A love letter to Hong Kong air travel

I will warn you: this whole article is a cliché: US air travel bad; Asian air travel good. Those of you who have traveled in both hemispheres will know all about this, and no doubt have your own stories, but I can’t resist telling mine.

The Talls made a recent trip back to my ancestral homeland, i.e. the USA. Horrified by the recent surge in air ticket prices, Mrs Tall got us an itinerary for a sum that seemed, if not reasonable, at least not obscene. The only hitch: it required us to fly on a USA-based airline that has never been my favorite carrier. But given the price, and the convenience of the connections (they were good; I can’t deny), we went ahead and booked it.

Well, we arrived more or less intact at our destinations, and so did our luggage. If I were a bigger man, I suppose I might accept the airline’s managing to achieve this baseline of basic competency, and leave it at that. But to overturn the aphorism, Hell is in the details, isn’t it?

On only two legs of our six-flight itinerary were the Tall family seated together. The low point was a truly Kafkaesque episode on one domestic segment, in which the three of us were assigned three totally separate seats. Upon being issued this set of boarding passes at our gate (did you think we really could get our seats before that, even at check-in?), I pointed out to the gate agent that Daughter Tall is in fact just five years old, and that everyone might be happier if she could sit next to at least one of her parents. This charming exemplar of customer service snarled back ‘What, you think that’s my problem? How am I supposed to know she’s five?’ Whereupon Mrs Tall supplied, with some vehemence, our tickets, gate clearance documents, and so on, all of which included prominent advisories of Daughter Tall’s minor status, in huge type, bold face, boxed text in bright red, etc. We did eventually get a couple seats together, but really.

I’m determined not to allow this to turn into just another anti-airline rant – oh, what the heck, how about just a little more? The leg room on this airline’s transpacific airliners was the worst I have experienced, and that’s saying something. Check-ins on the US side, apart from the seating issues, were chaotic and hostile. The US government had just issued a new regulation limiting all bags to a maximum of 50 pounds, and at one airport (the same one as above, actually) the airline had situated a kind of battle droid of weight enforcement, complete with her very own scale, about halfway along the check-in line. She was weighing every bag, and dispatching passengers who were over the limit to the back of the line with send-offs such as ‘You wanna pay a hunnerd bucks for that? You wanna? Huh? Then get to back of the line and get your weight down!’ Note that this is more or less a verbatim quotation; and no mere text can convey the hostility and contempt in her tone of voice. People were being humiliated, not just annoyed.

But our problems were as nothing in comparison with three other incidents I’ll relate, all involving this same airline:

  • The gentleman sitting next to me on the Hong Kong-->USA leg of our recent trip looked even grumpier than me. We started talking, and I found out why. This entrepreneurial fellow lives in the USA, and runs several businesses that source products from factories in Guangdong. He travels to Hong Kong monthly, on this same airline, always traveling business class, so he must have super-platinum-wonder-customer status. He had booked a business class seat that day, just as always. And he had been bumped down to economy because business class had been overbooked. I’d never before heard of an airline treating one of its most valued and profitable customers like this.
  • My sister and her husband are moving from one state to another in the USA this month. A few weeks ago, they intended to make a short trip to their new city to track down short- to medium-term housing. Their original flight was canceled. They then boarded their next assigned flight, sat on the runway for an hour, only to find out the plane had mechanical trouble, canceling that flight, too. And their next flight (which was by now on the next day)? Canceled. They never made the trip, and ended up renting an apartment online.
  • We had a visit from a college friend and his family earlier this month. They also had chosen our now-favorite and famous airline. They turned up in HK a day later than expected. Why? They had gone to the airport to check in for their trip to HK in good time. They discovered, unbeknownst to them, that the airline had moved up the time of the initial leg of their itinerary by a significant margin. Still, they should have been all right, even after standing in the usual long check-in line. But they had e-tickets, so they had to handle their own check-in. They struggled with the scanner/weigh station for 10 minutes, but it turned out to be broken; they then moved over to another. My friend checked in successfully, and his bag was tagged and sent on. But when they scanned the next family member’s passport, they got a flashing screen: the other members of the family were now locked out from checking in, because a limit of 45 minutes before the flight’s departure had arrived. It did not matter that the airline itself had already been the cause of their untimeliness twice over, or that one family member had already checked in, been issued a boarding pass, and that his luggage had disappeared into the bowels of the airport. They had to turn around and go home, after being informed that they were fortunate they could rebook for a full day later.

Incidents like these, accumulating over the years, have admittedly left me quite irrational when it comes to air travel. I find it very hard now to find anything good to say about my native land’s representatives in the market (as this article so far demonstrates). Conversely, I am now so devoted to Asian airlines, especially the better ones such as Cathay and Singapore, that it’s likely I overlook or underestimate their flaws.

We’re actually not regular passengers on Cathay: our long hauls to the USA usually require a US carrier because of their destinations and complexity. But we do take Cathay every year or two for Asian trips, and over the years we’ve flown most of the other major Asian airlines as well. Again, I must try to avoid getting all soppy here, but my feelings of sheer gratitude when dealing with the better Asian airlines are so intense, it really is pathetic. Instead of Daughter Tall existence being intentionally overlooked, she’s greeted with an old-fashioned flying kit, with games, stickers, and other little presents. The planes are clean and smell nice, even if they’re not much more roomy, and they have individual entertainment systems (the movies on our USA flights were available to us only on 19-inch CRT monitors that were so decrepit they wouldn’t even hold the picture’s color). The flight crews are young, nubile, and totally out of bounds, because Mrs Tall is the single shining galaxy of lovelight in my universe.

And then there are the airports. After the crowding, inefficiency (How can it take 50-60 minutes to get the luggage off a small domestic flight and onto a carousel? Must they round up a pack of mules before they can get started, or what?) and shabbiness of most of the US airports I’ve been through in recent years, coming home to HKIA is so refreshing, such a magic combination of airy elegance and futuristic efficiency, that sometimes I want to pitch a tent over by the window in the departures hall, and just stay for a spell. Yes, sometimes there are check-in lines; yes, occasionally you may have to wait five or ten minutes for your bags after you clear immigration (which, if you’re a Hong Kong resident, usually takes under five minutes itself); yes, the arrivals hall can be crowded, and you may forget whether you are meeting your party at ‘A’ or ‘B’ – but come on! Is there really a better airport anywhere, one that both gets the job done, and that manages to restore your enjoyment of flying itself? Singapore’s airport is nice, but its climb back to the top of the ‘World’s best airport’ rankings in 2006 (after HKIA sat there for half a decade) smacks of a boredom-induced shakeup. I’ve been through Singapore International several times, and I find it not much contest: HKIA is the goods. And HKIA was back on top in 2007, I might note.In any case, just look at those 2007 rankings: four of the world’s top five airports are in Asia. How many in the top 10 are in the USA?

And getting to and from HKIA is also a breeze, as MrB has so ably demonstrated.

My message, therefore, is for all Hong Kong residents: on these grounds (or not-grounds, given we’re talking about flying!), at least, let’s be happy with what we’ve got. The future of air travel in many parts of the world is uncertain, and conditions are worsening. But our little home retains a bastion of what flying used to be, and maybe a model of what it could continue to grow into.



This made me chuckle. HK is so 'civilised' compared to many places. As a sometimes frequent flyer as I boarded a plane in the States I was greeted with what only could be described as a look of animosity bordering on contempt. I appreciated a decent Asian style greeting. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

couldn't agree more

and it doesn't stop with the airlines.  It carries on to the trains, underground, taxi drivers, hotel staff etc. etc.

After starting with yearly

After starting with yearly US trips, my experience is the same I usually fly Continental since they operate directly OSL - EWR and I can make my connection there. But Continental sucks so hard, I'm willing to actually have another connection in Amsterdam to fly KLM, or to shell out and fly SAS from Copenhagen instead. United sucks almost as bad buy on TED at least they have the cheap legspace option... I flew JAL last year, much better than most European companies and ALL American. God.

Don't get me started on the horrible, third country airports. If they had as many employees actually giving a shit as they had heart starter machines, they'd be en business..

Flying to the USA

I usually fly Continental - HK -> Newark -> Hartford & back again. I've found them MUCH better than United and let's not even talk about NW.

But, other than the connection between Hartford & Newark, I don't need to travel by air in the USA and there's several flights a day (Oh, G-d, I hope I'm not jinxing my trip next week).

Continental has had the in-flight entertainment system on its 777s for at least 6 years now, only once did we get a seat where it didn't function properly.

re: "Asian Airlines" - not all are equally good. I got sick from a dodgy breakfast on "Hong Kong Airlies" flying back from Qingdao in 2007. I had to take a sick-day to recover from it.

The thing I HATE about flying in the USA is the "security theater" enacted by TSA. Pointless and the unfortunate people who work for the TSA in Newark -they are so rude and nasty. I think it must be the management because the ones who work in Hartford and San Francisco are not quite as bad.

If Amtrak ran more than a single train up to Central Massachusetts every day, I'd definitely get off the plane in Newark and take the train.



SKMama, you're fortunate you can take this flight! We made a trip to the east coast a couple years ago, and took Continental, and were quite impressed. It's an exception to the rule of US airlines, at least on the transpacific routes.

What I can't get over with TSA checks is their variability. I never know what is supposed to be open, what is supposed to be closed, what should be in a plastic bin and what should not, and on and on and on!

US airlines: not that far from the truth . . . .

Just watch this brilliant sketch from MadTV.

United to Chicago and Denver

We fly United because we are either flying to Chicago or Denver as ultimate destination (and often between the two). I have to say, IMO, Chicago is the WORST, most rude, dirtiest, least organized major airport in the US. I remember our first flight back to the US, two years after moving here. The woman herding the human cattle into immigration was screaming and glaring as if we had personally offended her. I thought, wow, what a welcome to the US if this is the first "thing" you see coming in.

We have had delayed / canceled flights at that airport, lost luggage, missed connections. I truly despise it.

We do our best to schedule our travel so that we go through SF to Denver and then leave to HK from Chicago. (We've had too many problems dealing with fog in SF delaying our Denver to SF flights and almost missing the SF-HK flight.) I love DIA (except for the security--which is better than Chicago, but not as nice as SF). We have very few issues with DIA, and if United does lose our luggage, DIA personnel deals with us very professionally and promptly.

And Mr. Tall, I totally agree with you about not knowing what to expect from what airport. I remember one of those "almost missed" flights in SF where we had to go BACK through security--we were all taking our shoes off, and people were giving us these really odd looks--like where did you come from>? turns out at that time and airport, they weren't requiring shoes removal. Then another time one airport required kids' shoes removed while the other didn't. Absolutely infuriating.

I can't compare to Asian airlines recently--only flown inside China recently, and they leave a lot to be desired--but I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE HKIA! My boys do too. We get here and they sigh and say, oh, it's so good to be back in this airport and to be home. (yeah, home is usually tied up in those feelings, so it's not JUST the airport for them) But it is so logical, so nice, so easy, so polite--just a breath of fresh air after Chicago!!!!!!!!!


More on Asian airlines

Couldn't agree more, mom2twoboys! O'Hare is indeed the pits. I suppose it's not the least efficient airport around -- it does handle a heck of a lot of traffic -- but I agree being there makes you generally feel bad and hate flying.

We just made another trip, up to Tokyo and back, and this time took an Asian airline I'd not flown in many years, i.e. All Nippon Airlines, or ANA. It's not up to the standard of the best Asian airlines, but it was still very good. The planes had individual entertainment screens, albeit with pretty lame programming in English, and the flight crews were extremely helpful and good-natured.

I'll relate one little incident that again casts this gulf between Asian and US airlines into perfect relief. Mrs Tall and I were using up airmiles, but had to buy a separate ticket for Daughter Tall, so we again had some minor seating issues. On our flight home from Tokyo, Daughter Tall had a seat, but Mrs T and I didn't when we checked in. We were again confronted with an e-ticket kiosk, as in the main article above. But what a difference!

In the USA we had to beg the staff on duty to help us when we were unable to get seats, and then were treated as if we had three heads plus halitosis. In Tokyo we were met at the head of the line by a staff member who took us through the check-in without being asked. And then (confirming the doubts many of us have about e-tickets/self-check-ins in general) the machine she was using just upped and quit after two of the three of us had been issued boarding passes. No amount of prodding or rebooting could get it going again.

At this point, we already had two seats out of three together, and the flight wasn't even full, so getting a third seat next to the two we'd already been assigned wasn't crucial. But the ANA officer just about wet herself with worry trying to get that third seat. She rushed over to another kiosk to try that, and when that failed she broke in at one of the ordinary check-in stations and made sure that third seat was marked as taken so no one else could grab it. Then she waited with us until the machine we'd started out on finally came back online, and she could complete the check-in. Interspersed with all of this were frequent reassurances/apologies/promises to do better.

On the downside, we had a stupid moment at Narita's security check. We were far too blase about the whole process this time, exemplified by our nearly making the unconscionable mistake of leaving our many bottles of preserved sea urchin in our carry-on bags. Mrs Tall remembered just before we bade farewell to our suitcase that this delectable substance, which comprises a sort of chunky paste, might be construed as a liquid/gel, so we got it in our suitcase at the last moment.

Anyway, when we arrived at the security check, Mrs Tall was pulled aside for having a tiny bottle of alcohol for sterilizing things. The security officer, a young woman, stated that it wasn't allowed on the flight. Mrs Tall argued -- completely accurately -- that the bottle held far less than the 100 ml limit for liquids. The officer finally agreed to this, but then said the bottle absolutely had to be sealed up in a plastic bag. This, indeed, was stipulated in the regulations we'd overlooked. And we didn't have a plastic bag. Then Mrs Tall noticed that there was a pile of nice regulation-sized bags on a shelf right behind the security officer. She asked for one, and was informed that we couldn't have one; we had to go back out into the airport and buy some instead. Mrs Tall then asked just who those bags were intended for, if we as passengers didn't qualify to have one. The answer: they were for passengers who were going through security too late to have a chance to go back out into the airport and buy some. Mrs Tall and I did not find this line of reasoning to be satisfactory, so we suggested that we were pretty late ourselves, and getting later all the time. After some mutual glaring, the officer finally gave in and more or less flung a baggie at us, Mrs Tall put in the bottle and zipped the bag, we were at last ritually clean, and could go.

The little bottle of alcohol of course wasn't terribly important in itself, but honestly, there are principles of human dignity involved here!

Interesting... I had the opposite take

I quite like the Chicago flight. I've never found O'Hare terribly annoying, even when they have their usual delays. It just feels a bit more relaxed than the coast airports like LA, SF and NYC.

US Immigration in general does a poor job of welcoming visitors into the country.(And a poor job welcoming returning citizens as well!)

Those United flights don't really live up to international standard. They have to be some of the worst planes I've used when travelling trans-Pacific.

Chicago O'Hare Airport

My Chinese name is shown on the Canadian citizenship document; whereas my English name, used in everyday life and at work, is used to buy air-tickets. As the two are not identical, I was initially refused (politely) a boarding-pass at O'Hare. The agent's supervisor resolved the issue quickly following my explanation.
Other than that, O'Hare's service is fine, and the public transportation to downtown Chicago is convenient. The ride through the different neighbourhoods is an eye-opener.


I don't have a problem with the flight, per se. We've never had problems with the United flight between Chicago and HK (besides the fact that there is no leg room), just with United ground crew (like trying to rebook from a suddenly and never-explained cancelled flight)--that was incredible--three flights had cancelled within 10 minutes and of the 2 (TWO????) people at the customer service counter, one left for at least the 45 minutes I was in line--as opposed to a similar situation in San Francisco where the counter had plenty of people to deal with the lines. I was reading in a college alumni magazine of my mom's where the recruiters were asked their best and worst airports. The one that said it the best was the guy who said, "A dark cloud of evil surrounds O'Hare." It is virtually impossible to make a connecting flight with anything less than 1 1/2 hours of layover (and try getting a travel agent to book that for you--even United on the phone has "guaranteed" us that 45 minutes was enough, even though my husband argued with her for 10 minutes--that was the time we ended up missing the flight to Denver and staying an extra day in Chicago--ON OUR PENNY, since "it wasn't our fault" that we missed the flight!). We have friends who fly through there and always have at least one thing wrong (last time they lost one bag--the previous time they lost more than one). So for us, O'Hare goes far beyond being annoying. It is something to be avoided at all costs if you have the choice. If not, just be prepared.

Unaccompanied Child

There was a woman I met on a flight between Chicago and Denver with a little girl (toddler--old enough to require her own seat, but not much more than 2 years old). She and her daughter were booked in separate seats and the airline was going to charge her a fine for changing seats. She showed them that the tickets clearly showed this child was a minor and would they please change them. No, she'd have to pay. So she said, okay, I'll sit by myself if you'll let me know who is going to deal with my crying child and who will change her diaper, etc--you can be responsible for taking care of her or finding someone who will do so. Hm, suddenly, the fine was waived and they were "able" to sit together. (don't remember the airline--not really relevant).

A solution to airport security problems

James Lileks, one of my favorite writers, has an immodest proposal for dealing expeditiously with airport security.

No surprise: HKIA again voted world #1

The 2008 results are out: Hong Kong International Airport is again voted the world's best in the annual Skytrax survey, as reported by Forbes magazine.

Any US airports in the top 10? Nah. The top 10 were dominated, as usual, by Asian and northern European airports. 

You think US airports are

You think US airports are bad -try connecting through Sydney and the generally sloppy rude staff , pathetic stuffy crowded waiting rooms for domestic connections ,monstrous disorderly lines waiting to clear immigration etc-really that place is the pits

Add in the officious immigration staff asking me the reason i am back in Australia every time i fly back(answer: to visit me Mum)and how long i will stay(as long as me dear old Mum will put up with cooking and cleaning for her grown up son before she is sick of it and kicks me out again)--and i am an Australian !!last time they got some sort of kit out ,pulled me out of line to swab my hands and did the CSI thingy with the ion detector-i wouldn't have minded but Osama Bin Laden was in the line behind me ,Chopper Reid standing in front.

Anyway agree with the sentiment of the posting here we get spoiled in HK -very hard to keep mouth shut when i go back to Oz.

Are the flights out of San

Are the flights out of San Fran really that bad? I can get a ticket from SFO to HKG direct aboard Singapore air for about 1300 the beginning of June. I am leaving from phoenix but I am just going to buy a ticket on Southwest and get there a day early or early that morning for 99 bucks unless they have a sale pop up soon.

 Maybe I should rethink that. 

To the original post I will add its not just the airlines. Everyone and everything is like this. Department stores, restaurants, gas stations. There is no service in the US anymore.  I have watched this country decend into anger and outright hostility for my 33 years. At this point my trip to Asia is only for a year but I will not deny that if a meet a great Asian gal i will stay and would not shed a tear if I never moved back.



7 months till I get the hell out of the US. Thank god