New experiences often begin with banality, a step into a new world with something that is familiar to everyone.
Well, I’m no stranger to awful flight experiences. A man of my altitude (purely a guess, I’m taller than 99.9% of the people in China) does not do well in seats boasting an average 28″ pitch, and I’m not ALWAYS quite on time for my flights (August 2009, I missed three flights on one trip.) This one tops it all so far, and I hope anyone googling information about exploretrip.com exploretrip.com exploretrip.com (a discount online ticketing agency) reads this post before buying a ticket from those… well, lets not call names.
I was on time for my flight easily. I arrived at the airport just before 10 a.m. for a 12:20 p.m. departure (thanks for dropping me off, Ms. Sara), and I checked in immediately with all 120 lbs of luggage. I really had to lug that stuff around the whole trip… no wonder they call it luggage! (Banality #1)
So, I checked in, and Delta charged me 60 dollars for two checked bags. This didn’t make sense to me, because 2 bags are usually free on international flights. Even though I was connecting at JFK, the bags should have been free. I asked the check-in lady, and she said there was no connecting flight showing on the itinerary. As far as Delta was concerned, I was headed to New York to hang out with Bloomberg and club everywhere the Sex and the City girls clubbed.
It took me about 30 seconds to figure out that exploretrip.com exploretrip.com exploretrip.com had booked TWO separate itineraries, one domestic flight to JFK, and a second from JFK to Beijing, continuing to Wuhan. Most of the time, this wouldn’t be a problem, except my flight out of Atlanta was scheduled to land at JFK at 2:50 p.m., and my flight to Beijing departed at 4:50 p.m. The latest I could check into my flight to Beijing was the very moment I was scheduled to land. I supposed I could have instantaneously transported myself from the plane to baggage claim and then to the check in counter at the next terminal over, but in that case, I probably would have forgone a flight and just transported directly to Wuhan.
I asked Delta if I could get on an earlier flight without a fee. My baggage would arrive on the original flight, but perhaps I could arrive to JFK and at least get my boarding pass. They said it would be $50, but there was no earlier flight anyway. I calculated in my head repeatedly, if the flight takes off at 12:20pm, it should really only take a little less than 2 hours to get there, so if I really ended up landing at 2:20pm, I might have just enough time to get my baggage and figure out where to check-in in time to make my flight, and everything would be ok. I doubted this could really happen, flights never take off exactly at the published departure time, and often don’t land on-time either. But there was little I could do about it but hope. (Banality #2)
I ate some Wendy’s and wrote a letter to my grandmother, who I hadn’t written in over 6 months. I was lucky enough to have spotted a post office in the airport in previous visits. If not, I never would have even assumed an airport would have one available. I dropped off the letter and went through security.
The plane boarded on time, but it wasn’t long before any shred of hope to make my flight to China evaporated. We continued to sit until well past 12:30 before the crew announced that we would be delayed because they had not loaded food and drinks on the plane. “This kind of delay should never happen, but it did, and we apologize for any inconvenience.” A number of people complained audibly that they had connecting flights to Nigeria. I wondered myself, can a plane full of adults not go 2 hours without a beverage? Which is the bigger rip-off, a flight without a half can of Coca-Cola, or being late?
Finally, we pushed off and taxied to the runway. We were only second in line, good luck for an afternoon flight. In a few moments, we were ready to take off. Then the pilot announced that because of a mechanical problem, we had to return to the gate, and it would take who-knows-how-long to fix whatever was wrong, which of course was expressed “we hope the fix won’t take too long.”
It took about an hour.
We took off around 2:30, 20 minutes before we were scheduled to land. By the time I had my baggage (another very long wait), my flight to Beijing was set to take off. I saw an Air China jumbo jet from the sidewalk starting to push off as I entered the terminal, wondering, and pretty certain, it was the plane I was supposed to be on.
Like a desert mule, I lugged around all my baggage until I found the Air China desk. It was closed. There wasn’t even anyone around to talk to. After lugging around a while longer, I was told I should talk to Lufthansa, and they didn’t really have any answers either. A very nice lady there gave me the number to Air China and made some suggestions of how to deal with the airlines.
The advantage of having a connecting flight is that the airline will take responsibility if the domestic flight is late. They’ll rebook you for free, with no additional fee for the difference of fares from one day to the next, and usually put you in a hotel near the airport if there is no later flight that particular day. Sometimes, they’ll even put you on another airline. And maybe best of all, they’ll hold your baggage for you. These are all benefits I knew at the outset I wouldn’t have since these… well, let not call names… sold me the dumbest flight itinerary humanly possible.
The very nice lady’s advice was that other airlines will be a little nicer to you even if it is not the same itinerary. The extent of this kindness, at least in my case, was limited to no rebooking fee. Talking to Air China I learned there was no flight until the following day around 6pm. I would have to find my own hotel and transportation. I would have pay a fare difference of 500-600 dollars (80% of the what I’d paid to exploretrip for both flights together… it would nearly double what I’d originally paid.) I would have to take all my baggage with me where ever I went in the next 24 hours. And worst of all, I wouldn’t be on more than a waiting list, because the following day’s flight was already full.
My only option left was to call exploretrip and light a fire under their asses, but that only goes so far over the phone. I explained the ordeal, and they insisted that you must only be checked in 1 hour prior to an international flight. I demanded they get me on another flight with no charge to me. The guy on the phone looked around for a while, there was silence over a half hour phone call other than tippity type type typing, and then endless pleas that there were no flights to Beijing throughout the entire region. I asked if they could just get me into the country, get me to Shanghai, get me to Hong Kong, where ever. He tried to book a flight to Shanghai for 10 a.m. the next morning, but it wouldn’t confirm. I told him he had better call me back. If he didn’t I would call back in a half hour.
I sat around with no idea what to do. I paid $5 to get on Boingo for an hour to look for other flights, but I couldn’t find any on such short notice for less than $3000. Even if I had $3000, theres no way I could realistically afford to pay that much. Nothing was coming up, anywhere I looked, for any airport. There were seats of course, exploretrip COULD have bought me a seat for several thousand dollars, but of course, they wouldn’t. I was stranded.
A half hour went by. I got a giant slice of pepperoni pizza and a caesar salad from Sbarro. I love Sbarro, and there aren’t very many in Atlanta. I called exploretrip back. Nobody answered, and their voicemail was full. I called back again. And again. And again. It was incredibly irritating to listen to their outgoing message. “Fly smart. Fly Explore Trip.” Finally, about 2 hours after I last talked to this guy, they finally picked up, and said there were no seats available on the flight to Shanghai. The guy claimed he couldn’t help me further, and he had no capacity to make any further decisions about how I would be compensated. I wanted to talk to the guy who makes decisions, but “he is not available and I do not know when he will be.” I bitched at him for a few more minutes while having paid for more time on Boingo, looking again for flights. He didn’t care what I had to say, and there was nothing more I could say anyway.
Then a flight popped up. Amazing. Only $755! This whole time, nothing was coming up for less than $3000, and all of the sudden, farecast.com shows me a flight at 10:20 p.m. out of JFK on Cathay Pacific Airlines. What the hell time was it? 8:21! I grabbed all my luggage, didn’t even put my computer to sleep before putting in my backpack, an assurance that it would overheat, and ran to the nearest counter to ask where Cathay Pacific was. Terminal 7. Where was i? Terminal 2. That sounded far! How do I get there???? Take that train… blah blah blah. I ran to the train, all 120lbs of luggage somewhere on my body. Which train goes to Terminal 7?? I asked an attendant. This one. Cool!
It was only about 3 minutes on the train. I ran to the ticket counter, and there was a long line of people checking in for the very flight I needed to get on. Finally, I get up there, and in a quiet voice, I tell the super nice lady my situation, and she says the flight is booked, and she doesn’t sell tickets. She walked me over to the other side of the ticketing counters and I explain to the ticketing guy what happened. Whew! That sounds terrible. Well, looks like we can put you on a flight, actually. He set me up, and even called to an empty check-in desk closer than the other one I’d been to, and got my luggage checked in right away.
It wasn’t a direct flight. I would have to fly to Vancouver, sit on the plane for another hour, then to Hong Kong, then switch planes to Beijing, then buy another flight to Wuhan, but AT LEAST I WASN’T STRANDED ANY LONGER. And for a really damn reasonable price, being on such short notice. And instead of being a day or two late for my physical exam in Wuhan, I would only be 12 hours late.
The rest of the trip went pretty smoothly, it was just loooong. But the Cathay Pacific guy put me in an exit aisle, so my knees weren’t jammed up against another seat for 20 hours, the worst part of any international flight for me.
Arriving in Hong Kong, I had a few minutes to get on their FREE airport wifi, and I learned there was a plane crash that day in Beijing. It turned out the crash was actually in Yichun, hundreds of miles to the northeast, near the Russian border. A small plane had landed 2km short of the runway and burst into flames in a field.
I wonder if exploretrip.com booked that flight.
I met Shining in Beijing, and her parents had already graciously booked a flight to Wuhan for us, but it didn’t take off til the next day. We stayed in a hotel, and I slept most of the rest of the afternoon and night. On the way back to the airport, our taxi wrecked into another car with the airport in site. We got out and the driver flagged down another of the legion of taxis on the highway, and we were there and checked in within a few minutes.
The physical exam required bloodwork, so I could not eat all morning or afternoon. Then it turned out the clinic stopped doing employment physicals at 11:30 a.m. A long drive to the hotel from the airport, we didn’t arrive until closer to noon, so Shining and I, Zhang, Tian, Billy, and Debby all went out to lunch and stuffed ourselves with dumplings, kabobs, collard greens, and orange juice, which is so much better in China than the U.S.
Not as many banalities as I expected. My fingers are tired. More later! Videos, stories, etc. Check back soon!