Never Fly Air China


tags: Travel

On November 27th I was returning from Hong Kong to Toronto via Beijing on a flight booked through Expedia. On the way out I flew the same path with the same airlines: Air Canada from Toronto to Beijing, and Air China from Beijing to Hong Kong. I had 90 minutes to get from one flight to the other, and this turns out to be barely adequate: you have to go through a document check for "International Travellers" who are transferring, and I was to learn from many hours in Beijing airport that that's always a long and slow line. But I made it to the Air China flight 15 minutes before it was to leave. But the flight left about half an hour late. At the time it didn't seem like a big deal.

But on the 27th on the way back, I had only 75 minutes for that transfer, and the Air China flight from Hong Kong left an hour late. I mentioned to a stewardess that I had a connecting flight: she went away for a consultation, and eventually came back to tell me that I'd have to talk to Air Canada about it. They also moved me to the front of economy class (all of two rows forward) so I could get out the door first, but of course I hit the International Travellers line-up and didn't have a hope of catching my flight.

I talked to the nearest Air China agent, who told me I had to go to the Air China office - which was outside the international zone of the airport, so I had to wade through a long line for "Foreigners" to be told I needed the other line for "Foreigners leaving the airport for up to 72 hours." So I went through that line, over to another terminal, and then ... where to go? I talked to the people in the Air China baggage claim, who managed to give me directions to the correct office. Where I was finally informed there were no further flights to Toronto via Air Canada that day, in fact the next was 24 hours after the one I'd missed. So they'd put me up in a hotel. Did I want my checked luggage? When I said yes, I was directed back to the luggage office I'd been at, and told I could have to wait up to an hour. But until I had my luggage, they weren't doing anything about my hotel. Fortunately, that was one of the shorter parts of the process: my bag arrived in about 20 minutes.

Back to booth H34(?) on the International flights floor, where I was told to wait over by the very large and rather permanent-looking sign for "International travellers waiting for hotel who have missed a connection." Yes, it happens that often. I was assured I'd be at a "four star hotel:" one of the Air China staff actually said that. There were four other people waiting there (possibly others had already been sent to the hotel), one of whom was a disgruntled vacationing Lufthansa pilot who said this was simply standard operating procedure for Air China. They're a member of Star Alliance, but "they're on their 57th warning and are about to be kicked out."

photo: Yup, they have a very large sign in the Beijing Airport

Sign (and stranded passengers): "Hotel Accommodation Waiting Area for transfer passengers who miss the connecting flight."

We were placed in a van with seats so worn the foam padding was escaping from under the torn seat covers. The Lufthansa pilot, having read the hotel name on the van, read online reviews and decided he was going to go find his own hotel: he left. The remaining four of us waited in the van for another 20 minutes for other passengers who never showed up, and were finally shuttled to the hotel.

The Beijing Golden Phoenix Hotel may once have been a four star hotel. Those days are long past: I think it might hit two stars on a good day. The four of us who arrived there were a couple from the U.S., the woman of whom was a native Mandarin speaker, a Korean woman from the U.S. traveling alone, and myself. The couple were given a room, but through the woman who spoke Mandarin we learned that the airline paid for two people per room - so the single travellers would be bunked with complete strangers. Unless of course they wanted to pay an extra 150RMB. This was, according to the staff, because we had three meals paid for by the airline: dinner tonight, breakfast and lunch the next day. I didn't want to eat at the hotel, but it wasn't an option to give up the food and get your own room: we asked.

What was our choice at this point? It was 2200. We could take the slow shuttle back to the airport to argue with the airline (arguing with the hotel got us nowhere), but the outcome couldn't be favourable. Or go get our own hotel, which would take a lot of time and almost certainly cost more. I asked to see a room, and it looked fine. So of course both of us single travelers ended up paying.

The next day I was at the airport at noon even though my flight was at 1835. I went to the Air Canada office, where a staff member looked over my documents, looked at the computer, said the word "standby," and said that "your chances are very good." But he said I had to go to desk B11 around 3:30 or 4PM and they would take care of me, he couldn't make me a boarding pass.

Air Canada check-in opened around 2PM, but desk B11 didn't open until 2:40 or so. I spoke to them, trying to explain I'd missed my flight - I was immediately told that because I was economy class, I should wait through the long regular check-in line. Which I did, for half an hour. And they said I had to go to desk B11. So back I went. This time they were slightly friendlier, but told me I'd have to come back in half an hour when Air Canada staff actually arrived.

I stood in the area, unsure what to do. About five minutes later, I was beckoned back to B11, where the same staff asked if I was "Giles Orr," which I still was, and finally issued me a boarding pass. I've never been so happy in my life to hold a boarding pass. From there, things went as they generally do in air travel, and I arrived back in Toronto 18 hours or so later.

At no point prior to receiving the boarding pass had I ever been told that I had, or would have, a guaranteed seat on that flight. I never knew my status or how much longer I'd be staying in Beijing until that boarding pass was put in my hands.

I've done a lot of travelling in my life: this was possibly the single worst experience I've had. If you've read all this, you can probably guess my recommendation: avoid Air China if you possibly can.