I know I am supposed to finish up a restaurant review. But it just so happened that I got stuck at Seatac for 9 hours yesterday trying to get on a Hainan Airlines flight to Beijing. As a result I had a far more interesting day, decided to postpone my trip to China, and now writing a post about it.
As with any international flights, I arrived at the airport around 10AM, two hours before the scheduled departure time(12:50PM). Everything went smooth until right around boarding time, news had it that the flight was delayed for 3 hours(Now leaving 3:50PM). Not a problem, except that I noticed that the airplane was already parked at the gate. When inquired about this, the Hainan Airlines agent assured me that there was nothing wrong with this airplane and that this was just a routine maintenance check. I had my doubts.
Hainan Airlines was not the only airlines Beijing-bound yesterday. Delta has a flight which leaves Seattle at 3:56PM and arrives in Beijing around 8PM. I picked Hainan Airlines because it gets me there at 4PM, which is perfect for transportation from the airport, dinner and calling it an early night.
At 3PM, Delta started boarding, still no words from Hainan. I went to the ticket counter and asked about boarding time. My thoughts were if this flight could not make it out, at least I could try to get a seat on Delta. The agent told me that she had no idea. I saw the Gourmet Sky car parked next to the gate, excited at first but then realized that the food trolleys were going the opposite direction, from the airplane to the Gourmet Sky car, they were removing the food. But I decided to give the airline the benefit of the doubt.
At 3:50PM, Hainan Airlines announced that the airplane required more checks and that the new time was now 10PM. And that’s when the chaos started. With the Delta flight pushing away from the gate. there was no other non-stop flights to Beijing in the same day. People started to get creative and asked about flights through LA or San Francisco, Hainan’s response was that their policy does not allow stops in the US, it had to be an international hub. At this point, most of the Asian bound flight had already departed for the day, except for EVA, which was scheduled to depart at 2AM, later than Hainan’s projected 10PM departure time.
Many people gathered at the counter trying to adjust their travel plans. Two men broken into an argument and started pushing each other, the police came.
Hotel rooms were offered to the passengers, but in order to get a room, you need to have at least two passengers in your party. If you are traveling alone, you need to find another passenger, a complete stranger to share the room.
Two hours after the announcement, we were asked to head back to the main terminal to be bused to the hotel. Much confusions there again as to which bus to board. Then another shocking information came, the rooms offered have only one bed. So not only you have to share the room with a complete stranger, you have to share the bed with that person as well. This went a little too far.
Another news was that following day’s regular scheduled flight was full.
On the way to the bus, I stayed behind and asked the agent what was the likelihood that we could still leave the same day. She mumbled “very low”. It was then I made a quick decision to cancel the trip, pulled my luggage and came back to Seattle.
Having traveled extensively, this was not the first time I encountered delays. Two years ago, I was booked on an Air France flight to Rome with a connection in Paris. The flight was delayed due to a mechanic problem, and was immediately rescheduled to a much later time. People were promptly transferred to hotels with food vouchers and were given a phone number to call in for status. I went home, had dinner and checked the status. By 8PM the flight was cancelled, they re-booked me on a Lufthansa flight next day automatically and Air France reimbursed my prepaid first night in Rome.
Yesterday’s situation was not handled very well. First of all, there were lack of centralized communications. This led to panic and a lot of 1 on 1 QAing between the agents and individual passenger.
Secondly, it appeared that there were no clearly defined rules and procedures. For instance, when asked about the possibility of a ticket refund, I received three different answers from three different airline personnel, none of which was willing to give me her name.
Thirdly, because nobody was sure of the rules and procedures, or was empowered to make decisions, the manager became the focal point. There was a time when she was on two cell phones and the rest of agents were just standing by waiting to talk to her.
I did have the luxury of coming back to Seattle and waiting at home. But my experience above did not give me much confidence that either they would call me or there would be a person at the end of the line when I called in for status.
To be fair, it wasn’t a pleasant situation for any airlines to be in, and Chinese passengers weren’t always the easiest kind. Hainan airlines agents were polite and at the first delay they even provided sandwiches and water. I applaud the agent who were honest with me at the end. An agent even apologized for the confusions and told us that they were all confused themselves.
Yesterday’s flight was cancelled. As we speak, a make up flight just departed to Beijing half an hour ago, 35 hours after its originally scheduled time. I hope everyone have a safe flight to their destination wherever they are.
Today it was sunny and beautiful in Seattle and I am happy to be back home. I will go to Beijing another time. But will I give Hainan Airlines another chance?