Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Air Travel in China

I usually do my traveling through China by train or bus. These modes are less expensive than air travel, although those depots and sometimes the conveyances leave a lot to be desired from a cleanliness standpoint. I have a passing acquaintance with airports in China though. I’ve flown into Beijing several times and into Shanghai. It is not like I am a total stranger to the airways here, but I am not as familiar with flying as I am with riding. And, I’ve not often flown out of cities; I tend more to fly into them. That makes a difference.

One aspect of air travel that is not different whether you are flying in or out is cleanliness. These airports are fantastically well maintained! I’ll get to that in a minute.

Because of Carrie Ann and Olaf’s limited time we opted to fly to Chengdu. By train it would have been a twenty hour journey one way; by the time we got there we would have just enough time to rest up before coming back home so they could resume their work. If we were going to maximize our visit we would have to fly.

The plane tickets cost us 1,250Yuan each, quite a bit more than I’m used to spending on a weekend jaunt. Matter of fact, it is a little more than a quarter of my monthly salary! But on the other hand, how often do I just jet off somewhere for the weekend? I suppressed my wince and paid Carrie Ann back for my ticket. Olaf, being in a position of responsibility within his company, has been assigned a car with a native driver. That would get us to the airport.

I’m kind of liking this: my travel arrangements made for me, and being chauffered around. Already I’m spoiled with more luxury than I’ve had in the last ten months!

Rather than spend the night at Carrie Ann’s, it was decided that Olaf’s driver would pick me up on the way to the airport. That worked out well because I did have things to do at home and spending the night away would have made it impossible for me to get them done. The poor man hates coming out here because the roads are so bad. He shudders every time he goes over a pothole and does his best to navigate around them. In my neighborhood though, sometimes the whole road is a pothole and there is no navigating anything. I feel his pain.

Once we got onto the Third Ring Road, the highway encircling the city that would take us directly to the airport, the driver unclenched his jaw and we started making really good time. All of us were high on the anticipation of our weekend. Excitement was rampant and laughter rang out as we enjoyed the prospect of this getaway. All of us except the driver, who didn’t understand a word we said and was not excited at all.

Being as I retain the memory of air travel in America, I was a bit worried about getting to the airport in time for security checks. I anticipated long lines, having to partially disrobe and half unpack my luggage. I imagined the traffic congestion in front of the terminals as everyone in the city arrived at the airport for their early morning flights. I was so far off the mark it was as though I had never flown before.

There were no crowds and there was no traffic. We pulled up at the terminal building with just 10 minutes to spare before our flight was scheduled to take off. I almost fell over when Olaf said “Great! We’ll have time for a cup of coffee before boarding.” Um… what about security checks and patdowns? What about removing shoes and laptops? What about disguising fluids and dodging lines?

No such thing here. We breezed into the terminal and I was struck by its airiness and cleanliness. The floors were glossy clean, the advertisement booths graffiti free, the lighting gentle and inviting. Nobody was lounging around on the floor or shouting into their cellphone or running to make their flight. Here and there across the wide open area cleaning personnel could be seen pushing a dustmop or cleaning off a trash can. Is this actually an airport terminal?

Well, yes it is. I can tell that by the service counters that have luggage scales mounted into them, clerks seated behind the desks and the conveyor belts for luggage directly behind them. There is a security checkpoint right there, where you deposit your carry-on to be scanned. There are no lines upon lines of people waiting to clear security and there are no agents pre-verifying your right to travel. Everything is open, calm and procedural.

If more than 5 people stand in any one line, another security clearance clerk is brought into service. Service is expedited by a security agent walking the lines of waiting passengers with his electronic wand, ready to sense a metallic disturbance on each person. Once your ticket and identification has been verified you put your carry on onto the x-ray conveyor, after removing your laptop, of course. You are not instructed or required to disrobe to any degree. While your bag goes through its cursory, non-intrusive investigation you are invited to step forward. A smiling agent waves his or her metal detecting wand over you and if nothing is detected, you are free to go. You claim your bags from the ejecting conveyor and follow the wide, uncluttered concourses to your gate.

Being as I’m used to train or bus travel, I had forgotten that I could not carry a bottle of Listerine on the plane with me. No problems! I was asked to open my bag so that the agent could see what that large liquid mass was instead of being hauled off to the side and the agent tearing into the suitcase. Rather than confiscating my mouthwash and having to submit to a more intense scrutiny because of my oversight (if she tried to sneak mouthwash on the plane, what else is she hiding?) I was allowed to go back to the check-in counter with my bag and check it. All I had to do was show my ticket and I didn’t have to wait in line at all.

Because there is no need to be at the airport hours ahead of your flight’s departure the waiting areas and secure areas are uncrowded and quiet. Such a different atmosphere from American airports! Because of the lack of shouting, frustrated people in the concourses (who may or may not still be arranging their clothing) we did indeed have time to grab a cup of coffee, but we did have to get it to go. Our plane had started boarding fifteen minutes ago and we were the last passengers to execute that final formality. Nevertheless we were greeting with smiles and welcomed warmly onto the filled craft.

This is truly an airport experience worth writing about, don’t you agree?

No long taxiing to the runway and no wait before takeoff. Within ten minutes of sealing the craft we were airborne. Just after hitting cruising altitude the skycaps started serving breakfast and beverages. Such a pity! I left my wallet in the overhead compartment and I would have to get up and get some money if I wanted to eat. And I did want to eat; I was rather hungry. Wait a minute! I’m not seeing any money change hands or anyone declining food or drink. Aren’t they going to charge me for my meal?

Nope! The food and beverages are included in the price of the ticket. While you can’t have as much breakfast as you want, you can have as much to drink as you want. The beverage cart went through the plane twice. At no time were the skycaps rude or demanding, nor did they act harried or put upon. They were lovely, gracious and appeared happy to provide refreshments.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what I remember air travel being like in the not so distant past. Imagine finding it in China, where life is so regimented and rigorous! And, this was not an isolated experience, either. Flying back was exactly the same: streamlined check-in procedure, cursory security process, comfortable flight with complimentary snacks and beverages served by gracious hosts.

In about two weeks I’ll be boarding a plane for a substantially longer flight. I wonder, when I land at LAX… will I have this same degree of cleanliness in the terminal, this calm sense of purpose from my fellow travelers, the same quiet authority from the uniformed agents, the same open spaces to navigate baggage claim?

What do you think?

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