Catching a Domestic Flight in China

Catching a domestic flight in China is usually an eye-opening experience for most foreigners. It starts when you get to the airport, as most domestic airlines won’t let you check in until two hours ahead of time. They also don’t give you your seat assignments, unless you’re in a tour group or in first class, before you check in. With 1.3 billion people and an increasingly mobile society, most Chinese planes are larger than most countries typically use for domestic flights. When going between Beijing and Shanghai, for example, I’m frequently on an Airbus A330, a fairly large plane for a three hour flight. As a result, since the check-in counter usually closes 30 minutes prior to the flight, in the space of one and a half hours you have lot of people trying to check in. The check-in counters are jammed, especially the closer you get to flight time.

The second obstacle you’ll encounter in catching a domestic flight is boarding the plane. Unlike most countries, Chinese airlines don’t use zone numbers to board the aircraft. They usually board first class, and then everyone else. As I said, China uses big aircraft and the lines can be very long. The Chinese people’s solution to avoiding long lines is to simply cut in front of the person at the head of the line and thrust their ticket at the gate agent. I prepared my wife Kerry for this by informing her the scene when boarding a Chinese domestic flight would be reminiscent of the last flight out of Saigon. She told me afterwards that it was a pretty good description. To be clear, not everyone cuts in line and tries to hip check you out of their way, but enough people do that it’s considered that way it is within China. Gate agents, for their part, don’t care as they just want to get everyone onboard.

Now that you’ve gone past the gate agent you might believe you’re through your last hurdle and can relax. You’re wrong. Once you’re on the plane it’s common to see people going up and down the aisles looking for their seats. I have no explanation for this as you’d believe that seat numbers are sequential and only a few people would have their mind somewhere else and pass their seat. I’m wrong. On most Chinese flights two way aisle traffic isn’t unusual once you board, as well as having people stand in the aisle and talking with their friends. As a result, the aisles are always crowded and you frequently have to “squeeze” between people to get to your seat.

Mercifully, you sit down and eventually everyone’s seated. There’s no aisle traffic and you believe they’re ready to close the cabin door and depart. Wrong. In China, if someone checks in for a flight and receives their boarding pass, they wait for them! I’ve sat on board a number of flights where the infringing parties have come onto the aircraft 10-15+ minutes late. It seems that if you have a boarding pass, the airline will wait for you.

Finally you’re airborne. Chinese airlines almost always serve some sort of meal or snack on the flight. The flight attendants are courteous, young, and attractive and you now begin to relax. However, the finale is about to occur. When the flight lands, and begins to approach the gate, people start getting up from their seats, step into the aisle, and start taking their bags from the overhead. To be clear, we’re creeping towards the gate and still moving. It’s the last flight out of Saigon in reverse. By the time the plane stops the aisles are jammed and people want to get off. If you snooze you lose in getting off a Chinese plane.

Therefore, when I write in one of my books that I took a flight from one city to the next you can see that there’s substantially more drama involved than taking a domestic U.S. flight.

On a positive note I should mention that in the hundreds of flights I’ve taken within China I’ve never once had my luggage not make the flight, even when I’ve checked in 30 minutes beforehand. No one is better than the Chinese at luggage handling and, at least in this, they can give any U.S. carrier a lesson.

Alan Refkin

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