Thursday, October 06, 2022

Back in Hong Kong

This entry is about details of travel to Hong Kong, and about airport/airline efficiency, and may be of limited interest to readers, since it is written mostly to record my experiences and to help me get over jet-lag. Mostly “1st World Problems.” Feel free to skip it, unless you want the details.

I came back to Hong Kong for a brief visit; I need to set foot in the SAR at least once every three years to maintain my “permanent” resident rights (this requirement only applies to “non-Chinese,” a concept that one could write an article about—American-born Chinese technically are “non-Chinese” because they are “born American” but in fact many manage to get the real permanent ID). I was already looking into how to fly back to HK when the government reduced the quarantine from three days in a hotel and four at home to just three at home, so I quickly bought my ticket. The website was so busy that I was not able get into the Cathay Pacific website to select my seats until the following day.

Repulse Bay
I flew on Cathay Pacific because 1) my accumulated miles would have expired on Dec. 31 if I did not fly a leg on the airline, 2) it was the only direct flight from the US to HKG, 3) I like Cathay’s service (politeness and efficiency—you’ll see below). But of course, Cathay does not fly to St Louis, so I had to fly STL to LAX on a code-shared flight operated by American Airlines (AA).

 My flight was supposed to leave STL at 19:45, and at 15:45 I got an email telling me my flight was on time. To make sure there were no problems (and because CX was not able to assign me a seat on the first leg, which was run by AA), I arrived at the airport more than 2 hours early. I tried to check in at the kiosk, but it did not work. The attendant came over, also tried, and then sent me to the service desk. No problem: I got two boarding passes, one STL-LAX, and the other LAX-HKG. So far, pretty smooth (except that CX does not participate in TSA PreCheck, so I had to do the shoes-off computer-out routine).

Change or no change?
Shortly after I got to my gate, C6, I thought to check where my plane was. My Flight Aware app then told me that my flight was going to be two hours late, but there was no indication on the monitor. Finally, about a half hour later, the monitor indicated the late departure, but it said we would only be 1:15 hr late, leaving at 21:00. But an email they sent at 18:02 said that we would depart at 20:29. (Before that email arrived, they sent me at 17:34 an email that my seat had changed from 17D to 17D—yes, that is not a typo! See screenshot.) Since I had a three hour layover, I was not too worried. 

At 20:26, they said they would start boarding in four minutes, so I got up and went to the restroom, about 30 yards up the hallway. When I came back a few minutes later, I was stunned to see that gate C6 was completely empty! Everyone had left, and the monitors at gate C6 still had my flight to LAX displayed.

I knew there was no way everyone boarded the plane that quickly, so I looked around, and I could see a family that had sat next to me was walking down the corridor. It turned out AA had changed our gate to C10. I got there after everyone had found places to sit, and so decided to stand, thinking we were about to board, but it took another 30 minutes, because people had to get off the airplane first, and then they had to clean it. All this time, there was not a single announcement about what was going on. The only announcements were that there was only space for 45 roller bags, and so everyone in groups 7-9 had better check them in now, to avoid further delaying our flight.

Finally, at about 21:00, they asked us to board. I got in my group (#4 of 9!) and once we were in the jetway, we just stopped. We waited in line in the jetway for 10-15 minutes. I heard staff in the front talking, asking passengers if the jetway was full, if people were still coming. One passenger went up and asked the staff woman at the head of the jetway and I heard them saying something about the pilot not having enough hours left to complete the flight. She sent an assistant to get a wheelchair (oh no, are we now disembarking the wheel-chair assisted passengers who are already on the plane?!) but just as the assistant was returning with the wheelchair, the staff woman said we could board, and told her assistant she did not need the wheelchair. Whew!

 Again, at no point did they announce what was going on. By now it was getting to 21:40, and I was worried about making my connection. The flight was scheduled to be 3:50 hrs, so would land around 23:30 LA time, and my CX flight was supposed to board at 23:50.

The flight itself was fine. I did, however, ask a flight attendant if they would make an announcement to ask passengers to let travelers with tight connections get off first, and she replied that they can do it, but that it depends on whether other passengers will cooperate. In my mind, I was thinking that passenger cooperation depends a lot on how the announcement is phrased, but, whatever. In fact, however, they did not make any announcement. I timed the disembarkation: the plane doors opened at 23:13, and I got off at 23:18 (since I was in row 17). Not bad. But again, pretty poor service. I’ve noticed AA does this; they seem to agree to do things to get a customer off their back, but then don’t follow through.

I was worried I would have to go through security again to get to the international terminal (like at Chicago’s ORD), which could take time since I did not have TSA PreCheck, but I did not, so I arrived to my CX flight gate with plenty of time. I was astonished to see that Cathay did not use the boarding passes for boarding the airplane: they used face recognition. You can see in the video below. Passengers are told to step on two green footprints on the ground and look at the monitor. The program identifies the face and then turns green and opens the gate. I was shocked that they used it, and that it seemed to work. In my case, the screen did not recognize me; it said to take off my mask (it was already off! Did they want me to take off my beard?) or see an attendant. The attendant was very patient as she dealt with me, and with a French passenger who had done something wrong with his quarantine statement and might not be allowed to board. She multitasked, and calmed him down, and took care of my my problem. I think the issue was that I had bought the ticket using my passport, but had submitted the quarantine information using my HK ID. After showing the ground staff my passport, ID and green quarantine QR code, she told me I was being upgraded to business class and gave me a new boarding pass, which I did not need to use, because now the computer recognized my face. I do wonder what picture(s) they have of me. And why are they doing this? Are people sneaking into Hong Kong with fake documents? One thing is for sure: this does remind every traveler to Hong Kong that Big Brother knows what you are doing. On the other hand, it is not just Hong Kong; today's NY Times has an article that says of the US, "Around 85 percent of the 221,000 daily visitors arriving from abroad are now verified by face, according to C.B.P. [Customs and Border Patrol] officials." In fact, it may be the US that wants Cathay Pacific to use facial recognition, not Hong Kong!

It is not fair to compare economy class on AA to business class on CX, but I do want to point out that my reading light on the AA flight did not work (it was not that they were all off; the reading light over the boy at the window seat did work). Not everything on my CX flight was perfect; if I plugged in my phone charger, the headphones had a loud buzz. But I have to say that the Airbus 350-1000 was so quiet that I could hear people near me crinkling a bag of potato chips or the flimsy water bottles; the crinkling made an annoyingly loud noise. (OK, now we are really descending in 1st World Problems.) In a moment of boredom, I decided to measure the background sound of the airplane, and it was only 70-71 db, which the app says is the sound of traffic. (For comparison, “Conversation in restaurant, office, background music” are 60 db, which is half as loud as 70 db, and a garbage disposal is 80 db [twice as loud, though that would depend on the model; see quiet Insinkerators here]).  

Hong Kong still tests everyone arriving in the SAR. There are temporary stations set up in the airport arrival hallway, with plenty of people directing passengers. At the first station, I was given a green lanyard with a green card with a bar code on it (there were twelve desks for this, and the entire procedure of submitting travel document and receiving the lanyard took half a minute. Then I went to the next station, where there are over 30 cubicle’s separated by temporary sheets, like in a hospital. I sat down, pulled my mask down, and they took a sample from both nostrils with one medical swab and a sample from the throat with a second swab (the first one did not go that deep, but the second one nearly made me gag). Then I was given the samples in a bag (I don’t remember whether there were two vials or only one) and I went further down the hall and handed them to another team that took them, and scanned the bar code. And I was done! Granted, I was among the first off the plane, but there were so many stations and so many helpers, I’m sure everyone got through very quickly.

Efficiency in moving people is one thing that Hong Kong excels in. The plane touched down at 5:55 am, and I got off the plane at about 6:05. I was at the luggage claim area by 6:19, and that includes taking a train from the far end of the terminal to the arrivals area (and a 5 minute wait for the train). The luggage came out right away (I’ve never understood why it is so fast in this enormous airport, and so slow in STL, which is very small). I was in a taxi on my way to my friend’s apartment at 6:40. Amazing: 45 minutes from wheels on the ground to in taxi, even with all the quarantine protocols.

And I received a text that my covid test was negative at 10:10. I now have to do a rapid test daily, for seven days, and go to a health center for a PCR test in two, four, and six days. It seems a bit extreme (especially doing a rapid and PCR test on the same day) but Hong Kong authorities can be a bit enthusiastic about safety. I've always wondered how many people actually get injured on escalators, because in Hong Kong (including today in the airport), there are announcements that say "Please hold the handrail and don't walk." Not "Stand on the right and walk on the left" as in the Taipei subway system.

One thing that Hong Kong does is load 8 taxis at once. The taxis pull up in 8 spots, and staff guide passengers from the single queue to load at the 8 spots, so people don’t have to wait as long. After experiencing the HK system, I get impatient when I go to other airports and I have to watch one or at most 3 people get into their taxi, while we just wait. When you are as crowded as Hong Kong is, you develop tools to move crowds more quickly and efficiently. The assistants even ask you where you are going, and give you a “Taxi information card” with an estimate of what it should cost, to help avoid cheating. (I noticed that I paid a $3 “Airport fee” on my Uber ride to the STL airport, but I don’t see that I got anything from that; it looks more like a troll fee).

I don’t mean to complain. It is a thrill to be able to travel again. And when you are in a place, you read and learn about things you would never hear about while outside HK, because there, you are paying attention to a different place's local news. The SCMP (which I don’t usually trust, but often does have interesting information) has an article about Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking all HK consulates to provide a list of their properties in Hong Kong, and when and how they bought it. Apparently, many consulates have ignored the missive, which had a Sept. 22 deadline. Most consulates declined to comment, so this part of the article caught my attention:

A former Asian diplomat said the request was ‘clumsy’ and could be ‘counterproductive’.

‘I think it is probably to intimidate and unsettle the diplomatic community and as a not-so-gentle reminder that Hong Kong’s boundaries of acceptable conduct by diplomats have changed.’ The envoy said. ‘I doubt it will work—those very few, mainly Western consulates, inclined to behave in the way the Chinese fear are not going to stop supporting ‘democracy’ or calling out Chinese violations of human rights in Hong Kong, while the majority of consulates who never had any intention of doing so will just get irritated.’ (Ng Kang-chung and Jeffie Lam, “Beijing seeks details on HK assets owned by consulates.” Oct. 6, 2022, p. A3)

HK taxi, with multiple phones, and sanitizer. Orange box is air purifier. 
The article right next to it (“Slight increase in arrivals since easing of restrictions” by Rachel Yeo) notes that on Oct. 3, 768 tourists arrived in Hong Kong, and 471 left (this would not include me, since I enter with a HK ID). On January 24, 2020, before the coronavirus crisis, 22,872 visitors arrived. The article concludes with an economist saying that

It is possible to see air passenger capacity rebounding around 10 per cent at the moment to 30 percent of the pre-pandemic level by year-end. Still, there is a long way to go for Hong Kong to catch up as Singapore will reach 80 per cent soon.

Hong Kong is always competing with Singapore. And now, the terms of the competition are much less in its favor.

1 comment:

mjg said...

I am Jealous...I will even stand lousy flights to get back to Hong Kong
Mike Genovese