Daniel Elkington

Monday, 21 November 2016

My first International Flight

What do you do if a stranger walks up to you in an International Airport and asks for your passport?

An email popped into my inbox some time ago. Attached to it was a "ticket" for a flight to China. I was advised to print it out and take it with me to the airport on Sunday November 20. On opening the attachment I was faced with a PDF containing a heap of garbled text that didn't appear to make much sense at all.

Normally I would ignore an email like this, but in this case the email was from the Swinburne Study Tours Coordinator, who had previously informed me that I had been accepted into Swinburne's Future Leader's Study Tour to China, so it was probably genuine. I printed out the garbled mess of a ticket, which really annoyed me, because it was the opposite of user-friendliness. If you looked through the garbled text you could pick out my name, and the flight I would be on, but it was one of the hardest documents I've ever had the misfortune of being forced to read.

Later I would attempt to get rid of it at the first opportunity. Much later, at the China Southern Airways counter at Melbourne Airport, I knew I was supposed to give them my passport and the online check-in confirmation, but didn't know about the unreadable ticket thing. I did anyway, handing it over along with the passport.

But back to the preceding weeks. Having never been outside of Australia before, I found myself receiving an overload of advice from all manner of people. I was told to tie my passport under my clothes, exchange money in advance, be wary of strangers looking to steal my organs, and avoid tap water. I was told to avoid all meat, avoid all cold food, avoid all non-Western food, avoid dodgy side-street restaurants, and to try all street cold-food because it was the most "authentic". And then there was the plane advice. I was told to get a window seat because I could lean my head against it to sleep, and I was told to get an aisle seat so that I could move about without disturbing people, and stretch my legs. I was told that no matter what, it would be cramped and horrible. I was told that there would be screaming babies and terrible inedible food. I was told to do the online check-in, and to avoid the online check-in and check-in with the rest of the group so we could sit together. I was told to expect a rough journey, that the plane would make me sick, that I should prepare for no sleep and just watch movies, and that I should avoid the movies and just go to sleep.

I was told that the reviews of the airline Swinburne had chosen - China Southern Airways - were "mixed", but that it was cheap. I was told that it was actually cheaper than had been previously thought when I'd paid my contribution for the tour, and I would get a $500 refund. When I told people this information, they advised me that this was obviously the most dirt-cheap flight possible, and it would no doubt be unbearable, in a horrible, cramped seat. And it would be unbearably hot. And freezing cold.

Overwhelmed, I headed to the airport, arriving four hours and forty-five minutes before my flight was scheduled to take off. Which meant of course that I just ended up sitting around at the airport for hours waiting for other people to come. I had done the online check-in, which appeared to be sensible because it meant I could skip a huge queue at the actual luggage check-in. They took my suitcase, and after some more waiting around I made my way with a few others through customs, border force, and…perfume shops? Apparently there are people who are so devastated about their perfume being pinged by the Customs "no liquids" rule that they feel the need to immediately buy more on the other side. Melbourne Airport is so strange…

I met with the rest of the study tour for the first time at the boarding gate. There was still a while until our flight left. I sat down, and was scrolling through Australian Politics on Twitter when…a person approached. "Can I have your passport and boarding pass?" she asked.

I looked up. My first thought was that it would be security, but she wasn't dressed like a security person. One could possibly vaguely describe her clothing as "uniform-like" though. She was frowning. Why had she just randomly approached me here? I wondered if this was part of a criminal plot to steal people's passports and do bad things with them? What do you do when a stranger asks for your passport?

I reached into my bag, pulled out my passport and boarding pass, and gave them to her.

She didn't walk or run away like I was half expecting. Instead, she opened the passport, had a quick glance through, and took a quick look at my boarding pass.

And then she reached into her pocket, pulled out a folded piece of paper, and gave it to me. "You left this at my desk," she said, before wordlessly giving me back my passport and boarding pass. And before I could say anything else she had turned on her heal and was gone, and was soon lost in the crowd.

I stared at the folded piece of paper in my hand. I was almost scared of opening it. I couldn't remember leaving anything on anyone's desk.

I slowly unfolded it.

It was that wretched indecipherable China Southern Airways ticket thing that I'd wanted to get rid of.

How on earth had she tracked me here? Had someone been tracking my movements on CCTV cameras through the airport? Or had she just happened to recognise me? It was so strange.

I boarded the aircraft, and before-long I was out of Australia for the first time. And I have to say that China Southern Airways exceeded my expectation in just about every way. Overall I thought they were amazing. The seat was comfortable, much more comfortable than I had been expecting, and there was plenty of room for me to stretch my legs. They made it nice and dark for most of the flight so that sleeping was possible. It was much quieter than I'd anticipated. The flight attendants were very helpful. And the food was amazing. If other airline food is like this, I don't know why people complain. I wasn't even expecting to get food, but on the international flight those of us in economy class got two decent meals and lots of drinks, all of which was really really good.

Perhaps the only criticism I would make is that China Southern Airways needs to get better software developers. Their online check-in site is broken, in that it appears to only work if you leave the "middle name" field blank (and I've heard that from multiple people on the tour). The entertainment systems have a tendency to crash. And the in-flight wifi trial didn't work - at the login screen it kept telling me that I had entered "invalid input", and I noticed the same thing happen to other people on the plane who attempted to connect. But the wifi is marketed as only a "trial" anyway, hopefully they'll be able to iron out those bugs.

Our international plane touched down at Guongzhou, and I soon discovered the difference between how Australia and China stop poison getting through customs. Australia simply bans any liquids of a certain quantity from going through. In China they make you drink some of the liquid you're bringing in. I had to drink some of the water in my bottle as staff watched carefully to see if I was just pretending to drink/dying.

We raced across the airport to just make our connecting flight to Beijing. This time I had a window seat. And I was so glad that I did, because the view I had on the descent into Beijing was incredible. Breathtaking. Snow had just fallen, and covered the buildings, trees, and the ground. Tall buildings covered the landscape as far as the eye could see, which was nothing like Melbourne. I wish I could have taken photos, but having your phone on while in flight wasn't allowed, so I just took in what I could. It was a magical, wondrous experience.

All-in-all, international flying in economy is much better than it's made out to be. Worst part is unreadable air tickets. That piece of paper has now come with me from Melbourne to Beijing, it's in my bag right now, and it's still annoying me. If it survives coming back to Melbourne again, I'll need to think up a very special fate for the wretched thing…

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