport and visa are checked [in some cases twice]. Beyond this, there is a lounge and café at which you can purchase overpriced watery coffee in Iraqi dinars or US dollars.

To get to your gate, you must undergo another full security screening [#3] and passport check. After going through all of this, you are in. So it was that I was sitting at the gate at 3:00pm local time waiting to board the 4:00pm flight to Vienna. This is where the story takes a turn.

Some time after 3:00pm, the station manager from Austrian Air made an announcement. Since the PA system was not working, people gathered around to hear what he had to say. Apparently a bird had flown into the plane and had hit above the engine. The engineers took a look at it but had to send photos to the engineers in Vienna for them to make the decision whether or not the flight would go. Unfortunately this was the only plane and the last flight to Vienna from Erbil that day. The only other flights leaving were to Jeddah and Amman.

Some time later we all gathered around the station manager to hear an update. Thanks to that damn bird, we would all be spending another night in Iraq. In order to provide us with supporting evidence as to why the plane was grounded, the station manager actually retrieved the piece of the engine damaged by the bird and showed it to us. This would certainly not happen at JFK.

We were told that we would all be taken to a hotel for the night but it would take some time to process all of us. Further, the part that was needed had to be flown in to Erbil the next day. To complicate matters, the next day was Easter Sunday so staffing in both Vienna and Erbil was minimal. As I spent Christmas in Senegal, now I was to spend Easter in Iraq. As a secular guy, this was fine by me. Keep calm and carry on!

Given that I had gone through passport control and they had closed my visa, I had to go back through passport control at which time they cancelled my exit visa stamp, rendering the entering visa stamp valid once again. Two hours later everyone on the plane had been processed, given hotel vouchers and bussed to the hotel for the night.

The next day, Easter Sunday, all of the security and passport steps listed above had to be done all over again, this time with additional checks due to the fact that the flight we were leaving on [now with a bird-free engine] was not a regularly scheduled flight. I had traveled for twenty- four hours and had gotten nowhere.

As I write this I am in the air half way to Vienna. Had I remembered the old proverb, “a bird in the engine is worth two days in Iraq” perhaps I would have been more prepared.

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