Chinese Buffet – Part 20: An Air China Ending

This is the final installment of the 20-part Chinese Buffet series that chronicled the travels of an American woman visiting China for the first time.

Before I begin this story, let me clarify that the airline I write about in this post is Air China, and NOT China Airlines, which has been in the news this week for its frightening runway explosion. However, it should be noted that Air China has received its own share of bad press in recent weeks too.

I had read some of that unsettling news just days before I boarded an Air China flight to Beijing in early July. I was a little leery, but too eager about my trip to lose any sleep over it.

The flight to China on CA982 was fine — once we got off the ground. We were held on the runway at JFK for almost an hour before taking-off, but I blame that on the airport and not the airline.

Three weeks later, I took another Air China flight to leave the country, and this time, it was the airline’s fault that we did not depart on time.

I was headed to Melbourne, Australia. A one-way ticket on Air China was the cheapest I could find without having to make three or four plane changes. In fact, CA177 was a direct overnight flight — ten hours straight to my destination while I slept.

Too good to be true, huh?

I should have been on alert after my ticket purchase fiasco a few weeks prior: I booked over the phone, and arranged for an Air China messenger to deliver the paper ticket to where I was staying in Shanghai. There was no e-ticket option available, so the messenger also brought a credit card machine so we could complete the sale on the spot. That proved to be quite an ordeal, since he could not get a signal for the portable machine, and subsequently spent an hour walking around the parking lot of the Green Court apartments in Pudong trying to get the transaction to go through. After several phone calls and lots of pacing, the sale was eventually completed.

I didn’t want to admit it, but this seemed a warning sign that things might not go smoothly. If it was this complicated to buy an airline ticket in China, what was to be expected at the airport and on the flight?

Uh….this:

I showed up at Pudong International about 3:30 pm on August 1. The flight was supposed to start boarding at 5:30 and I think this sign (with the wrong airline name on it!) was posted at 6:30. “Mechanical Trouble” is so much worse than a bad weather or air traffic delay — suddenly there were a bazillion unknowns, and nothing to do but sit around and wonder about all of them while we waited for flight status updates.

In this case, no news was certainly NOT good news.

About an hour later, with no further announcements, dinner was served! Passengers started lining up in the boarding area for dishes of warm rice and pork — the actual meals that we would have received on the plane:

At this point I was happy to have befriended a great gal from South Dakota (of all places!!!) named Emily. A photographer, world traveler and blogger too, Emily and I soon learned that we had much in common and plenty to talk about. Which was a wonderful distraction from the fact that we had no clue whether or not we’d be boarding a (possibly “malfunctioning”) airplane.

About an hour after they fed us, there was an announcement made in Chinese and everyone started to move. An airport staff woman approached Emily and I, explaining that, “The shuttle will now take you to the hotel.”

We were corralled back through immigration into China again, then bused off to our “Super 8 meets Motel 6″ airport hotel:

Thank goodness I had a cool roommate that kept me laughing, and well-connected with her high-tech travel gear. Emily, who had recently moved to Shanghai, was headed to Sydney on a business trip (CA177 flies to Sydney after Melbourne), and was traveling with a GSM mobile and laptop. She let me borrow the phone to contact my friends in Australia, and use the web to shoot an email to family back home. We chatted about blogging, looked at each other’s photos online, and laughed at our freakishly similar sleeping attire — a Kodak moment, no doubt:

The only instructions we received from the hotel staff was to stay put in our rooms and wait for a call in the morning to return to the airport. Needless to say, I did not sleep well and was on alert when the call finally came at 6:30 am:

“Hello, please come quickly! The buses will leave for airport at 6:30!!”

I looked out the window to see folks already boarding bus number one. We frantically gathered our belongings and hopped on the third shuttle bus within ten minutes. Back at the airport, we then went through immigration again and resumed the waiting game. They directed us back to the same gate where the same “mechanical troubles” sign still stood.

It was hard to tell if I was uninformed because of the language barrier, or because Air China was keeping us in the dark about what was going on. I think it was a bit of both, because I definitely saw Chinese passengers complaining and asking questions. I just had no clue as to the specifics of the scenario.

Eventually, boarding began, and as passengers went through, an Air China official gave each person 500 RMB as compensation for their troubles. But lots of people were still not happy — there was all sorts of discontent among the crowd. We asked for someone to translate. Folks were questioning the safety of the plane, demanding more money back and refusing to board.

Although I too had my concerns about the safety of the plane, I was not interested in hanging out with an angry airport mob. I figured that if the pilot was willing to fly it, the plane must be in good condition. I had to believe it was safe to fly. So I boarded, and spent two hours watching these guys remove luggage from the cargo bin for passengers who had decided not to go through with the flight. It was all quite nerve-racking…

And I had lost my new buddy too! Emily and I parted ways when I chose to get on the plane and she called off her business trip to Australia. There was no longer any point in waiting to see when the flight might leave — she’d never make her meeting in Sydney on time.

I think it was sometime around 1 pm when we finally departed. For much of the flight, I fought off a nagging fear that the “mechanical troubles” would return. It was the first time I’ve ever felt afraid to fly, and at one point I did breakdown and shed a few tears of exhaustion. I ate very little of my last Chinese meal since nerves had by now wreaked havoc on my stomach.

But I love flying, and this experience hasn’t changed my opinion. Although I felt clueless throughout much of the delay, Air China did “take care of us” to some degree — they fed us, gave us a place to stay, and efficiently transported us to and from the airport hotel. I sat next to a Chinese man on the flight who was angry that other Chinese passengers refused to board without additional compensation. He was right, it was frustrating — we would have departed much earlier if these folks had not held out for more money. (In the end we each got 800 RMB for our troubles.)

Last I heard from Emily, she was still trying to get a refund for her ticket from Air China. You can read her version of our adventure here. (Be sure to look at the funny Chinglish signs from our motel room!)

After those flying solo tears were done, I took some deep breaths and selected a movie for my viewing pleasure. This delayed departure from China could have happened in any country — it was not a uniquely Chinese experience. Although, I sensed something orderly about the chaos of the airplane debacle that had surfaced at other moments during my three weeks in the country.

It’s challenging to find the right words to close with — because this was simply an introduction, an overview, an appetizer. I left China slightly frazzled, but satisfied with my first look at the PRC. I suspect that so much will change before I return (even if it’s just a year or two from now!), that it might feel like an introduction all over again, the second time around.