Hello, PLA? Complaints department, please

SHANGHAI — The way I figure it, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army owes me about $244.

About three weeks ago, I read an article announcing that the PLA would be doing training exercises in the East China Sea from about July 23 to August 6 or so. As a result, the PLA was going to restrict all commercial air traffic in the eastern provinces,causing delays.

I was leaving for the US from Shanghai (that’s in the east, geography fans) on July 30. You can already predict where this story is headed, I’m sure.

But let me set it up.

My own flight plan was to fly out of Changsha around 10:20 am, land in Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport around 12, take the inter-airport shuttle to Pudong Airport for my 4:10 pm flight to the States. Under normal circumstances, this arrangement would have been fine. I had four hours to travel cross-town in Shanghai, which takes about 60-90 minutes by shuttle bus.

It was not to be.

Whenever I am about to take a long trip, I usually can’t stay in bed, no matter when my flight is. So, I checked out of the Hunan Civil Aviation Hotel at 6:30. An airport bus was already waiting to leave, so I paid my 16.50 yuan ($2.67) and got on board.

I chilled at the airport until it was time to check in, enjoying a nice if somewhat expensive breakfast, punctuated by questions in Chinese from a curious 8-year-old girl who had clearly never seen a white man eating in a restaurant ever before.

So far, so good. (Except maybe for the curious schoolgirl’s prodding questions.)

As boarding time rolled around, there was a noticeable lack of activity at the gate. Since Changsha’s airport typically runs late, I didn’t get worried yet. Then the gate attendant put up a sign, notifying passengers that, because of “air traffic control problems,” the flight would be delayed an indefinite period of time.

Weather conditions were good — partly cloudy with several miles of visibility. Air traffic seemed muted, too. The ATC problems were not resulting from weather or high traffic rates.

It had to be the PLA. Dum dada dum!

Can you imagine the outrage in the USA if our military grounded civilian air traffic in peactime for training exercises? Americans complain when we have to take off our shoes and belts and get offended at full body scans that might take blurry images of our naughty bits. There would be congressional hearings and hash tag campaigns on Twitter if air travelers in America had to sit on the ground awaiting a go-ahead from the Air Force.

But This Is China (TIC). The PLA is an arm of the government, and when the government says jump, the wise citizen asks how high, please sir?

As we sat at the gate, I estimated the latest we could leave without fouling up my connection. Anything later than 1 pm would mean I’d miss my flight.

10:20 came

11:20 came

Finally, they told us we could board at 12:15, only to sit for another hour in a stuffy plane in 95°F heat awaiting departure clearance. We ate our lunch on the ground instead of in the air halfway to Shanghai.

Finally, we were airborne at 1:15 pm. I knew my goose was cooked. The best I could hope for was my connecting flight would also be delayed, and I could board anyway.

It was not to be.

Our landing was not delayed. I hurried off the plane as fast as I could, was surprised to find my bag already on the carousel when I hit baggage claim, and trotted to ground transportation.

An airport livery agent flagged me down. Normally I skip the airport limos no matter where I go, but this time I needed speed, Maybe, just maybe the driver could get me to Pudong in time for my flight. So I swallowed hard and plunked down 650 yuan ($100) for a cushy ride in a Buick Regal I hoped was fast enough to get to Pudong in an hour.

There’s nothing you can do in a situation like this. You can’t make the plane fly faster. You can’t clear the highways of slow moving cars. Getting angry doesn’t help. Nor does worrying. I knew I had a snowball’s chance in Hell of boarding my flight. The American airlines customer service rep (who I suspect was in India somewhere) offered no useful help. I just had to wing it (so to speak).

My driver was good, Richard Petty good. Despite Shanghai traffic, he pulled up at terminal 2 at 3:55 pm.

I rushed in, found the American Airlines desk and plead my case. Nope. That flight had already closed its doors. But there was another flight scheduled to leave 45 minutes later for Dallas. If I had a delay authorization, they could put me on the Dallas flight and another flight to Boston at no additional charge.

Until this trip, I have lived a charmed commercial air travel life. My flights have never been so late that I missed a connection. So, I had no clue what a delay authorization was, thus I had not asked Shanghai Airlines for one. No problem, said the lady in charge, Niki Qiao. She would take care of it for me.

(Coincidence time: Qiao is not a common family name in China, but it’s part of my Chinese name. Meeting Niki Qiao was especially auspicious.)

Well, Ms Qiao and her assistants got me sorted out,and I was able to sail through security since I had an immediate departure. China does not require you to take off your shoes and belts and go through a full body scan. That saves time. I got to my gate as they were boarding the groups ahead of mine.

The other good news was my new seat was better than what I had on the missed flight. An aisle seat four rows ahead of the lavatory. The bad news was our flight, like all the others, was almost two hours late departing. PLA delays were still in effect.

(This meant that in fact I could have boarded my original flight, because it was also still on the ground, but I reckon it looks better for the airline to close the doors as scheduled and at least pretend the flight was on time, even if in the end it wasn’t. And if I had made the flight as planned, I still would have missed my connection in Chicago. That layover was only 2.5 hours.)

But, now I didn’t need to worry. I had a 12-hour layover in Dallas. Even the PLA could not make us that late, and I could now try to enjoy the next 24 hours in transit.

There was one sour note, though. I had booked a room in a hotel in Boston, since originally I would have arrived around 11 pm and I figured my son would not want to drive back to Providence right away, after a full day’s work. The hotel (Rodeway inn) has a 24-hour cancelation policy. Where was I 24 hours earlier? I have no effing clue, but it was not near a computer or a telephone. The hotel clerk was unmoved by my tale of woe, repeating company policy prevented her from refunding the $144 room charge.

A hundred bucks for a fast cab,and another $144 for a bed I never slept in. Thanks so much, PLA. The bill will be in the mail — as soon as I get the address of your complaints department.

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