• Diann Schindler, Ph.D.

Travel Torment: Jacksonville to Beijing


I set my iPhone alarm for 5:45 am and woke up at 5:30 am.

I immediately brushed my teeth and heard my alarm go off from the bathroom. Back in the bedroom, I pushed “stop” on the alarm and noticed a text from United Airlines. My flight from Jacksonville, FL to Dulles, the first leg of my trip to Beijing, was delayed 2 hours due to flight crew fatigue.

“Weather,” I said to myself.

I pulled up the second leg of my trip on my phone and realized this delay would arrive in Dulles too late to catch the flight to Beijing.

This is nothing new. Yes, rare, but I have experienced this more than once before. After all, in the last 3 years, I have traveled to 40 countries and 5 continents.

The text didn’t include a phone number, nor did it reference my next flight to Beijing.

Naturally, I assumed United Airlines would call me as airlines do, as a matter of course.

An hour later, I began calling United and waited 30 minutes to get a live voice. The representative put me on a flight with Air China which would leave a few hours later. I noted that I had paid the extra $165 for an upgraded seat. The representative said I would get a refund, but I had to call Air China to get an upgraded seat. She gave me a number to call.

I was at the Jacksonville FL gate by the time I reached Air China on the phone. They said I had the wrong number. I called a new number Air China gave me and was told this was United Airlines’ problem, they are supposed to manage upgrading a seat, but they didn’t. I needed to address this at the Air China gate at Dulles airport.

I had visions of feeling trapped 14 hours in a horrible seat. My normal, laid-back attitude began giving way to a sight, aggravating anxiety.

I acquired new boarding passes at the United Airlines gate in Jacksonville. The Air China boarding pass showed I was in seat 54H.

I shouted to myself, “H?!! I KNOW 54 is in the rear, but where is H? Assuredly, not a window seat!”

My anxiety increased causing my arm pits to sting with perspiration.

“Breathe…I choose to let go, I choose to let go…”

I arrived at the Air China gate at Dulles at least 2 hours early. No other passengers were around. I was happy to see a young man at the gate counter. He was Chinese with acceptable English skills.

I began to explain my situation when he interrupted and asked for my boarding pass. I stopped talking and gave it to him.

He stayed behind his computer screen for a few minutes and then asked for my passport.

I obliged and said I wanted to upgrade my seat.

He went back to his computer as if he hadn’t heard a word.

Then, he reached out his hand and asked for evidence of my airline ticket out of Beijing. I was prepared for this requirement and had purchased a ticket. I gave him my phone, opened to the China Eastern flight confirmation from Beijing to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

“I would like to upgrade my seat. please.”

He buried his head in his computer.

Three other Air China agents appeared, leaned against the wall behind the gate counter, chatted in Chinese, and chuckled.

Finally, the young man turned to the agents behind him and seemed to ask for help. An older woman began working with him. Then the other two agents joined in.

“Is there a problem? Excuse me, please. Is there a problem?”

Nothing.

Finally, the older woman asked me if I was traveling alone.

I nodded, “Yes. I want to upgrade my seat, please.”

No acknowledgement.

This went on for an hour or more. I stayed riveted to them, hoping to be seen, or recognized. I studied their facial expression, searching for some clue.

Meanwhile, other passengers stepped up to the counter and interrupted. Instead of staying focused with me, the agents took time to address these passengers. Some were Americans, some were Asians. All were rude, I decided.

I continued to breathe and repeat my mantra.

Finally, the young man handed me a new boarding pass. It had the same seat: 54H. At the same moment, another passenger approached the counter and my young man asked how he could help him.

“Sir, please. I want to upgrade my seat,” I said.

“Not now,” he said.”

“Ok, when?”

“No, no. No upgrade. Plane full.”

“What?”

He repeated while maintaining eye contact with the interloper.

“May I have my phone, please?”

“Oh, yeah, sure.”

“May I have my passport, please?”

“Oh, yeah, sure.”

I glared for a couple of seconds and then turned around to see the line of passengers, snaking around and back, for at least 70 feet.

I went to back of the line.

I seethed. And, I knew seething would only cause myself emotional angst. I needed to choose to let go.

Eventually, I boarded, walked to the back of the plane to find seat 54H on the center aisle, next to a large Vietnamese man, US citizen, in his late 20's.

When I sat down, I quickly realized he was encroaching into my seat. His arm covered our “shared” armrest and more. His belly filled the space below the armrest and my seat cushion, ballooning into my space…my personal space.

He had a cold and a runny nose. No, no, I mean a visibly runny nose.

It was his first solo flight. He was very afraid. I now had to focus on his fear rather than my rage. I spent the next 14 hours, on and off, calming him

down. My seething subsided. I decided I was lucky I was sitting next to him, as difficult as it would be.

I also came to understand this was a good experience, especially since I was going to be teaching an online course for the Charter for Compassion in the coming months. And was is the focus of this course? How travel naturally engenders compassion.

Boy, everything happens for a reason! This was the perfect test for me: engendering compassion and replacing my angst and anger.

It was a very long flight and I slept little, if at all. I arrived in Beijing at 6:35 pm. and began the process of going through long lines of security which had 4 steps. I circled around and around those 4 steps for two hours as the agents sent me through to the next step, as other sent me back to the beginning.

“Is there a problem? What is the problem?” I kept asking and of course, like my Dulles experience, no one responded, except to say, “You must go back.”

Each time I repeated a security step, I had a different clerk who knew nothing of my problem. Of course, I couldn’t explain anything because I had no idea what was happening.

Nightmare on Beijing Airport Street!

Gradually, I realized there was something wrong with my flight from Beijing to Chiang Mai.

Finally, I was told, I needed to buy a new ticket. Furthermore, I had to stand there at the counter and buy it online using my phone.

The internet signal was feeble, and my phone was losing battery. I used my external battery pack to charge it.

Green dollar signs kept rolling in my mind’s eye!

Yeah, my existing ticket was $350 and now I needed to buy another one, on the spot? A new ticket could be even $1,000! More dollar signs!

I began a long, expensive phone call to Alternative Airlines, the company that had booked my ticket via Momondo.com. Thank goodness I connected with a woman with a lovely British accent who spoke Chinese. What were the chances?

I kept her on the phone and she spoke with each agent as I went through the security steps again. I thought I was home free, until the last step.

My Alternative Airlines representative explained they would not let me take this this flight because, although it appeared to be a direct flight, it stopped in a forbidden province. Yet, I wouldn’t not be deboarding the plane. Then, after an hour, it would take off for Chiang Mai. It didn't matter. I had to have a different route.

We had been circling the steps for 90 minutes. That is $25/minute for 90 minutes or $22.50, since I couldn’t use a free phone service, such as Skype, given this short notice and poor-quality Wi-Fi.

She said she would get another ticket for the same day with another airline and send the confirmation to me by email…and all at no cost. The confirmation would appear in my email inbox within 15 minutes.

I calmed and thanked her profusely.

But when no email confirmation had appeared 30 minutes later, my mind began to summon up fear of incompetence or even fraud. Could she have lied to me?

I called Alternative Airlines again, but, of course, she wasn’t there.

I inhaled deeply just as a man cut in on the call and said he was aware of the problem. He said he just sent me the confirmation.

“Check your phone.”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t. When I tried, an error message popped up noting it couldn’t retrieve email while on was on a call.

What!? Welcome to China’s internet service.

He said hang up, look for the email and reply, noting I had received it. And, I needed to hurry, because it was two minutes before midnight. The reservation would be null and void at midnight.

Midnight? I had been going around and round for nearly 6 hours!

Alas, no time to whine! I checked and voila! There was my flight reservation! I replied a confirmation and began, AGAIN, the 4-step security process.

Of course, now I was freed up to begin to worry about my luggage. Where might it be and how would I find it?

The 4 steps were not a breeze, but I did make it through.

Finding my luggage was a bit of a challenge but, I was successful.

I forgot all about my hotel airport shuttle service. They must have waited for hours. It was 12:30 am and I really didn’t have the energy to worry or fret anymore. After all, I had been on this journey, if you count Uber taxi from Amelia Island, Florida to the airport, and so on, TWENTY-EIGHT HOURS!

Brain dead doesn’t begin to describe my condition.

Honestly, there is more to the story, but this is quite enough!

Final thoughts:

  1. I made it.

  2. I didn't turn into the ugly American...and that was work, believe me!

  3. I’m not nearly as sore as I expected to be, cramped in that seat with my intimate Vietnamese friend for 14 hours. And, so far, I don't have his cold.

  4. I'm so glad I used Momondo/Alternative airlines because this "broker" was my advocate and helped me solve this problem. Otherwise, I would have simply been an individual without the proper language skills, doomed to failure.

  5. I’m so glad I had my flight information on my free TripIt App. It was easy to access when agents needed it. Although, I didn’t have the United Airlines phone number. I must do that in the future! I always tell people to get TripIt or a similar app. Now, I’ll tell them to be sure to have the phone number, too.

  6. My trusty external battery pack for my phone was a life saver! A dead phone would have been catastrophic, especially since my electronic adapters were in my checked bag. How could I charge my phone without the proper adapter for Chinese outlets, and, furthermore, how could I do that and go from security step to step? I always tell people to carry an external battery pack.

  7. Note, the process took so long that I was going through shift changes. So, every time I went back to each counter, I faced a different person. No one took my problem on and no one herded me through the process. That's cultural, I’m sure. It can't just be they are poor at customer service or, worse, rude people! And, they did speak English! I heard them. They just didn’t speak to me. I’ll learn more about all of this from my two friends in Chiang Mai who are Chinese and report back.

Finally, an unsolved problem and maybe unsolvable! How could I have avoided the pricey phone call to Alternative Airlines? Twenty-two dollars and fifty cents. In the scheme of things, it’s not too expensive, but I’m always trying to find a better way to do things and free, to me and to you! Any ideas? Write to me…give me your thoughts.

So, I arrived in Beijing two days ago. Yesterday, I took full-day tour of Beijing, including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven. I loved it!

My phone recorded 4.5 miles of walking. Honestly, I’m still tired.

Nevertheless, I am writing this blog now, after having composed a brief, tidy complaint to United Airlines. I haven’t received notification of my $165 refund for my upgraded seat.

Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr….

I added that I would no longer use my United Airlines Mileage Saver Frequent-Flyer credit card.

Fitting ending.

Plus, now I can share another compassion-teaching moment with my online Charter for Compassion participants.

#Security #China #Beijing #AirChina #UnitedAirlines #Compassion