Flying in China
Huge airports, crowds of people, hundreds of flights, dozens of airlines and many things that surprise even frequent travelers.
After spending one and half year in Hong Kong and flying more than 50 times, mostly domestic in China, it’s about time to evaluate the experience and share some of the stories. Flying in China is very eventful and special in many ways.
But if you are traveling in the most populous country in the world for the first time, there is no need to be afraid. It's still flying, just little bit different. Reading this story will help you to get prepared for the unexpected.
You might have heard none, some or all of them. Delays, food quality, delays, behavior of other passengers, delays, communication problems, delays, limited use of electronic devices and…did I mention delays?
From my own experience
Imagine early morning flight. There was no way of having breakfast in the hotel, so you expect to eat at the airport. But everything is closed there as well. You are hungry waiting at the gate and suddenly you see three jet fighters to take off from the runway. Is it a daydream from starvation? Quick check on internet found out that Yiwu is half military half civilian airport. And seeing all the hangars with modern jet fighters while we were taxying on the runway was amazing!
Well, there’s no smoke without fire. But it's not so bad, except for:
Delays happen quite often and they can be your nightmare. From my 50 flights only 10 were completely without delay or with unnoticeable one. Good thing is you stop worry about them after you experience few. It becomes the part of the routine. Also, the stories your friends and colleagues tell you are usually even worse than yours.
Bad thing is you always need to be prepared for 6+ hours delays of your flight. And you never know when it's coming. This ends up with flying way too much in advance for important meetings.
TIP: Have your devices fully charged before you go to the airport so you have some fun while waiting.
- Be prepared for no tangible expected time of departure. Then, five minutes after you asked for the third time in last three hours, you will board in blink of an eye and get in the air immediately.
- Be prepared for a crowd of unhappy passengers making loud circle around the attendants complaining about the delay. Or at least that's what you think they are doing if you don't speak Chinese like myself. They are calmed down with crackers and milk in a box. You get as well.
- Be prepared to sit in a crowded plane at the gate and wait for takeoff few hours. Eating your in-flight meal. Listening to captain's announcement in Chinese and just guessing what was the message by reaction of the other passengers.
From my own experience
Delays can affect your flight even when you are on international long haul — for example flying from Frankfurt to Hong Kong. After boarding the airplane, the captain announced that Chinese airspace is closed and the departure will be delayed at least one hour, so we don't have to make circles at the border, until we are granted with permission. We still needed to do one in the middle of the flight.
REASONS FOR DELAYS
The prevailing model is that the airspace is free to fly everywhere except for forbidden military areas. While in China it's the opposite — 80% of the airspace is military. That leaves just narrow corridors for civil aircraft to use.
Airspace restrictions combined with military drills, traffic getting heavier with increasing number of passengers and bad weather, which you can't just fly around through military airspace create the main reason for you sitting at the airport and waiting for takeoff.
TIP: Air traffic control can give permission to your flight anytime, so don't get too far away from your gate.
If it’s raining on departure or arrival airport or you have rough weather on your route, expect delay. If it’s summer and you are flying north to south of China or the opposite direction, expect delay. If everything is fine, expect delay. If it's not, cancellations are not so unusual either.
This all is thanks to overcautious air traffic control. Which is also in majority of cases the only answer you get from the crew on your question: “Why is this flight delayed?”.
It's better be safe than sorry and sometimes the turbulences in the air give you the reason. But on many occasions, you just have smooth flight plus few hours waiting at the gate without knowing why.
Modern fleet — approximately 1/3 of Boeing's 737 production goes to China. And you can see it, no matter which airline you fly. The planes are new. Seats not so packed. Interior usually not too much worn out. Truth is that the business seats are usually a little bit outdated on domestic flights.
Pilots — they are professionals and doing their job properly. Sometimes they even try to announce something in English and it's understandable. Sometimes they let you feel where they started to fly by the way they methodically and not softly make turns — habit from the military drill in them.
Special attention — many times you will be the only gweilo (foreigner) on board which brings a lot of attention from the crew and other passengers to your person. Enjoy it! They always try to give you the best service and if you are lucky you might have a nice conversation with someone next to you.
Other passengers — this is not meant as insult, but most of them seems to be unexperienced flyers. Very inconsiderate towards the others, don't aware of the rules, don't behave very well, sometimes with horrible smells not only from cigarettes. Good thing is that after they sit down, they usually recline the seat to the max and fall asleep. Nothing else than food wakes them up afterwards. Standalone story can be written about them easily. Just expect anything.
TIP: Smile, breath in & out and remember when you were a rookie in flying acted like bull in a china shop.
Food — it can be good, it can be bad, but all together it's still inferior of what you are used to from flying. Not because of different tastes, but the quality, taste and presentation is in one word plastic. Check photos at the end story and make your own opinion. And if you are used to calm down your anxiety with alcohol, many airlines don't serve alcoholic beverages on domestic flights, so you better stock up.
From my own experience
We’ve been flying with my colleague from Tianjin to Shenzhen. Late afternoon flight, not yet experienced enough to know that it will be delayed. Three hours at the gate, then two another in airplane at the gate. But in the plane, we at least got a beer. The first can disappeared quickly, second also and when we asked for third, we just got apology, that we already drank all the beer that was on board and only option was to switch to red wine. Which we skipped.
Communication — as anywhere else in China, if you don't speak local language, you may be in trouble. But there is always someone with decent English among the crew and the others, if they don't understand, are not ashamed to send that person to you. Different story are the announcement on the loud speaker. It's sometimes hard to catch it or even tell if that was English.
Electronic devices —regulation is strict and you can't use mobile phones at all, not even in flight mode. If you are caught by the flight attendant after you leave the gate with your phone on, they will wait until you turn it off, or do that themselves. Funny is, that tablets with SIM cards even with flight mode off are no issue. Laptops can be used only when the seat belt signs are off.
Entertainment — usually nonexistent. But as you already read, you will find some fun. That's all what can be said about it. If you are lucky enough, there will be displays under the overhead bins with Chinese movie and English subtitles, which you can't read because it's too small and far away. But still it will grab your attention, because you won't be able to understand what is going on. Yes, that crazy the Chinese movies are. You also get a selection of newspapers and magazines, but English ones are very rare.
ON THE GROUND
Big and nice airports —the network of domestic and international airports is, as most of Chinese infrastructure, quite new and modern. Very often with beautiful architecture, easy to orientate in, cleverly designed, full of light, expecting much higher volume of travelers than is the current, so it can seem to be empty.
Check-in — for some flights you have special counters that handle only that one flight. Always check the display above the counter, because if you go to counter not assigned to your flight, they will send you away even if you queued for a long time. If you see a line with group of people who travel together (detectable by one person holding a pile of passports or IDs), choose different line — these group travelers are very chaotic and even though it might look like shorter queue, it will take longer in the end.
TIP: Always ask for exit row. It stays empty, when the plane is not full. You will enjoy the flight more and usually it's without surcharge.
Security — security is taken very seriously and it's no surprise, there were some incident of terroristic nature. If you are running late for your flight, try to outrun the others, you won't understand the curse words. Also, have your passport and ticket ready, it will be checked.
Lounges — there is plenty of them, but quality is not top notch. Usually without hot food, just with dried noodles you can put boiling water in and create a soup and few crackers and biscuits. Always with big armchairs to relax in. Selection of drinks is fine, Wi-Fi is standard.
Immigration — there is usually special lane for people with passports or foreigners, look for them. You need arrival and departure card. It’s a yellow form and if it's nowhere to be seen at the counters, ask any officer, they will give it to you. Don't miss the chance to evaluate the speed of the officer who was exercising the inspection of your passport and visa by pressing appropriate button with smiles. From :-) through :-| to :-( on a machine at the counter.
Luggage — be careful, it's very crowded around the baggage carrousels and you can get easily hit by the carts of other passengers because they don't want to miss their bag and then recklessly try to get it when they see it, no matter who or what is in their way. It's safer to find more calm area and wait a bit longer. When leaving the arrival zone it’s mandatory to put it in x-ray. Sometimes you also need to show your passport or air ticket and staff checks if the suitcase is yours.
Transportation from the airport — on every airport where you leave arrivals without someone to pick you up, you will get a taxi offered by somebody in the hallway. Don't take these illegal drivers, it's extremely overpriced. Just follow the signs and find the queue, usually under supervision of the police. These drivers always have taximeter and the only issue may sometimes be ineffective route, otherwise they are fair and safe.
TIP: Have the address of place you are heading to in Chinese on your phone as a picture you can zoom. Always!
If you are traveling shorter distance than 2.000 km and between two places that are connected with the network of high-speed rail, consider go with it on the ground. It may be faster and is more convenient.
If it's not the case, go for flight and enjoy the experience! It's fun. Don't forget to share it afterwards.