Monday, September 1, 2008

When a paper ticket isn't a paper ticket

Aug. 26, 2008, posted on Sept. 1

(this post is a little delayed because we just finally got set up with Internet on one of our computers – the other one may take a bit longer, judging by the numerous times the computer tech guy muttered a string of curse words after the word “Vista.” However, I thought it might be best to blog at least somewhat chronologically).

By Kevin

“Do you have your ticket?” she asked, looking skeptically at our boarding passes.

“Yes, this is it,” I replied. “This is our boarding pass.”

The woman at the Air China gate crinkled her nose and blurted something to her partner. “Something, something Meiguo piao,” she said. “...America ticket.”

Indeed, our boarding passes were printed in the U.S. by United.

Then she asked us to stand to the side of the line and wait a moment while she let other passengers board the plane from Beijing to Xi'an. Our apprehension level increased.

“Do you have your paper ticket?” one of the airline workers asked.

“They did not give us a paper ticket,” said Ruth. “Just an electronic ticket.”

More furrowed brows. Apparently a ticket from America wasn't the standard protocol in China, which perhaps we should have figured out when both the woman who re-checked our bags and the security guard asked similar questions five hours before. Yet, both of them let us pass, perhaps thinking that it would be better to let the airline deal with it at the absolute last minute, rather than five hours before our flight.

“We have a paper printout of the electronic ticket,” we offered, handing them the paper we got when we did online check-in before our flight left Atlanta about 24 hours before. Initially, they seem pleased, perhaps because it does resemble a ticket and it is on paper, but when they realized it had no Chinese on it, they repeated, “please wait a moment.”

Christina, our teammate, who is also teaching in Weinan, waited alongside us in our designated place just behind the counter. There are still 15 minutes until the plane is scheduled to take off. “I'm sure they'll figure it out,” she says. She waits to make sure.

We continued to wait. Curious, we glanced on the computer screen. Our names were at the top, easy to recognize because they were two of the only names in English on the list. Each time a passenger's boarding pass was scanned, their name disappeared from the list and a recored voice chimed, “Xie xie.” “Thank you.”

As the line disappeared, no less than three people frantically went to work trying to figure out what to do with us and our United-issued, all-in-English boarding pass for seats 30 B and C. Should they let us onto the plane?

“Clearly we're in the computer,” we mentioned to one another at least three or four times. Once we even pointed it out on the screen to one of the workers, but that's not the information they needed. We began to wonder if they would let us on at all. About this time, we convinced Christina to go ahead and board the plane. “I'm sure they will let us on,” we assured her, but our confidence was waning a bit.

With about five minutes before takeoff, I had a thought: “What about our baggage tags, maybe they can tell we're properly checked in if they see that our baggage tags are scheduled to go all the way to Xi'an.”

Ruth dug them out of her purse, but the airline worker smiled and said that's not what they needed.

Much later than I should have, I admit, I began to ask Dad for help, I asked that he would resolve the situation and get us to Xi'an, tonight if at all possible.

At 8:30, the time the plane was scheduled to take-off, there were still six or seven names left on the computer screen, a man began walking toward us. Apparently someone with authority, because the workers excitedly began explaining the situation to him. Perhaps he was one of the people they had called. He asked for our boarding passes. After glancing at them for a moment, he tore them and they let us board the plane.

We crawled to our seats all the way in the back of the plane and scrunched into the tiny seats and waited, longing for the emergency exit row seats we'd been given on the trans-pacific flight hours before. After about 15 minutes of waiting, the pilot made an announcement in Chinese. The Europeans seated across the aisle from us asked a flight attendant what the delay was. “We are waiting for clearance,” she said, pointing out the window at the heavy rain that was falling.

They began serving drinks. We continued to wait. After a good 45 minutes of waiting, another announcement came. The flight attendants rushed to their seats and we darted into the air. Finally, we were off to Xi'an. Only one leg of the trip to go.

The FAO at the school was tired, so she sent her husband, a student and a driver to meet us at the airport at 12:30. We piled into a hot van and sauntered off to Weinan, trying not to choke on the thick air. By the time we were home, it was 2 a.m. Exhausted isn't a strong enough word, seeing as how I think I'd dozed off for a total of 15 minutes in the past day and a half...