Lhasa – Chengdu – Beijing
I’ll never forget the Air China stewardess who once in the early ’90s answered my question about why there were no seat belts in their planes with a broad smile and a very charming “Very simple madam. We crash, you die.” Well, 12 years later Air China does have seat belts. So, either there’s less crashing or less dying to be desired …
In any case, I flew with Air China from Lhasa to Beijing with an intermediary stop in Chengdu, where ever that is. Apparently, due to the altitude (kerosin physically expands with less pressure), an airplane cannot take on enough fuel in Lhasa to make it all the way to Beijing, not even an Airbus A340-300. All in all, once in the air, Air China is as good as most airlines I’ve flown with. Their stewardesses are nice and competent, the food’s ok, there’s plenty of room in economy to sit and their Jasmin tea is positively delicious. It’s on the ground where things get messy.
First of all, for domestic flights you can only check in one hour before take off, but boarding starts about 40 minutes before the scheduled departure. So, you have to wait until the airline is ready for checking, then do a mad rush to the check-in line, since 400 other people are waiting for the same flight, grab your stuff and rush through the security line, get in line immediately for boarding and hope you get on board before everybody ahead of you has filled up all the overhead compartments with their belongings.
Also, the pit stop in Chengdu turned out to be a little strange. First, after we arrived, the crew made the announcement that everybody had to go off, and that those continuing to Beijing would get another boarding card. Then as we waited to deplane, another announcement came that only those getting off at Chengdu should deplane while those going on to Beijing should stay onboard. Mind you, all these announcements were in Chinese only, leaving us westerners a little stranded … Then, as everybody had packed their belongings back in and sat down, a third announcement came, that now everybody to Beijing should indeed deplane, and quickly. So, everybody rushed out the door and into the buses (apparently in Asia arriving planes don’t make it to a gate), and soon the buses moved off. However, after circling around the airfield for a bit, the buses stopped near a gate somewhere and stood there, sans air-conditioning mind you, and it was 33 degrees Celsius (ca 90F) outside, for about 15 minutes without budging or showing any sign of letting us off.
Then, finally, the doors opened and everybody was rushed out and up a flight of stairs, with the result that there was a major congestion at the bottom of the stairs, since everybody wanted to get out of the heat and into the air conditioned terminal. But, we didn’t go to the terminal but straight into the plane that was waiting at the gate we were walking up to … After being ushered back to our assigned seats, the plane took off again.
In fact, both in Lhasa and in Gengdu the plane started moving as soon as everybody was on board, seated or not. By the time we came barreling down the runway everybody had finally settled back in …
Speaking of airlines, from Zurich I flew to Beijing via Dubai with Emirates Airlines. I had heard rave reviews of their service so I was curious to see for myself how they were. And they were nice, once I made it past the rather grumpy Swiss ground staffer who was manning the check-in desk when I came. She got rather annoyed that my bag was 4kg’s overweight. After all, in my booking it read I had only 20kgs for baggage. Trouble was, nobody told me that and usually for overseas flights you get two bags for up to 50 lbs each. She wanted to charge me $320 for these four kgs since I couldn’t take them into my hand luggage, either.
Fortunately, the woman at the ticketing office, where I was sent to pay my dues was a little more cooperative and convinced her boss, that they should change my ticket to one that came with two bags rather than 20kgs luggage allowance. After all, I had an around-the-world ticket where they usually do have the two bag allowance. So, if you fly overseas, better to check on these things. $320 is a lot of money for a measly 4kgs.
Once on board, the service was indeed very good, even the food. From Dubai to Beijing I was even upgraded to business class, which was very welcome. After all, the entire trip from Zurich to Beijing, including the layover in Dubai took 28 hours …
On excess baggage charges, Air China was a lot more lenient. They charged me $50 for 12kgs overweight. I had bought that flight separately from my other ticket, so I really only got the 20kgs baggage allowance usually available for domestic flights within China.
To get your mileage credit for Air China flights on your Star Alliance account don’t talk to the ticketing office when you book the flight. They cannot enter non-Air China numbers into their system. However, once you get to the airport and do the check-in, they can enter those frequent flyer numbers from United and Lufthansa. God knows why. One would think an airline would use the same computer system for booking and check-in ….