connecting flight

When there is a delay with a non-stop, direct flight with no onward connections, the delay becomes a relatively known calculable. But a delay with connecting flights, especially through an airport you’ve never been, can quickly become an unknown.

I decided to fly a couple of days before the mass exodus of Chinese New Year. My China visa was up for renewal anyhow, so doing this in Thailand saved an overseas trip to the USA. I booked the trip online like I’ve done dozens of times. The flight was a connection in Shenzhen from Shanghai to Bangkok, but that was ok, I thought, it is on Shenzhen Airlines, they must own the airport where I was connecting. Even though there was a transfer from domestic to international, the two-hour layover was a valid connection with plenty of time.

Strangely, even though the airline offers web check-in, you can’t check-in online for flights out of China. Only at the airport. Since the first leg was domestic connecting to an international one, I could not check into either flight beforehand. So like a good traveler, I arrived at Pudong airport 2.5 hours early.

At the airport, the airlines would only give me a boarding pass from Shanghai to Shenzhen, not for the onward flight. The “systems are different” they said. For the second flight I needed to check-in again in Shenzhen. If there was checked luggage, it had to be claimed and re-checked. This was a new wrinkle, I thought. Fortunately, I had just carryon luggage for the two-week plus trip.

To my delight, they upgraded me to first class (maybe because I requested a seat up front). I had a comfortable flight to look forward to and I’d be off the plane first. In addition, after I waited in a queue to pass through domestic immigration, I used a pass they gave me for the airport golf cart shuttle to take me to the first class lounge, which was quite a hike.

It was the first time I had flown out of this particular terminal of Shanghai’s airport. As we were cruising to the lounge, (I was riding shotgun in the full, extra long cart), I understood why some would like this service of sitting rather than huffing the half-mile hike. I would have enjoyed the walk, but the terminal floor is carpet, good for noise but not ideal for rolling luggage. The lounge was at the end of the T shaped terminal and was right next to the gate I was leaving from.  Beautiful.  I walked into the lounge and thought “what a way to start a vacation, traveling first class with two hours until my flight and I had time for dinner in a quiet and cozy lounge.”

As I checked in, the lounge receptionist casually told me my flight was “a little delayed.” How much is “a little,” I asked her. Well, she said, the plane has not yet left Shenzhen, so at least two hours. Two hours!! “I’ll miss my connection,” I tell her. She calls her supervisor. I explain the connection predicament to him and he does 10 minutes of phone, meanwhile I’m staring longingly at the food buffet as it was 5pm and I hadn’t eaten all day. Then he says they found me another flight that leaves earlier and because I have no checked luggage, we can change. Great, I say, let’s do it, thinking I could relax and eat while they make the change. No. He says we must run because not only is the terminal a mile long, but we’ve got to go back to the checkin counter outside security and domestic immigration to re-book another flight.

Little did I know, as he was arranging this, that we were switching airlines. The new airlines, China Eastern, stuck me in seat 56J, a middle seat in the back. This flight was scheduled to leave nearly one hour earlier than my original flight. Great. All of a sudden I had to hightail it to the gate, which this time, was at the opposite end of the T, and without the shuttle.

But I like walking fast so reaching the gate in time was no problem. I arrived only to find out that my new flight was delayed a half hour. And, after that half hour, the gate had changed, back toward the original gate. I went from gate 78, to 42, to 201. More steps for the iPhone health app.

There were no weather problems in China, regardless, my new flight ended up being two hours late. Instead of dinner in the first class lounge, I was at a barren gate with thirst and hunger pangs, with a plane load of other antsy passengers.

Finally we boarded, but not at a normal gate like 95% of the flights, but by the dreaded bus-to-tarmac loading. Before I settled into the back of the plane, I asked a flight attendant if there was any chance of sitting further toward the front. “I had a tight connection,” I told her, “and needed to deplane quickly.” After everyone was seated on our full flight, she was nice enough to escort me to the only empty seat which happened to be bulkhead of economy. Her much appreciated gesture made me feel a whole lot better about my chances of making the connecting flight.

We circled Shenzhen for longer than we should have. After landing, we taxied forever. When we finally stopped I understood why. We were not de-planing at a gate, but again, by the dreaded bus routine. The satisfaction I felt about being moved to the first row of economy quickly dissipated. But I’d still be on the first bus.

Every other time over the many times around the world that I’ve deplaned on the tarmac, when there are buses and the first bus fills, it proceeds to the terminal. Not this time. There were three buses. I was in the first. It filled. To my disbelief we didn’t leave when we were full and passengers started boarding the bus behind us. We waited until every last person and flight crew was off the plane and the cleaning crew boarded before all three buses headed to the terminal in a convoy. We could not have been farther away from the terminal. My window of opportunity was quickly evaporating.

During the bus trip, a Chinese guy, sensing my obvious angst after I banged on the bus driver’s window motioning him to move out, told me that Shenzhen was the largest airport in China. He doubted I’d make my connecting flight. Thanks for that, I thought.

We finally get to the terminal and at long last I’m under my own power again. I make my way to the international ticket counter, which was surprisingly easier than I had imagined it to be and it was empty, except for one person.  I thanked my lucky stars, until I showed her my e-ticket. She looked at the time and declared that I was 10 minutes late and the flight is closed. I should have arrived a few minutes earlier, she says. I would have, I explained, had 1) we not parked on the outer edge of the tarmac, or 2) the first bus taken off on when it was full, or 3) if the flight I was just on was not a total of 2.5 hours delayed. “And look,” I say, as I show her my boarding passes, “your airline in Shanghai changed my flight so that I could make this one.”

“Sorry,” she said stubbornly, “next flight is tomorrow.” I swallowed and put on my  pleading, sympathy face and said, “would you please call the gate and try to make an exception. The flight I was scheduled on, your employer Shenzhen Airlines, was two hours late and they put me on another airlines so that I could make this connection. I am fast. I can easily make it to the gate. In fact, I can make it to the gate and back, twice.” She made a half-dozen calls, half of them kept dropping, and finally told me I was out of luck. The gate was closed. There were no more flights tonight. It was now almost 11 pm and I was beginning to resolve in my head that I’d stay the night in Shenzhen.

“Ok,” I say, “what time is the flight tomorrow?” She tells me around noon. I plead again. “Look, I’ve got to be at the Chinese embassy tomorrow before noon to renew my visa before they close for Chinese Near Year. Are there any earlier flights tomorrow? Can’t you put me on another airlines like your colleagues in Shanghai did?” She looks at my other two boarding passes again and makes several more calls. Then, after about 30 minutes, she says I might be able to make the flight tonight. Wow, I thought, great. Another ten minutes and another ten calls and she says she was mistaken. Moreover, the next flight tomorrow was now not until the evening. Things just went from bad to good to worse.

As I’m about to inform her that what she was telling me was not acceptable, a call comes through. She casually tells me there may be another flight tonight. After 10 more concurrent calls, she prints and hands me a boarding pass for tonight’s flight, and in first class. But I’ve got to run. Ok, no problem.

She calls immigration and security to make sure they are waiting for me. I run. I’m the only one in this part of the terminal and I arrive to immigration where there is one officer amid all the empty booths who checks me out of the country for the last time on my current visa. I get to security and there is a crew of 10 waiting for me, no one else there. It was the fastest, almost, I’ve gone through airport security. As soon as my bags zoom through the x-ray, they closed the door and were done for the night.

Except,…after I went through the X-ray, the female agent in charge of wanding decided to do an extra thorough job. I’ve been wanded before, as everyone who travels has. The other nine security agents stood watching, and waiting for me to be processed by Ms. Wander agent.

Most airport wand’ers hold the wand slightly off the body. She however, pressed the wand against my body, with pressure, and slowly moved the wand over what seemed to be every inch. She slid and pressed the wand slowly down all sides of each leg, and took her time around the rest of the mid section. It was indeed a strange experience. She even took my passport and slowly wanded that. She gave me a wand job like no other wand job I’ve ever had. I might have considered it somewhat sensual, had I not been thinking that I needed to run to the gate. After she was satisfied, (I think), she let me go.

And I ran. And ran. Until I was out of breath. Of course my gate was the furthest one. There was no one in the terminal. Not until I was in sight of the gate number could I see a plane load of people. I slowed to a fast walk. To my nonsurprise, when I arrived to the gate I found that the flight was an hour delayed.  What else was new?

When we boarded the flight I was content. I was in first class and would be able to keep my plans for visa application the next day (actually, later that day as it was after midnight). The flight pulled back and then sat for another 1.5 hours. It didn’t matter, I thought, I hadn’t missed a nights sleep in a while. We landed in Bangkok at 5am, only 4 hours later than scheduled, but a whole lot sooner than the alternative.

It all ended ok.  After all, it wasn’t a dramatic event, just a package of goofy (rich) experiences.  I applied for and received my visa as I had planned. But it wasn’t without some active nudging and two changed flights. Next time, I think I’ll take the direct non-stop.