Friday, September 25, 2009

Jetset: "Old vs. New"

As China reflects on its transformation over the past six decades, it’s a perfect time to marvel at the changes in the country’s air travel industry – at least in relations to our fair capital.

It’s hard to imagine but as recently as ten years ago, Terminal 1 was the only passenger building at Capital International Airport. Yes, that tiny facility, which now handles only Hainan Air’s domestic flights, was once the gateway to China. Terminal 2, a glass-and-steel structure featuring arched rooftops that have since become ubiquitous in Chinese airport designs, opened its doors in November 1999. Thanks to the 2008 Olympics, PEK now boasts the world’s second-biggest single-building terminal aka Terminal 3 (it surrendered the crown to Dubai’s even newer T3 last October).

During the first half of 2009, almost 31 million fliers passed through PEK, making it Asia’s busiest airport and No. 2 in the world. The airport authority has projected a passenger volume of 95 million by 2015 – and already drawn the blueprint for a second international airport to the south of the city. (Note to the planners: Please learn a lesson from Shanghai, and build fast and convenient transportation links between the two airports.)

Although we may whine about huge crowds at check-in counters and long walks to boarding gates, T3 is not only the ultimate testament to the breakneck growth of air travel in China but also a great leap forward for the airport – in terms of both facilities and services.

Although both China Southern and Hainan run hub operations at PEK, Air China (CA) remains the true hometown carrier. Few of us experienced the flag carrier – or its previous incarnation, CAAC – when it was flying Soviet jets with flight attendants performing revolutionary songs as in-flight entertainment. It has come a long way since then. In addition to a modern fleet and a decent global network, CA has raised its overall service, in part thanks to its cross-ownership (hence cross-training) with Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific.

Not everything is so rosy though, especially during these lean times. Spoiled domestic fliers have noticed cutbacks in food services during non-meal hours (my personal peeve: no more Diet Coke for economy class passengers). CA’s Phoenix Miles, the country’s oldest and largest frequent flier program, has also suffered some recent setbacks. In an effort to curb selling of miles, CA now limits each member to redeeming award tickets for up to eight pre-designated beneficiaries. After the initial signup, CA will deduct 300 kilometers from your account any time you need to add or change names on the list – and the revision will only become valid after 60 days. Not customer-friendly, however you slice it. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 90 of the October 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jetset: "Plane Art"

Even in today’s increasingly crowded skies, an airplane remains a thing of engineering and aesthetic beauty. Little wonder, then, that the unveiling of a new or special livery (i.e. paint scheme) for a major carrier often generates the kind of buzz usually reserved for fashion gurus launching their latest collections.

In the United States, the liveries of major carriers – past and present – have become iconic designs: Pan-Am’s all-white fuselage and blue-globe tail; American’s shiny bare metal body and red-and-blue eagle tail; and United’s gray fuselage and color-striped tulip tail. These patterns often adorn a carrier’s fleet for decades and become ingrained in the public mindset.

As some airlines have found out, messing with such famous corporate images can spell trouble for their business. Delta twice abandoned its classic widget tail in the late 1990s and early 2000s, to the dismay of many loyal fliers. The hasty makeovers reflected incoherent management of the period, which eventually led the airline to bankruptcy court. Not surprisingly, when Delta emerged from bankruptcy protection, a modernized red widget reappeared on its aircraft tails – and it went on to acquire Northwest to become the world’s largest airline.

British Airways has also learned its lesson the hard way; in the late 1990s, it ditched the longtime Union Flag scheme in favor of abstract world images – including Chinese calligraphy – on its aircraft tails to showcase the countries it flew to. These so-called “ethnic tails” proved controversial with the public, and even caused problems with air traffic controllers, who found it harder to identify BA planes. BA returned to an updated Union Flag livery in 1999.

Closer to home, China’s top three airlines have preferred simplicity to creativity since the breakup of the former state monopoly CAAC in the late 1980s. All three have chosen a white-body motif, with the company names in both Chinese and English prominently displayed. Tail designs set them apart – Air China with a red phoenix formed by a stylized “VIP”; China Eastern with an artistic rendition of the letter E that looks like a white swallow inside a red-and-blue circle; and China Southern with a red kapok flower on a blue background. Quite a few other domestic carriers, including Hainan and Shanghai, have opted for the auspicious red tails.

While no Chinese airlines have gone as far as EVA (Hello Kitty) or ANA (Pokémon), they are certainly becoming more inspired. Shanghai-based China Eastern has painted two colorful World Expo 2010 planes to promote the big event, with another four jets to be painted with winning designs from the public on the same theme. The only airline that may want to reconsider its livery is low-cost carrier Spring. The big green lettering of its website ( across the white fuselage makes sense – except sometimes that hyphen is a bit hard to see. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 96 of the September 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Jetset: "A Weighty Issue"

Flying was once a privilege – and few passengers minded the extra calorie intake from relaxing for a few hours in a comfortable seat while savoring a steak meal accompanied by some champaign. Now that air travel is just another mode of public transportation, however, the whole experience can feel more like a weight-loss regimen – from long walks in the terminal, to the lack of in-flight food service to the forced yoga positions in a cramped seat.

Despite these rigorous routines, oversized passengers have been posing a problem in crowded economy cabins, especially for airlines based in more developed countries. With a third of Americans considered obese by health officials, for instance, many of us who regularly fly to or in the US have had the unpleasant experience of being squeezed by an overflowing seatmate.

Small wonder, then, frequent fliers – who normally despise legacy carriers’ nickel-and-dime approach – applaud the decision by the six largest US airlines to require obese passengers to buy a second seat on full flights. (One US airline, by the way, has also been dealing with another weighty issue recently, with the flight attendants union at Northwest Airlines filing a grievance with the management for offering their uniform in sizes only up to 18, rather than the usual 28.)

No Chinese airlines have followed suit with the second-seat policy. But with more than 12 million overweight or obese kids in China, they may want to prepare for the next generation of passengers. Meanwhile, Spring Airlines, China’s pioneer no-frills carrier, appears unwittingly to have come up with a creative solution. The Shanghai-based airline recently grabbed worldwide attention for proposing standing-room only flights. Known for its super-low fares that start at RMB 1, Spring has continued to grow despite the economic downturn. Eager to pack even more people onto its already crowded A320s, the carrier has reportedly asked manufacturer Airbus to devise a barstool-type scheme, which could offer 40 percent more room for passengers.

Never one to be outshone, Ryanair, Europe’s largest low-cost carrier (which recently threatened to bring coin-operated lavatories on board) has declared its intention to consider a similar plan for its Boeing fleet. In the unfortunate event that standing-room flights fail to take off, Ryanair fliers won’t lack for workout options. In a move to save USD 40 million a year, the airline has announced a DIY luggage policy. Starting next spring, all passengers will have to haul their own bags through security, departure areas and across the tarmac to their plane. They will then be able to carry on one bag but leave any others to be loaded into the cargo hold – and picked up the same way upon arrival. Just imagine the calorie burn! Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 100 of the August 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Jetset: "Safety First"

Another peak travel season, another airfare hike? Not this summer. Airlines are showering customers with sales and promotions during what is normally their most profitable time of the year. But for this high-profile industry, no discounts are deep enough to lure passengers to an airline perceived to have a spotty safety record. Case in point: Taipei-based China Airlines (CI), which had a spate of deadly crashes in the 1990s. Some Taiwan friends tell me that, even it means a pricier ticket, they still prefer EVA Air, CI’s smaller rival, which hasn’t had a single fatal accident since it began flying in 1991.

Air safety is in the spotlight again after Air France flight 447 – carrying 228 people en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris – plunged into the Atlantic on June 1. This tragedy was the latest in a string of recent accidents involving nations long considered among the safest for aviation. From the deadly crash of a Spanair jet upon takeoff from the Madrid airport last August to the miraculous water landing of a US Airways plane in the Hudson River near New York in January, such incidents have travelers asking: “How safe is flying?”

Remarkably safe, aviation experts say. “The probability of a passenger being involved in an accident is one in 2 million – and one has a 60 percent chance of surviving such an accident,” explains Bill Voss, president of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation. Last year 876 people worldwide (none in China) were killed in air crashes while China alone reported 73,484 traffic deaths.

Experts say there’s no room for complacency, however, given that human error causes the majority of crashes – including China’s last fatal accident in November 2004, when a China Eastern commuter jet took off in frigid Inner Mongolia without de-icing and crashed shortly afterward into a nearby park, killing 55 people.

“Accidents usually don’t occur without hundreds of visible events beforehand,” Voss says. “It’s extremely important to identify and solve problems when they are small to reduce the chances of them becoming catastrophic.” And despite tough economic times, Voss says, well-established carriers will never compromise safety to save money because only safety can ensure their long-term viability.

As the AF 447 investigation continues, some fliers will question the reliability of the twin-engine jetliner involved, an Airbus A330, for transoceanic flights. Experts, however, say the A330, which is a workhorse for many of the world’s major carriers – including China’s top three airlines – is a state-of-the-art craft, noting this is the model’s first fatal crash in 15 years of passenger service. “You can’t focus on this flight and ignore hundreds of thousands of other safe flights this aircraft has made,” Voss says, emphasizing the complexity of the AF 447 investigation. “When we have all the facts, we can make this aircraft even safer.” Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 102 of the July 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Jetset: "To Drink or Not to Drink"

When a summer breeze blows over Beijing, it’s easy to lose count of your drinks, whether you’re sipping cocktails on a terrace or chugging 5-kuai beers in a back alley. But what if you have an early morning flight to catch?

A random survey amongst local frequent fliers found that, although some never let a flight get in the way of a rambunctious time, most prefer to board their plane sober – and stay that way while flying. Some said they might have one or two cocktails to unwind, but others cited unpleasant experiences for why they remain dry in the air.

“Once my friend and I drank so much wine on a flight from London that the flight attendants eventually refused to serve us any more – and it took me a week to recover from the hangover,” confessed one British journalist.

Medical experts are unsurprised. “Alcohol is dehydrating and so is flying,” explains Dr. Martin Springer, chairman of emergency medicine at Beijing United Family Hospital. “People who drink alcohol while flying have more pronounced hangovers due to the combined effect of dehydration and high altitude. Alcohol also interferes with your circadian rhythm and worsens jet lag.”

So the in-flight doctor-endorsed beverage is: water! Plenty of it – especially during long-haul flights. Easier for those stuck in the back of the plane these days, as airlines begin charging economy class for alcohol. Even if you’re up at the pointy end, remember that altitude and cabin pressure tend to numb your taste buds. If you can’t tell the difference between a Great Wall White and a Saint Clair Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – why bother?

Meanwhile fliers and carriers are concerned about the H1N1 virus, aka swine flu. China has applied some of the strictest measures to passengers arriving from countries with confirmed cases, including onboard body temperature checks and a mandatory weeklong quarantine for anyone who has traveled to Mexico or had any contact with an H1N1 patient.

Doctors say people contract this virus like any other flu – by surface contact or proximity to a patient. While several US airlines have removed pillows and blankets from their aircraft and some passengers have begun wearing masks onboard, experts are skeptical about such steps.

“The risks of flying are the same as being in a crowded environment, as sick passengers may sneeze, walk down the aisle or touch things,” said Dr. Springer. “I agree with removing pillows and blankets, but what about headrests? As for masks, unless you’re wearing one along with a full-body suit, you may still catch droplets elsewhere on the body and come into contact with them.”

So the best medical advice for preventing H1N1? Wash your hands often and use alcohol gel – just like your mom used to say. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 94 of the June 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Jetset: "The Joy of Double Miles"

I didn’t need to go to Boston. And even if I did, the quickest way would be flying through Chicago or Washington. So why did I fork out 875 bucks for a last-minute roundtrip ticket from Beijing to Boston via San Francisco? Three magic letters: EQM – or elite-qualifying miles.

In the convoluted world of frequent flier programs, all miles are not created equal. Most casual fliers focus on accumulating redeemable miles (RDM) because they deliver free tickets or other awards; you can earn them by staying at partner hotels or shopping with an affinity credit card.

Hardcore mileage addicts, however, focus on EQM, which bring special status and sundry perks, and can only be earned by actually flying. Most airlines offer three elite tiers – for customers who fly 25,000 miles (silver), 50,000 miles (gold) and 100,000 miles (platinum) within a calendar year.

Having maintained at least gold status with United Airlines for almost a decade, I have come to count on the “extras” – double RDM for every UA flight (enough for a free domestic US ticket after just one transpacific trip), pre-booking a coveted exit-row seat (more legroom than in domestic first class), and bypassing crowds at check-in counters and boarding gates (more time relaxing in lounges and guaranteed space for carry-ons). These all provide some solace in the increasingly less-friendly skies.

For China-based travelers, it takes three to four transpacific roundtrips to achieve gold status – ordinarily not a problem for road warriors flying on corporate dimes. But as businesses cut travel budgets, airlines are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn. Trade group IATA predicts the global airline industry will lose a combined USD 5 billion this year.

So how do airlines lure back their most loyal passengers? More EQM! Pioneered by American Airlines and quickly matched by other major US carriers, double EQM promotions are now all the rage. Until June 15, you can rake in twice as many EQM on all American, United, Continental and Delta (along with its Northwest subsidiary) flights. Translation: After just two transpacific roundtrips, you’re set for gold status on your favorite US airline for the rest of 2009 and the whole of 2010. (Each carrier has slightly different fine print – see their websites.) Non-US-based carriers, however, are less generous; so far none have followed suit.

For my Boston hop, I chose to connect through San Francisco because it offered some 2,500 more miles than the Chicago or DC routing. For a 17,236-mile Beijing-Boston roundtrip, USD 875 was already an appealing fare. Throwing in double EQM (the promotion) and double RDM (my status), I was sold. After a hearty lobster meal in Chinatown and a boisterous dorm party at Harvard, even jet lag felt like a small price to pay. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 94 of the May 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Jetset: "Airline Food for Thought"

If you are what you eat, are airlines what they serve? I was pondering this question on a recent hop to Shanghai as an Air China flight attendant handed me a familiar tinfoil-wrapped item. Service on CA is not unlike its signature meat-filled shaobing – warm and satisfying, but nothing fancy. While CA and other Chinese majors still have the luxury to be mediocre in the heavily protected domestic market, their counterparts in more open aviation markets are fighting cutthroat fare wars. “Legacy airlines” face a distinct choice in economy class service: raise the bar to stand out or stoop to new lows to cut costs. Which choice is manifest in the in-flight meal.

Certain renowned carriers are still willing to spend to fulfill passengers’ gastronomical need – even those stuck in the back of the plane. Larger portions, fresher ingredients, better preparation, more beverage options and just a touch of indulgence (say, a cup of Haagen-Dazs ice cream on Singapore Airlines or Dragonair) have gone a long way to solidify their reputations.

In contrast, US domestic fliers have long kissed free economy class meal goodbye, even those on six-hour transcontinental runs. Almost all the major US airlines (with the exception of Continental) now charge coach passengers between two and nine bucks for a meal. On March 1, US Airways made headlines for restoring free soda, water and juice service in economy class. For those of you tired of being asked “chicken or fish?” on domestic Chinese flights, consider yourself spoiled.

With bargain-hunters in developed aviation markets voting with their feet, legacy airlines are calculating that customers have indicated their preference for low fares over a free meal, which is a costly service for the companies. Southwest Airlines, the world’s pioneering low-cost carrier (LCC), offers only peanuts onboard, yet still spends more than USD 17 million a year on food and drinks. Industry analysts estimate that every time the catering truck touches the plane, the airline’s expenses soar: longer turnaround times at gates, extra weight, even special coffeemakers at USD 10,000 apiece. So why not save millions by eliminating something your customers don’t seem to value that much? (Although some foodie take their in-flight meals seriously enough to dedicate an entire website – – to the subject.)

The bottom line is, when airlines trade free meals for cheaper tickets, you are better off financially and gastronomically. Instead of mourning the disappearance of the in-flight meal, think where the ax may fall next. The CEO of Ryanair, Europe’s largest LCC, recently entertained publicly the idea of coin-operated lavatories. With the prospect of having to spend GBP 1 (RMB 10) each time you pee, you might be grateful there are no complimentary drinks onboard. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 92 of the April 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Jetset: "A Straight Path across the Strait"

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. When it came to air travel between mainland China and Taiwan, however, the shortest flight path was anything but straight. For more than five decades, political reality forced travelers to connect through a third country or region, adding hours of hassle to what should have been an easy hop across the Taiwan Strait.

Those days are thankfully over. After years of negotiations, mainland and Taiwan authorities launched daily nonstop flights last December. Eleven airlines are currently permitted to fly 108 weekly flights between two dozen cities, potentially carrying three million travelers every year (that’s still only half of the current annual mainland-Taiwan passenger volume). Without the required Hong Kong stop or overfly, these flights have cut travel time by two-thirds. That’s a huge boon for the 600,000 or so Taiwan businessmen living in Shanghai, who can now reach Taipei in 90 minutes instead of six hours.

Closer to our home city, travelers are happy to see their Taipei flights curtailed from a seven-hour slog to a three-hour glide. Grabbing a seat can be difficult, though, especially during holidays, as demand far outstrips supply. The shortfall in capacity is likely to worsen when Taiwan starts to allow more mainland tourists in. Some analysts say Beijing has capped the nonstop flights to cushion the economic impact upon the Hong Kong and Macau airports, which earn a considerable chunk of revenue from transiting Taiwan-bound passengers.

Not surprisingly, passengers save little even as airlines save on transit and fuel costs with more direct routing. A dummy booking on Air China’s website for a mid-March Beijing-Taipei economy-class roundtrip yielded a fare of RMB 4,750 including taxes, comparable to previous prices. But at least you can earn 2,144 miles for the trip (or redeem 50,000 Air China miles for the ticket). That’s not bad considering these flights are technically charters, which usually forbid mileage accrual and redemption. On the other hand, the normalization of air links has taken the shine off cross-strait flights, with frequent fliers reporting the disappearance of special onboard amenities such as Taiwan cuisine, real chinaware and luxury pillows – at least for those stuck in the back of the plane.

For aviation enthusiasts, one bright spot remains – Air China’s dedicated fleet of jets with special paint schemes. Since the mainland’s flag carrier is unable to display the red banner in Taiwan due to local restrictions, it has instead painted the fuselages of a dozen planes with national symbols such as pandas and peonies. China Airlines – Air China’s island counterpart – went through its own makeover more than a decade ago, prior to Hong Kong’s return to the mainland. Its distinctive hand-painted plum blossom tails have since earned rave reviews worldwide. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 94 of the March 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Jetset: Changes in the Air

A time for marriages and mega-carriers?

The Year of the Ox has arrived with the usual bang of firecrackers, but air travelers may not feel so bullish about flying in 2009. Although holding no crystal ball, I venture to predict one important change in the air: fewer airlines flying – both domestically and internationally. With demand for air travel plummeting faster than oil prices, the world’s air carriers are desperate to cut excess capacity and many see consolidation as the only solution to the industry’s conundrum.

Closer to home, all eyes are on China Eastern Airlines (MU), considered by many analysts to be insolvent and the prime target for acquisition. The Shanghai-based carrier has been plagued by incessant bad news in recent years – from a fatal crash and an illegal pilot strike, to a failed attempt to cooperate with Singapore Airlines (SQ), and huge losses (RMB 6.2 billion) from badly timed fuel-hedging. A last-minute capital injection of RMB 7 billion from the government and a voluntary 30-percent pay cut by its management may be too little, too late to save the struggling carrier.

Trouble is, nobody seems to have the money or interest to buy MU. Its domestic competitors are not faring much better financially, while the few potential foreign suitors are likely to think twice after the SQ deal debacle last year. Speculation is rife, though, about an arranged marriage between MU and its smaller hometown rival, Shanghai Airlines (FM) – a scenario apparently favored by the local government eager to create a dominant carrier based in China’s biggest city.

FM is currently aligned with flag carrier Air China (CA) and both are Star Alliance members. If MU mergers with FM, whither FM’s alliance status? Like other loyal Star fliers, I hate to see it lose the Shanghai hub. But the bottom line is that the government still owns all the major Chinese airlines and can order any kind of mix-and-match that it sees fit. Which does beg the question – why not just combine all the Chinese airlines under one banner like in the good old times? Talk about a true Chinese mega-carrier!

Farther afield in the US, Delta Air Lines (DL) officially tied the knot with Northwest Airlines (NW) in late October, forming the world’s largest airline, as well as its biggest frequent flier club. Given NW’s long history of serving Asia, many China-based members of its WorldPerks program understandably feel a sense of unease. Although full integration is not expected until 2010, you will see the NW brand slowly disappear and the two carriers’ loyalty schemes merge by the end of this year.

The good news is no one will lose any hard-earned miles. You will soon be able to transfer miles between the DL and NW programs, and eventually have a single DL SkyMiles account. DL will borrow a page from NW and start letting travelers gain elite status based on segments flown, in addition to miles. It will also continue awarding a minimum of 500 miles per flight, bucking the industry trend in the US. But – you knew there would be a “but” – DL will adopt its three-tiered award chart (instead of NW’s two-tier) for the combined program, effectively adding another layer of obstacles for members looking to redeem free tickets. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 98 of the February 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Jetset: Turbulent Times

Falling demand means delays in new flights

For air travelers, the impact of the global economic downturn has been mixed. The plunging price of oil – after hitting almost USD 150 per barrel last summer – has forced even cash-strapped airlines to take a second look at fuel surcharges. Many carriers, including China’s “Big Three,” are finally reducing this absurd levy.

Air China, China Eastern and China Southern, as well as Hainan Air, have all lowered fuel surcharges on major international routes, cutting the original amount of RMB 1,100 by about 15 percent on flights to Europe, North America and Australia. They have also halved it to RMB 550 on flights to the Middle East (home of most of the word’s oil reserves).

Of course, airlines have always factored oil prices in their airfares; it’s not like they had been flying without jet fuel before the latest oil price surge. It is clearly ridiculous to charge consumers twice for the same thing, especially when base fares (ticket prices before taxes and fees) are also going up.

Falling oil prices, however, are “too little, too late” to save the world’s airlines from another bleak year. IATA, the global airline trade group, expected the struggling sector to lose a combined USD 5.2 billion for 2008, with both passenger and cargo volumes shrinking for the first time in five years.

What can airlines do? They could raise fares, but that would only depress already-low demand. They could go further with their nickel-and-dime approach – except there is little left for them to charge after they take away free pillows, blankets, headsets, meals, drinks, checked-in luggage and preferred seats. (Speaking of preferred seats, it was really a sign of times when Singapore Airlines, long hailed the standard-bearer of premium services in all cabins, recently decided to charge economy-class customers USD 50 per flight segment for choosing to sit in an exit-row seat, which offers more legroom.)

The only option left is to cut capacity. A China Eastern official told local media that the carrier had parked more than 20 planes since last April. He also exposed the cost of unprofitable routes in the current economic environment, with the airline losing RMB 2 million every time it flies from Shanghai to New York.

That may explain many US carriers’ change of heart on China routes. It was not long ago when they fought hard for a coveted government-allocated slot to fly here, and winners deployed their biggest jets for the flights. Amid gloomy economic news, however, several US airlines have delayed the launch of their new China flights, e.g. United’s San Francisco-Guangzhou (postponed to spring 2009), and American’s Chicago-Beijing and US Airways’ Philadelphia-Beijing (both to spring 2010).

Some US carriers have also reduced frequencies for existing flights during the winter, e.g. Delta cutting Atlanta-Shanghai from daily to five times per week. Anticipating slow travel demand during the Chinese New Year holiday, United is even suspending Washington-Beijing (already cut from daily to four times per week) for the entire month of February – an inauspicious sign for the Year of the Ox. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 112 of the January 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

Jetset: "Is ABC really DOA?"

Catching a holiday flight is rarely a pleasant way to start the holidays. After paying top dollar for the tickets and cramming presents into your suitcases, you start dreading the huge crowds in the terminals and on the planes while trying to calm the screaming kids. So the last thing you want on your way to the airport is to get stuck in Beijing’s notorious traffic, which has returned with a vengeance following the easing of vehicle restrictions imposed during the Olympics.

The solution to your dilemma can be as simple as ABC, literally. Airport Beijing City, the rather oddly-named express train service of the capital’s subway system, has been whisking passengers from Dongzhimen and Sanyuan Qiao to the airport since late July. Our city’s fastest subway – though most of its tracks are above surface – travels at 110 kilometers per hour and covers the 27-kilometer journey in 20 minutes – an unimaginable endeavor for taxicabs during rush hour! Trains depart every 10 minutes between 6am and 11pm. At RMB 25, the one-way ticket is a bit more expensive than the 16 yuan airport shuttle bus, but still way cheaper than your typical taxi fare, which can easily top RMB 100 with toll included.

By all measures, ABC is likely to be the best ground transportation option for a Chinese airport, and wins hands down over Shanghai’s much-touted magnetic-levitation (Maglev) train, which has become a symbol of the country’s white elephant projects. Compared to the Maglev, ABC’s operating hours are longer and its service more frequent. It also actually brings you into the city. In contrast, while the Maglev trains can float above the tracks at a top speed of 430 kilometers per hour and complete a 30-kilometer trip in less than eight minutes, they unload travelers from the remote Pudong airport to an equally inconvenient suburban subway station. Although ABC may not have bragging rights to a “cool” technology, it’s definitely more reliable and affordable (with the ticket price only half of the Maglev’s).

So why hasn’t ABC turned into a success like its counterpart in Hong Kong? The challenges of modifying traveler habits and cultivating loyalty aside, ABC has some innate flaws that may drive away potential riders. Unlike the Airport Express in Hong Kong, you are not able to obtain your boarding passes at the two in-town stations. Airline counters are slated to open at these stations in the future, but even then, passengers will not be able to check their luggage. Also, the design of the Dongzhimen terminus seems to have focused more on aesthetics (nice red columns) than user-friendliness (no escalators or elevators from the platform to the ground level). And even the platform itself – at around three meters wide – is inexplicably narrower than those in other subway stations, making the place cramped with people and luggage during busy times; meanwhile, a lack of luggage space on the trains makes the ride equally as stifling. Finally, there have been complaints about noisy trains and the poorly ventilated Terminal 3 station. Why can’t ABC take a page from the impressive Airport Express service in Hong Kong? Alas, it’s “one country, two systems” after all. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 32 of the December 2008 issue of The Beijinger magazine.