What the heck Lion Air: How We Almost Never Made It To Bali From Ambon
Indonesia is a beautiful country that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. Like a drug, I keep coming back to explore her mystical far-flung corners. Mostly untouched by mass tourism and usually promising a great deal of adventure, Indonesia can be so much fun but there’s often a price to pay.
The price is, you can never rely on its transportation network.
Maybe the ferry leaves today, maybe it doesn’t–Depends, the locals shrug. Maybe you lucky.
Sometimes, it isn’t only inefficient, it’s also dangerous. If I survive this taxi ride from Tulehu port to Kota Ambon, I’ll call my dad and tell him that I love him. These thoughts race through my head each time I find myself in a taxi or a minivan in Indonesia.
And the planes? Don’t get me started. Here’s our recent flight comedy of sorts with Lion Air at Ambon and Makassar airports.
Of course, being a non-virgin Lion Air passenger, I knew what to expect. Wing’s Air, Lion Air’s subsidiary, had lost my backpack on my flight from Maumere to Surabaya, and guess what? I never saw that backpack ever again. Then, there’s also the infamous flight delays that I’ve had the pleasure enduring, usually more than two hours.
So when deciding on flights in and out of Ambon for our recent honeymoon trip, Lion Air’s name resurfaced. We weighed our options and thought of giving Lion Air the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they’ve bucked up after all these years. When I ran a poll amongst Facebook friends, many yelled caution against the decision.
Don’t do it or you’ll regret it!
But we didn’t have much of a choice. We could get to Ambon from KL via Makassar with AirAsia and Garuda but leaving Ambon hadn’t leave us with many options. Sriwijaya Air would take taken at least six hours while Garuda eight or more. For the second part of the honeymoon, we wanted to get to Bali and we wanted to be there earliest possible.
Since Banda Islands isn’t exactly the most accessible place in Indonesia, we’d to craft our travel itinerary carefully. Given our limited time, we tried to make our days count. No staying overnight unless absolutely necessary. Take the shortest route available. Pray for a smooth journey. We didn’t need transportation to run like a Swiss clock, but as long as it departs, some time within the allocated day, we’d be grateful.
A FLIGHT COMEDY OF SORTS: THE FIRST DELAY
Our flight into Ambon from Makassar by Garuda took off without a hitch. Apart from a 30-min delay, we had no further complaints.
That day, we checked out at 5.30 am from our hotel and got our boarding passes for Denpasar with a 30-min layover in Makassar by 6.45am. By 7.50 am, we were sitting comfortably in Lion Air, buckled up and preparing for departure. Chris and I had looked at each other excitedly, feeling a wave of relief. Who said there’s anything to worry about?
At 8.15 am, the plane still hasn’t departed. The front door that was initially closed was now opened again. What’s going on? A few minutes later, the Captain said that there has been a technical problem and they were resolving it as soon as they could. “Thank you for your patience and sorry for the inconvenience,” he’d said, signing off.
Oh, maybe it’s nothing. We relaxed. But 20 minutes later, the Captain announced that the technical problem may need an hour to be resolved. Could passengers get off the plane and wait in the airport instead? Oh uh.
Passengers sighed and moaned as they clambered to take their carry-on luggage from the overhead compartment and trudged slowly through the aisle.
I felt a sinking dread in the pit of my stomach.
Now we can forget about catching our connecting flight in Makassar. With an hour of delay, there was no way in world we’d make it.
Lion Air staff had initially told us that if our flight was late, the connecting flight would wait. But which connecting flight would wait so long? So we went to the ground staff again to reassess our situation. The check-in lady assured us that we’d still be able to get into Bali that day, but we’d have to catch the 4.00pm connecting flight from Makassar instead.
Really? Could it fit us all? What about the connecting flight boarding passes?
Oh, no problem. We’ll just get them at Makassar when we arrive.
It reassured us somewhat but not completely. Nonetheless, it was only another hour to wait. No point getting upset over just an hour of delay.
There were also a few other travellers who shared our fate: a middle-aged French couple, a young Scandinavian couple, a few French and an English team. Bali seemed to be a rather popular destination after Banda Islands.
PLAYING THE WAITING GAME: 3 HOURS LATER AND NO SIGNS OF LEAVING
But of course, an hour passed and the flight’s departure was to be rescheduled to 11.00 am. Another two hours?!?!?! Are they for real? Through the glass walls of the boarding gate, we could see staff scurrying around, trying to get the plane repaired.
Meanwhile, we received water and cookies while waiting. Better than nothing, the forever-more-patient Chris said.
All we wanted to do is to get to Bali that day. The plan was to arrive by noon and have the day in front of us. But judging from our current situation, it wasn’t going to happen. Frustration set in. We couldn’t find a silver lining out of the situation. The only thing we could do then was to enjoy our cookies and surf the free Airport WiFi on our phones.
This story could well end if I tell you that at 11am, the plane was ready to fly. But at 11am, there were still no announcements. Instead we saw staff piling up the table by the gates with white boxes. Could they be lunch? Chris went over to take a look.
He came back with two boxes of lunch and water. In them were some steamed rice, leafy vegetables and some kind of meat. We were famished and we dug in.
Somehow, even without hearing any announcements, we knew that the waiting game wasn’t over. Now it was a matter of how long or if we would ever, ever leave Ambon airport.
Even the other Western travellers, and local passengers by then were starting to get antsy. Finally at 11.30 am, they told us that the flight was now set to depart at 1.00 in the afternoon. Another groan escaped from the crowd; the loudest coming from the Indonesian passengers. It was nothing personal, of course. Everyone was generally inconvenienced by the delay. I was sure there were locals waiting to get home to their families, on a holiday like us or for whatever reason, needed to take that very flight that day.
After disposing our lunch boxes, Chris went to Lion Air’s office to see if there was anything else they could do. What about compensation? We’ve been waiting for ages! The lady in-charge then reluctantly admitted that we’d all be compensated with 300,000 IDR (about 30 AUD/RM100) each as our flight was delayed for more than four hours.
“Some Lion Air staff would come to the waiting hall to distribute some forms for us to fill up at noon,” she said. “Then, you could get your money and be on your way at 1pm.”
She said it with such conviction that we almost believed her.
CONFUSION AT LION AIR’S OFFICE
While waiting, I chatted with Jean, a middle-aged French tourist. Since he has lots of time during retirement, he and his wife have been travelling for several months around Indonesia. Before Banda Islands, they were in Raja Ampat and Togean Islands. Raja Ampat has always been in my bucket list, so I pelted him with questions.
Halfway through the conversation, Jean was called away by his wife. 10 minutes later, they came back, breathlessly revealing to us that the English couple and they are switching their tickets to Batik Air instead. Apparently, there’s a flight heading to Makassar in half and hour and we better hurry.
“There’s a big mess now in the office so you better do it soon!” said Jean’s wife. By now, no one thinks that our Lion Air flight is ever going to leave. The best option is to get them changed to Batik Air, and at no extra cost.
Super cool–except, what the hell is going on in the office? There were people everywhere, and most of all lots of papers flying around. It wasn’t a big office. There was only a desk with an old computer hooked up to dot-matrix printers and a confused lady staring at the screen. The other door at the end of the office opened up to the check-in counter, from the back.
“Could we change our tickets to Batik Air?” Chris asked the confused looking lady at the desk. She thumped a few keys on the keyboard before nodding a hesitant yes. But she kept typing and gave no further information. We stood there like idiots, confused and weren’t sure how to proceed next. Would she eventually tell us how or would she help us do it? Or should we approach the other women by the check-in counter?
“Do you need our passports?” I asked but she ignored me. Outside at the check-in counters, the English guy was staring blankly at the commotion, looking equally frustrated. In his hands were a handful of papers and passports.
“Any idea what’s going on?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “No clue whatsoever. We just got our tickets changed from Lombok to Bali, since we’ve already missed our connection to Lombok for the day. But I’m still waiting for those darn passes.”
How are they going to change our tickets without our information? A few minutes passed before we pressed again for more information. Are they going to change our tickets?
In the end, they made us write our names down on a piece of paper. After a few more yells around the office, another lady asked us for our passports. We normally weren’t pushy people but the Batik Air flight was about to take off in 15 minutes and we still haven’t got any passes.
Still, no one would tell us what was going on and we just had to wait. I struck up a conversation a friendly Indonesian guy who was standing next to me, looking totally unperturbed by it all. He said being overworked and anxious wouldn’t help in this situation. Just stay cool, he advised. He was going to Bali too, and like us, he was waiting for his turn for his new tickets.
Do we need to re-check in with these new Batik Air boarding passes? He shook his head no. Then he asked one of the staff who walked past us to confirm and she said yes. Eh? By now, he too looked confused. He asked again. A volleyball of questions and answers went on before we confirmed that we’ve already been checked in and needn’t to do it again outside.
At some point, the second lady came back with our passports and shouted out our names. As we eagerly appeared in front of her, she thrusted our new boarding passes into our hands.
“What about our compensation?” Chris asked. “We need to board now and we need to get the money!” She scowled and motioned us to wait. She printed out some forms for us to fill out, we signed our names and she gave us a total of 600K IDR as compensation. Relieved and part exhilarated, we took everything and ran to the boarding gate with our backpacks. Thankfully, as we didn’t have check-in luggage, we didn’t need to worry about having our luggage taken out of the problematic Lion Air plane and onto the Batik Air.
Eventually we did eventually leave Ambon on Batik Air (after a 20 minutes delay) and got ourselves to Makassar airport. Here we had to rush to the Transit Counter to get our new 4.00pm boarding passes.
At Makassar airport, we sat and waited for another and a half for our last flight of the day. We were so exhausted and sick of having to wait around. We weren’t even surprised, when at 4.00pm, they announced that our flight to Bali has been rescheduled to 5.20 pm.
Our day has already been riddled with frustrating delays and confusing instructions. What was another delay? We didn’t bat an eyelid either when the boarding announcement sent us on a game of musical chairs. First to Gate 4, and then to Gate 5 and then back to Gate 4. It was ridiculous.
At Gate 4, we looked at the screen. The staff was shouting “Boarding for Denpasar (Bali) airport!” but the screen showed Jakarta instead. When asked, the staff doubled confirmed that this was the flight going to Bali and not to Jakarta as the screen had projected.
Sure, sure. I’ll only believe it when I get to Bali.
Needless to say, when we eventually and finally hauled our asses to Bali, the sun was already sinking in the horizon. What was meant to be a mere three hour flight had taken us about 11!
At Samkhya Villas, our accommodation for the next few days in Ubud, Bali, the young Balinese receptionist asked: “How was your journey so far?”
I’d looked at Chris. How do we even begin to answer that?
“We’re just very happy to have arrived.”
TOP TIPS FOR DEALING WITH FLIGHT WOES IN INDONESIA
The above story isn’t to discourage you from travelling Indonesia or from taking Lion Air. As Indonesia’s local low-cost carrier, Lion Air’s network is extensive. It services especially the hard-to-get-to places like Luwuk, Ampana or Ambon so it’s really hard to avoid them if those are the places that you’re heading to. They’re affordable and they have plenty of flights but they’re just really unreliable.
Lessons gained from my earlier flight experiences, here’s what you can do if you find yourself in a similar situation:
- Claim your rightful compensation
If your flight has been delayed for more than 4 hours, claim those Rupiah! It might not appear to be much to some but it’s still something for your inconvenience. We’d received 300K IDR each but this figure might vary depending on destinations, circumstances, etc.
- Solve the problems on your own
The option of changing our tickets to Batik Air weren’t offered by Lion Air. The staff had only told us to sit tight and wait. If we’d have waited as they’d suggested, we would still be stranded in the airport that day. It was the English or the Scandinavians who’d hatched out the idea before sharing it with us. They took matters into their hands and figured out another way out. For that, we’re forever grateful. When in doubt, google your way out!
- Travel light
Travel without a checked-in baggage. This was our 3-week honeymoon trip and we brought no more than our 7kg backpacks. This has allowed us to switch flights easily, leave airports without having to wait around for our luggage and so on. Basically, we were mobile and flexible. In a situation like above, it’d have been way messier if we’d to also deal with our luggage. We’d have needed to get staff to open up the luggage storage compartment, and move it from one plane to another. In moments of great rush, we’d have lost a lot of time doing so. Besides, after a flight delay, we couldn’t face dealing with another issue like missing luggage.
- Patience is your best friend
Yes, you may experience a few delays. Yes, you won’t get clear and standard information. Yes, you won’t get anything better apart from lunch boxes or meal vouchers for your inconvenience and time wasted. Yes, things often break down and don’t work. Yes, your only option is to sit and wait. And the greatest way to bearing with it all is be patient. There’s no point in expecting efficiency and hassle-free experience when it comes to flying Indonesian low-cost carriers. Instead of getting overtly aggressive and upset, listen to some music or hang out with your travelling companion. Be firm with the airlines if you’ve the right to compensation but don’t get mad. Remember, yelling at people and kicking up a fuss won’t get you anywhere. In fact, adopt patience for the entire duration of your travels through Indonesia and you’ll have your sanity intact.
Have you ever encountered flight inconveniences? How was your transportation experience in Indonesia?