Thursday, January 12, 2017

Stuck in a China airport

In summary, I paid what I got for the flight service to go back to Hong Kong from Chicago. However, I will avoid connecting flight in China in the future.

I bought a $400 one-way ticket a month ago to fly via Shanghai, using China Eastern Airlines. A few days before the flight, I found that the review for the airline was mostly negative. I also had concerns on whether the baggage will go directly to Hong Kong. The answers from the airline website did not make me feel completely satisfied also.

Then, I had an eventful flight experience because the negative comments were totally true.

At the O'Hare counter, I was told that the flight would be delayed for 4 hours. That immediately means that I will be stuck in Shanghai for a night, since the first long flight was expected to reach Shanghai at 6:50 pm, and the connecting flight was 2.5 hours later. With the delay, the airport would no longer have any flights until next morning.

The flight finally left at ~6:30 pm in O'Hare. The flight itself was okay. Food was mediocre. Adjusting the correct volume of sound for the movie was challenging. WiFi information was all in Chinese, causing me to think what would non-Chinese passengers would do. Fortunately, there was a power outlet that I could use, and people next to me were friendly enough for me to interact with. The 14-hour flight was not actually that grueling.

I did have a bad feeling when I got to the Shanghai Pudong International Airport, and the bad thing did happen. I was put to the flight next morning, and I needed to claim my checked baggage and arrange for a free hotel. I could not get through the custom, though. If you have a US passport or many passports in European countries (Schengen area), you will have no problem to get through the custom, since you are allowed to stay within Shanghai municipality without visa within 144 hours. For Hong Kong (or Macau) people, we do not use passport to get into China; we use Home Visit Permit. I, with no plan to go to China when I stay in the US, did not have this permit with me (mine was in Hong Kong).

Thus, I was told to give my Hong Kong passport to the official. They said I had to wait and they would come back to me later. I gave it to them, and later I felt that it might be a mistake. The official was busy with dealing with rescheduling connecting flights and processing passengers' passports. After an hour, when there were no more people passing through the custom, more and more officials were gone. In one occasion, I was told that I could pay 50 RMB to get a temporary Home Visit Permit. Another official, however, said that this was not true.

I and another UK guy found that we were the only people stuck before custom, and could not get through the transfer to get to the departure hall (the UK guy could not get through because he had a temporary travel document). At this point, we both have the same questions to the officials: 1) how could we get the checked baggage if we could not get out of the custom, and 2) where were our passports?

We were given biscuits and bottle of water. There was WiFi around, but we could not get it because one has to either have a Chinese phone number, or go to a booth to print a internet password ticket, but the booths are in the departure hall area.

Fortunately, we were later allowed to get the baggage from the baggage claim under the official supervision, returned to the area before the custom, and got the passports back. However, we needed to sleep within the limbo area. The officials opened up the staff room with couches. Having jet lag and feeling cold, I could not sleep, so I finished editing a paper. Not long after at 4:30 am, we were told that the transfer counter was open.

I got through the transfer with the two pieces of 50-lb baggage and a carry-on. I was told that I needed to move them until I got to the gate, where the baggage could be checked in again. Then, I saw that I needed to put the baggage in the X-ray again. "Oh! No!", thought I. Many of you know that items forbidden in carry-on baggage are not necessarily forbidden in checked baggage. Now, when all checked baggage becomes carry-on, I was stopped for having a pocket knife in my supposedly checked baggage. The good news was: after I explained what had happened, they allowed me to put the pocket knife back into the checked baggage.

On my way to the gate and at the gate, other travelers looked at me because of the number of baggage pieces that I had. At one instance, I was told how strong I was to carry all pieces of baggage by one person. I feel such comments were unnecessary. At this moment, I could finally reach the booth that gave out WiFi password. However, it was not working. We needed to scan our passport to get the Wifi password, but the computer screen was frozen. After testing a few times, I tried to find the only other location that gives WiFi password: the information counter, but it was too early. Nobody was there. I was later told to come back to the booth in an hour.

Thus, I waited at the gate for the 8:30 am flight. After an hour, I finally found the computer screen at the booth was fixed, and I could finally get internet at 6 am! The internet was important because I could tell my family when my Hong Kong arrival time would be, so they would feel safe.

The final stretch of inconvenience was that the flight gate was not the kind where the plane directly connect to the concourse. The gate was the one where we needed to take a bus to the plane. Thus, I caused more inconvenience by taking all three pieces of baggage on and off the bus. The Shanghai connection nightmare finally ended when I got to the plane and left the checked baggage to the outdoor crew.

The flight back to Hong Kong was uneventful, and I got the checked baggage without problem. I was finally home at ~12:30 pm on Wednesday.

Next time, besides checking the price of the air ticket, I should also check if the flight will get through China. I do not want this to happen in my dissertation defense trip.

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