Terminal hell in Shanghai, with terrible regrets

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
July 27, 2007
SHANGHAI: You can’t imagine how many flights there are in China until you’ve had the experience of waiting for a delayed plane at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport, and the impression of abundance doesn’t come from watching planes take off.
China, a state run by engineers, is a builder’s paradise, where almost no expense is spared for infrastructure. Lots of Chinese cities, including many the average reader may have never heard of, have smart airports of recent vintage and clean, well thought out design that compare favorably to their American and European counterparts.
Shanghai and Beijing are hurtling toward the completion of fancy and expensive new terminals that are being added onto their spectacular existing international airports, both of which are relatively new.
Waiting for a flight at Hongqiao, Shanghai’s older, domestic terminal, is hell, though, because whether you’re there for 30 minutes or for three hours (more likely), you will be bombarded almost nonstop with blaringly loud announcements expressing “terrible regret” about delayed flights, about canceled flights and about changed gates. Anything else would simply not be a normal day at Hongqiao.
Console yourself, dear passenger, with the thought that you are at least receiving a free lesson in Chinese geography while you wait, as the names of virtually every city of note in China are read out – again, with “terrible regrets” – over the bad news concerning these flights.
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My most recent flight to Beijing, or to be more accurate, my most recent near flight to Beijing, lived up to Hongqiao’s airport hell reputation, and then some.
In the last few years, late afternoon air travel along the heavily trafficked Beijing-Shanghai corridor has become something akin to flying on the American Eastern Seaboard just before Thanksgiving.
And when there are summer rainstorms along the route, as happened to be the case on this day, it’s like trying to catch a flight on the eve of the Christmas holidays in the midst of a major snowstorm that wreaks a cascade of havoc on entire flight networks.
Experiences like these have come far too close to being the norm along China’s booming east coast, and all of the infrastructure in the world has done little to alleviate the situation. The misery is compounded by a lack here of many of the niceties of first world economies – notions like passengers’ rights, straightforward and timely information, or for that matter, departure halls where announcements are not shouted until you’ve been battered into submission.
On a sweltering Shanghai summer day, we sat on China Eastern Flight 5119, scheduled for 5 p.m. departure. Instead, the flight boarded at 5, and the passengers – we, that is – were kept in our seats with the plane parked at the gate for the next two hours, as the temperature steadily rose.
The first bad signs came with a terse announcement from the crew that we hadn’t moved yet because we hadn’t received instructions from the tower. “Terrible regrets. Your cooperation is appreciated.”
With that, plop, down came the overheard TV screens, which play the role of pacifiers in the world of Chinese aviation, and I knew from experience they were to be the source of yet more punishment.
In this instance, that meant one of those shows modeled after the old “Candid Camera,” where pranks are played upon unsuspecting passers-by, all to the sound of a high decibel laugh track.
When that tape ended, we were treated to a Chinese opera sung by a woman in a voice as shrill as the nightly news in Pyongyang. I had been trying to read a novel, and if you were to imagine that I was wondering right about then when it would dawn on Chinese airlines that many passengers prefer quiet, or perhaps their own stash of music via iPod, you wouldn’t be far off.
Note to Chinese airline passengers: loud or long mobile phone conversations are often not pleasing for your neighbors.
Note to the global airline industry: if anyone thinks legalizing cellphone use in the air is a good idea, please visit China first.
By this time it had become truly hot, with passengers busily fanning themselves with whatever was at hand. Others sat slumped, almost unconscious in their seats, or wearing stunned looks. Thoughtfully, the stewardesses decided to serve a meal, which, as comforting as it may have been to some, wasn’t altogether a good sign.
My instincts were correct. After the meal came an announcement in Chinese saying that weather conditions were responsible for the delays.
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