Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Miracle of Flight (part 1)

By Kevin

Rule Number One for flying with China Eastern: everybody on the plane must have a ticket. Including infants.

We knew the rule. In fact, when we bought our tickets, we asked both Expedia and the airline – China Eastern – whether or not we could purchase Juliana's ticket in advance. They both said that we could simply wait and buy the ticket at the airport when we arrived. This made sense, because we'd already done it several times in Juliana's young life. Typically, we plop down a fee amounting to 10% of the typical airfare and we're good to go, she gets to fly on our laps. Not today.

Rule Number Two for flying with China Eastern: At the Kunming airport, you can only buy domestic tickets. You cannot buy an infant ticket for an international flight at the Kunming Airport.

This was news to us. Every other airline we've been on with Juliana allowed us to purchase her tickets at the airport (at this point she'd been on five planes – LA to Guangzhou to Xi'an, Xi'an to Beijing, Xi'an to Kunming). So when we got to the Kunming airport just before it opened at 6 a.m. – about two hours before our flight, we didn't anticipate any trouble. But soon, we entered a maze of regulations and pleas for rule-bending in a desperate attempt to board our flight.

When we arrived at the airport on Jan. 27, we noticed that China Eastern only had a domestic ticketing counter, so we casually walked up to the check-in counter for our flight to ask where we should buy her a ticket. We figured we'd simply be directed to some place we'd overlooked and we'd be on our way. We got an unanticipated response. “No, you must go to the China Eastern ticket office in downtown Kunming to buy any international ticket.”

“What? Even to carry a baby on our lap?”

“Yes. For any international ticket. It is impossible to buy the ticket at the airport.”

This posed a problem. At this point there were about 90 minutes left until check-in for our flight would end and two hours until takeoff.

While bemoaning the absurdity that an airline offering an international flight doesn't sell international tickets at the airport, I briefly considered jumping into a cab and going to the downtown office. A round-trip journey into downtown Kumning and back would probably take most, if, not all that time with morning traffic, but . Not to mention that the office probably doesn't open at 6 or 7 a.m.

A foreigner behind us in line, who spoke better Chinese, tried to explain our situation to the ticket agents. This time, the agent said, “Wait a minute, we will see what we can do.” She made a phone call, then returned to her task of checking the other passengers into the flight. We waited several minutes, but since the clock was ticking, we decided to try our luck at China Eastern's domestic ticket counter. We hurried back through the customs gate and found the counter.

We explained our situation – that we needed to buy a ticket so we could carry the baby onto our flight to Bangkok.

Again, no luck. “I am sorry. We can only sell domestic tickets here. To buy an infant ticket, you must go to our office downtown.”

We only have 90 minutes until our flight leaves,” I replied. “That is not enough time.”

“Why didn't you buy the baby ticket at the same time as the other tickets?”

Actually, we tried to, but both Expedia and China Eastern told us that we could buy the baby ticket at the airport.”

We cannot sell international tickets here at the airport,” he repeated. “Only at our office in downtown Kunming.”

I understand,” I replied. “Surely there is a way for us to buy a baby ticket at the airport. I'm sure we're not the first people to try.”

Perhaps you could try the international check-in counter,” the man offered. “Maybe they can help you.”

We were just there. They said the same thing you said.” I tried to gain some composure.

Surely people fly all the time with babies, so you have a way we can buy an infant ticket,” I repeated. “We can't be the first people to have a problem like this.”

The agent talked to a colleague. As they talked I watched as another ticket agent unplugged a telephone from the cord. Then, he moved the phone a few feet to the left and plugged the phone into a different phone line and began to dial. It was now 7:05 a.m. “Just a moment.”

Finally, they reached an agreement on how to proceed. Perhaps, I could call the China Eastern ticket sales office hotline. They unplugged the phone and moved it back in front of me. Fighting the loud echoes that filled the cavernous, glass-and-steel covered airport, I reached an agent and hastily explained our situation.

After a few minutes, she gave a slightly new response: “I am sorry, but there are no economy tickets left for your flight. However, you can buy a business class ticket.”

Flustered, I tried to explain the absurdity of this proposal. “But we don't need a seat. We will carry the baby with us in our arms. She is very small. She is only four months old. She weighs less than most carry-ons. Surely there is a way for us to buy an infant lap ticket. She won't fill up any seats. Can we just carry her onto the plane with no ticket?”

Briefly, my mind flashed to an image of security guards peering at an x-ray of a backpack, asking one another in Chinese, “Did you see that. I think it moved.”

You are right. What is it, a little cat?”

Was that a meow?”

No I think it just giggled. Is it a baby?”

Then my mind snapped back to reality. “We can't sell you an infant ticket. There are no economy seats left.” She just wasn't understanding my argument. Unfortunately, she said there was no way to buy a baby ticket at the airport or over the phone. “Surely there has to be a way.”

But there was still a glimmer of hope: she asked if she could talk with the airport ticket agent, so I passed him the phone. It was now 7:15 a.m. Time was running short. After a few more minutes, he asked for our ticket number. About this time, they rolled a swivel chair out from behind the counter so Ruth and Juliana could sit down, right behind the ticket lines, in the middle of the airport. Ok, so maybe they're trying to imply that this might take awhile.

It was at this time that I began to pray in earnest that God would give us favor. Ashamed at my lack of faith, I asked forgiveness for attempting to do this all in my own and for not leaning upon the One who can do the impossible. I then pleaded that he would connect the airport officials with the right people and that He would make a way for the impossible to be done. This was the turning point. “Give them a desire to help us for the baby's sake, Lord.”

After a few minutes, they asked for Juliana's passport. Progress.

Again, they unplugged the phone, plugged it in again, and dialed another number. Apparently, there are several phone lines at the China Eastern ticketing window, but only two phones. Minutes passed. My heart went heavenward: “Please God, soften their hearts.”

They asked for my passport. Soon, the original agent who helped me, pulled out his cellphone and dialed, putting the phone up to his left ear. “Connect them with the right people, Lord.” Then, another agent held the land-line up to his right ear as he wrote numbers onto a paper. Then, after the calls, they unplugged and replugged the land-line yet again at another spot on the counter.

7:30 a.m. - 10 minutes before check-in for our flight would close, an agent sheepishly asked, “Do you have renmenbi (Chinese money)?”

Does this mean they're going to sell us a ticket?” I asked God as the woman scurried back across the ticket booth. I flipped through my wallet to find out how much money I had. Thankfully, I had 700 left. Surely her ticket would cost less than $100, I thought. Xi'an to Kunming was only 110 RMB ($16).

Again, we waited. Then she came back at 7:33 – “It will cost 590 RMB ($90). We will issue a paper ticket for Kunming to Bangkok and for Chiang Mai to Kunming.”

I pulled out the bills and put them into her hand, grinning. “Is there still time for us to catch the flight?”

Yes, but hurry.”

I thanked them profusely and we scurried off.

We shuffled back to the check-in desk. Since we'd already begun the process earlier, our boarding passes were already printed and our bags were already weighed. “Who told you to leave here and go to the ticket counter earlier?” The agent asked, sternly.

Nobody. We just thought it might help to try the ticket window.”

She shook her head and handed us the boarding passes. “Ok, but next time, you should wait.”

OK, we will.”

You need to hurry.”

We rushed through security: 7:37. Then the Chinese border police: 7:42. Quickly we ran to the gate: 7:45.

We showed our boarding passes and entered the glass-covered ramp to the pane. We were last to board, but we still had several minutes before takeoff. We paused and took a deep breath, gasping at the brilliant sunrise that greeted us. I took out the camera and snapped a quick photo. 

We found our seats, surprised to notice several other empty seats on the flight. “So much for no seats being left on the flight.”

We were extremely grateful to catch the flight, yet perplexed about the spiderweb of misinformation that led to our near-miss . We were bathed in the presence of God's provision for us, yet unsure what our next couple flights might entail. I wish I could say that was the end of the story – and we flew happily ever after. But we were only halfway into our trip.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Kevin and Ruth, So many times I have tried to do something on my own - doesn't usually work. How come we always forget? I am happy you are safe and together. I have enjoyed all the pictures of your beautiful daughter. Vickie Gilman