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Vagabond Journey

China Southern Airlines Redeem Themselves (I guess)

The story of changing a flight the old fashioned way.

Yesterday I raged about China Southern Airlines. One of their reps in their ticket change office told me that I couldn’t pay a ticket change fee with my Chinese bank card because I was a foreigner. It launched a tirade about Chinese xenophobia — which perhaps was a topic that would inevitably be discussed on Vagabond Journey eventually anyway. Well, I’m here to report that the initial problem — the forth largest airline on the planet refusing to take Visa cards or local bank cards from anyone who is not Chinese — didn’t get resolved, but something happened today that almost made up for it.

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So apparently I needed to go to the airport to try to change my ticket to Manila. There was no way that I, as a foreigner, could pay for the ticket change request over the phone. My entire array of debit and credit cards from multiple countries were not welcomed. So I needed to pay in cash. Fortunately, the airport in Xiamen is just up the coast from my apartment — a $6 taxi ride away.

I went into the airport and went up to the ticket booth for China Southern Airlines. I waited as a line of stressed out passengers got their flights rerouted after a cancellation. Never a happy scene. Soon enough the yelling meathead in front of me ran out of things to yell about. Or perhaps inhaling the smoke from the cigarette of the guy next to him (yes, he was smoking inside airport) made him realize that he would have to close his mouth for a moment if he was to get his long overdue dose of nicotine. Or maybe it was my elbow nudging him in the ribs, inching him away from the counter that made him realize that his turn had rightfully expired long ago. Whatever provoked the meathead to move on is unknown, but there was little reason to care about such things as it was my turn to try my luck with the airline.

“I’d like to change my flight to Manila from tomorrow to Saturday,” I said in Chinese.

We then ping ponged the details of what I wanted to do a few more times before it was confirmed that everybody understood everybody, as well as the principle of calendars and clocks. The lady then buried her head into her computer screen, punched in my ticket number, and said that it would be possible. Excellent.

She then wrote a phone number down on a piece of paper and handed it to me. “Just call them,” the lady said.

It was the number for the same office that I’d called the day before, the people who told me that I would have to be Chinese to pay for the ticket change.

“I can’t call them, they can’t help me,” I protested.

“Yes, they can help you.”

“No, they can’t. I’ve already talked to them. I don’t have a Chinese bank card, so I can’t pay.”

This wasn’t entirely true, but there was no reason to get into the story about having my card declined because I was a foreigner.

The lady behind the counter looked at me for a moment, and then repeated what I said: “You can’t pay because you don’t have a Chinese bank card.”

“Correct.”

She then repeated this to the woman sitting next to her: “He can’t pay because he doesn’t have a Chinese bank card.”

She then looked at me, then thought for a moment. What she’d say next would determine if I could change my flight or if my ticket would go to waste.

“Alright,” so said, “so you want to pay in cash?”

“Yes, correct.”

“Alright, give me 710 RMB.”

That was US$20 less than what I was told it would be over the phone.

I handed it over happily. The lady took my money, counted it, and then just stuffed it sloppily into the old wooden desk drawer that was full of papers and office supplies that was in front of her. She then called someone on the phone and told them the situation.

I waited.

Around twenty minutes later she handed me an old school computer printout that had “Electronic ticket” typed out in 12pt font across the top and was followed by my equally un-glamorously presented flight details. There were no logos, no bar codes, no Chinese writing, not even a reservation or ticket number. A fifth grader could have made a more convincing looking e-ticket in the 1990s.

“Uh, can I have a receipt?”

“It’s not possible.”

I didn’t protest, I had something that at least said it was a ticket.

This lady had done something for me that she didn’t have to do. It clearly wasn’t a standard operating procedure for her to do a ticket change and accept payment in cash (for some reason). She could have told me to piss off and left me with no other recourse than to resume screaming into my phone at the people in the call center about xenophobia or something.

This is one thing about China that I’ve come to deeply appreciate: no matter how bureaucratically nonsensical the policies of a branch of government or institution are, when you deal with people face to face they often become human, bend the rules, and somehow make things work. This country could function no other way.

Filed under: Air Travel, China

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3490 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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