Sunday, August 27, 2006

100th Post

In celebration of my 100th post, I thought I'd take a trip down memory lane to the worst Airport experience I've ever had. Unfortunately, it came the day after I got married (to clarify, as the date that you get married, is not at all clear in China, this is when we technically got married and got a marriage certificate).

Thanks to the arcane Hukou system in China, this meant having to fly to Lanzhou where YY's Hukou is based, as you're not allowed to get married anywhere else. Lanzhou is 1900km west of Hangzhou where we live so that meant the hassle and expense of a 2.5 hour flight and, thanks to the flight times, two nights in a hotel just to spend 15 minutes in a government official's smoke filled office to get our marriage certificate.

On the way to Lanzhou, I'd had an example of just how well-thought-through the newly introduced airline e-ticket system is in China.

Old system (paper ticket)
  • Queue at check-in desk
  • Give them ticket and passport
  • Receive boarding pass
New system (e-ticket)
  • Queue at check-in desk
  • Be told 'Ah, you have an e-Ticket. You need to go there (points at throng of people) to pick up a voucher'.
  • Join throng of people, get sick of people barging in front to be served and eventually barge to front yourself
  • Get voucher
  • Queue at check-in desk
  • Give them voucher and passport
  • Receive boarding pass
So, I'm not a fan of the Chinese e-ticket system (this is only for internal flights - for international flights, common sense prevails as with e-ticket use elsewhere).

The way back from Lanzhou was much worse though.

We arrived at the airport, fresh from the 60km drive from Lanzhou, with two hours to go before the flight. We queued briefly at the check-in and then handed over the faxed confirmation from the travel agent, which is where it went horribly wrong.

They checked all of the vouchers and there were none for us. They checked the computer and there was no record. Even with the booking references and so forth on the fax, they couldn't find us. A quick call to our company managed to get us in touch with the travel agent who booked the tickets for us and they confirmed the ticket was set up correctly in the computer. Unfortunately, the airline disagreed.

Eventually (40 minutes before take-off) everyone conceded that we'd need to buy new tickets if we were going to get on the flight so off we rushed to the Lanzhou International Airport ticket desk where bad quickly became worse.

The tickets were 1600 RMB (just over 100 GBP). We only had 1000 RMB in RMB on us.

Who would guess that anything claiming to be an International Airport would only accept cash in the local currency and nothing else.
  • Chinese Debit Cards? No
  • Foreign Credit Cards? No
  • US Dollars? No
So we looked for other options?
  • ATM in the airport? No
  • Foreign Exchange Facilities? No
  • Ability to pay at the far end? No
Even trying to persuade one of them to take the 100 USD (worth 826 RMB) and coughing up the 600RMB we needed and keeping the 226 RMB for themselves met with a shaking of heads.

One helpful chap did chip in "Well, you'll just have to get the next flight... tomorrow" which was the last straw. Given that we've bought and paid for two tickets, and have the evidence to prove it, and have enough cash in different currencies, and all the bases covered with credit cards, and still don't have seats on the plane, we were not happy at all!

Suddenly the check-in girl appeared and had a solution to the problem. The last people to check-in had agreed to loan us the money. With less than 10 minutes to go we got our tickets, I managed to get a quick telephone call off to arrange our company driver to meet us in Hangzhou with cash to repay them, and we leapt onto the plane.

Once the plane took off I realised that I didn't even have any clue who the people were who'd lent us the cash so YY asked the stewardess who said she'd go and find out. Just to round off the perfect wedding experience, 60 seconds later the tannoy boomed with "Can the people who lent money to buy tickets to the couple sitting in seats 17 A and B please make themselves known". Fortunately the silence and mass turning of heads (and I'm easy to spot on an internal flight as I'm the tallest person by far...) was broken by our saviour coming forward.

In all, it was quite a show of trust and helpfulness (which I'm not convinced anyone in the UK would have done for us). Then again, the problem would never have risen either as I can't believe the UK has any international airports that only take cash!

No comments: