These last several days I have been making my way from Kalamazoo, MI all the way to Beijing, China. Although it’s not a typical “Christmas” destination for most people, Beijing is always one of my favorite cities to visit. Since my family and many close friends still live there, I will typically fly back to visit at least once a year for Christmas and New Year’s.
The original plan for the trip started with me leaving Kalamazoo on December 15th, and traveling to Chicago O’Hare Airport. At first I booked an Amtrak ticket, but cancelled that after two friends (Stephanie and Haley) said they could drop me off instead. They were driving to Wisconsin, so Chicago was right along the way, and it worked out fairly well. There was a good amount of snow along the way, but as soon as we passed the south side of Lake Michigan it mostly stopped.
I arrived at ORD just before 9:00pm. My first flight on JetBlue, however, didn’t leave until 10:00am the next morning. Since it was almost 13 hours to wait, I brought plenty of things to do and snacks to eat. First, I caught the airport train over to Terminal 5, reasoning that since it has most of the international flights there, it might have nicer waiting areas and lounge seats. I also signed up for Boingo’s monthly WiFi plan, which offers high-speed internet access at most airports around the country. With a good set of headphones and plenty of Netflix shows to watch, I started to get through the hours. The Arrivals area downstairs was fairly quiet and had plenty of empty seats, so I also managed to get a few hours of sleep before the airport got busy again around 6:00am.
*Just after 7:00am I packed up my bags and went back to Terminal 3, where JetBlue’s check-in counters were located. The crowds of Christmas travelers were starting to rush in, and the lines were getting longer every minute. I printed off my boarding pass and dropped off my one suitcase to check-in. I had guessed the weight of the bag to be just around 20kg, and the airline scale confirmed my guess to be less than half a kilogram off. After that I went through security without an issue, noting that I was able to take my DJI Phantom 3 quadcopter through as carry-on.
I found our gate L5 near the end of the terminal. It was right next to Spirit Airlines’ gates that I remembered just traveling with earlier in the year. The Embraer 190 that we were going to be flying on got slightly delayed coming into Chicago, and the gate agents announced that passenger’s with connecting flights in New York might have to be rebooked. This wasn’t great news, but I decided I’d just wait and see if I could make the catch the next leg. My connecting flight on Air China was scheduled to depart at 3:50pm, so I’d have just 30 minutes after we landed in JFK to change terminals, print out a new boarding pass, and run through the security check again.
The JetBlue flight was quite enjoyable, and sitting in seat 5D provided a great view of the forward side of the wing and engine. During the short flight over, I had an interesting conversation with the person sitting next to me. We started chatting about the snow and regular delays, and I found out that (Jay) had just recently finished serving in the US Navy, and had worked for several months on an aircraft carrier. We found a lot in common to talk about, discussing everything from international military policies to Trump’s interesting Twitter posts. He told me he flew with JetBlue several times a week for his work and explained which way to go to transfer terminals quickly.
When we landed at JFK, I immediately noticed several huge planes parked at the terminal. It appeared that most international airlines had their newest or largest planes coming into New York, with it obviously being one of the most popular destinations. There were 747’s, A380’s, and 787’s from British Airways, Lufthansa, KLM, Ethiopian Airlines, and more all parked near each other. JFK is definitely a great location for plane spotting and photography.
Unfortunately, Air China’s check-in counter had already closed by the time I arrived. There were also no airline representatives available to talk with, so two other passengers and I were temporarily stranded without a flight to catch. We all started calling the airline customer service number, trying to speak with an agent about rebooking us on the next flight. At first I was frustrated because I kept getting put on hold and transferred between different representatives, and nobody wanted to take responsibility for the delay. Air China said that I would have to contact JetBlue since it was their delay. JetBlue told me the delay was caused by weather, and said they were not responsible for rebooking me. My online booking agency tried to help, but said they were unable to do anything until I got a “certificate of delay” from the airline that caused the delay.
Eventually I worked out getting a new ticket, but it took me over 3 hours of talking on the phone and two trips to offices in different terminals. JetBlue finally said they could get me a new ticket, but the next flight would not be leaving until December 18th, so I was stuck in New York for another two nights. I definitely did not want to sleep in the airport again, so I met up with the other two Chinese passengers on my flight who had also missed the connection.
We decided to try to get a room somewhere nearby the airport where we could stay for the two nights. One friend knew a relative who lived about 20 minutes away in Flushing, so he said if I found a place to stay nearby we could catch a taxi over together. I went online and found an interesting place on Airbnb.com, and decided to book the room for two nights. It wasn’t a very fancy place, but it was located within walking distance of several small restaurants, shopping malls, and the subway.
Staying in the same apartment with me were several other Chinese guests, a Russian couple, and another student from California that were all visiting New York. It was a very interesting experience getting to meet the others and sharing some of our travel stories. I also saved a lot of money by not staying at a hotel, which would usually cost close to $150 a night. During the next 36 hours I caught up on some much needed sleep and also explored the nearby area. I met up with the friend from my flight, and we ended up getting dinner together and spending the rest of the evening at a web café playing online games for several hours.
It always seems weird at first when you meet up with someone you’ve only known for a few hours, but it’s amazing how fast you can connect with people. With just one or two shared experiences we felt comfortable talking with each other, and had a much better experience hanging out together than if we would have just stayed inside by ourselves the whole day. Just a couple of random, stranded passengers ended up having a good time in New York together.
Two days later we were finally ready to leave for Beijing again, so we caught a taxi back to the airport and finally managed to get new tickets printed out. The Air China representatives apologized for the trouble we had with the connection and helped us get checked in fairly quickly. We were just standing in line for the security checks, when there was an unexpected commotion. Several officers were blocking lanes and redirecting passengers in a winding loop to different checkpoints, with several K-9 units with dogs running around sniffing people’s bags.
Everyone was rather startled and unsure about what was going on, but eventually nothing actually happened and we all just went through the checks as normal. While waiting to get my bags x-rayed I asked one of the officers what had happened, wondering if there was some sort of incident that had occurred. He explained that he couldn’t go into details for security reasons, but it was actually a regular procedure that they do at unscheduled times.
Typically, security checks are very standard and happen in the same order every single day, so sometimes they change it up and try to catch people off-guard. The officer told me that they are specifically looking for unusual reactions or nervous behavior that might reveal someone with ill-intent. I thought it was an interesting part of the security net that goes on behind the scenes that many people don’t ever think about.
After all that had finished, we finally made our way to Gate 8, where our Boeing 747-8i was waiting to make the final, 13-hour flight back to China. With over 400 passengers in a 3-class configuration, the boarding process took slightly over an hour. While entering the plane and walking through the cabin, the overall layout looked nearly identical to other Boeing aircraft like the 737-800 and 777-300ER that I have flown in the last 2 years. The new cabin layout with mood lighting and slim seat design seems fairly standard between Boeing models. It felt quite “airy” and pleasant. Each seat also had a personal entertainment system, with a touch screen game controller for the console.
There was a large variety of movies, music, and TV shows to watch, with everything available in at least two different languages and subtitles. During one portion of the flight I watched a hilarious comedy movie in German, with Chinese and English subtitles showing at the same time.
With it being an international flight, the service provided was excellent. The cabin crew served two hot meals, and each one had different choices for beef or chicken, and noodles or rice. With each meal there was also a salad and dessert, with plenty of drink options in-between. I was interested to learn that as soon as I boarded a Chinese aircraft we switched to Chinese aviation regulations and national laws. That meant you were still not allowed to have mobile devices powered on for takeoff or landing, (since the CAAC still has not changed their policy to match the FAA regulations) but I was able to order from several choices of wine and Chinese beer, since the legal drinking age there is only 18 instead of 21.
When we took off from JFK it was already just after dark, and we “chased” the night line all the way across the Pacific. Since Beijing time is 13 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, the 13-hour flight had us landing at almost the same time that we took off. It felt strange flying the entire way in darkness; I couldn’t recognize anything on the ground during the entire flight over.
When we finally got close to Beijing airport, I realized how bad the pollution was. Beijing has always been well-known for the thick smog, but that night it was worse than usual. Visibility was less than ¼ mile, even though there was no cloud coverage. While flaring over the runway I could still barely make out the blurred outline of the terminal building just across from us. Even though the country as a whole does not have a lot of aviation infrastructure, the few major airports that it does have are some of the best equipped in the world, with CAT III ILS instrument approaches available for every single runway. We landed without a problem, but later on the news I heard that most flights at Beijing’s smaller regional airport had all been diverted to nearby cities, because they were unable to land in the poor weather conditions.
After more than 4 days of traveling internationally, it felt good to finally be home. Nothing compares to the amazing feeling of falling asleep in your own bed after such a long trip. I’m looking forward to the next two weeks of catching up with friends and family, enjoying Christmas dinner, and hopefully making a few trips to different interesting locations around Beijing.