The haggard wraith at Changi International Airport didn't have to speak. His gray unshaven face and rumpled clothes signaled bad news for my attempt to fly to London without a confirmed reservation.
"I've been here three days," he said as we hung around the transfer desk with dozens of people begging for seats out of Singapore to London, Frankfurt, Bombay, Tokyo and elsewhere.Days later, when I was close to resolving my problem, a Singapore Airlines agent advised, "Don't pay for a ticket unless you get a confirmed reservation."
But what if plans change? I had a confirmed reservation to London earlier but stayed in Thailand a few days longer than expected. Now I was waylaid in an airport with the same name as the famed Japanese POW camp of World War II .
My unshaven companion, a West German, said he had suffered a minor injury while vacationing in Thailand. "I decided it was best to go home right away," he said. He reached Singapore easily but got stuck trying for a seat to Frankfurt.
What do you do here for three days?
"No clothes, no shave, just wait," he said.
An hour later came news that I and 27 other standbys wouldn't be flying to London that night on Singapore Airlines. The plane was full, like nine of 11 flights I took in four weeks of travel on Asian airlines starting from Tokyo, up and down Southeast Asia, on to London and back to Tokyo via Singapore.
Statistics show travel in Asia on a steep up curve, and I can vouch for that. Airports were jammed. Tourism in the region may be held back only by a shortage of planes and airport gates.
When my Thai Airways International Airbus landed on the tropical paradise island of Phuket, the first big rush was not to the sparkling beaches but to the airport desk to reconfirm your seat out - essential if you want peace of mind while watching the sunset over the Andaman Sea.
Back to Changi. I decided not to be a prisoner of the airport, though I started to wonder when my first five choices of hotel were all full. Finally a room was available and I spent two days exploring Singapore before I got a standby seat to London.
Why are the planes so full? I asked during a visit to a Singapore Airlines ticket office.
"People want to have a good time now. Now they have money," the agent replied, as if tomorrow the bubble would burst.