(Why) Do Chinese Airlines Prohibit Smartphone Airplane mode?

The other day I was sitting at the gate at Pudong Airport in Shanghai, downloading a couple of newspapers to my iPhone that I hoped to read during the flight. Of course, I’m keenly aware that use of phones of any kind on flights is prohibited so I did the responsible thing and right before takeoff I switched the iPhone into Airplane Mode.

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The mode, for those who don’t know or use it, disables all data transfers: blue tooth, wifi, cellular. The idea, allegedly, is that by disabling the data, the device does not have the potential to interfere with a plane’s allegedly delicate communications.

So – thirty minutes into the flight and comfortably at cruising altitude, I pulled out my phone, turned it one, and began reading my newspapers. Moments later, a flight attendant reached over and ordered me to shut it off. I held it out for her and pointed at the airplane logo indicating airplane mode, but she insisted it was prohibited. I asked to speak to another flight attendant, and was told the same thing. So I did as told and shut it off. What’s a traveler to do?

Later, I posted the experience to twitter and asked if a) this had happened to anyone else; and b) why? Indeed, if my followers are to be believed (and they are), then it appears airplane mode is banned on all Chinese airlines, and on all smartphones. Speculation was rife, but the best answer came from the Guardian’s Tania Branigan, who tweeted the very reasonable:

“because people will just leave them in standard mode and pretend to be in airplane mode, I suspect.”

For now, I’m going with that as the answer. But I’m open to additional theories – feel free to tweet them at me at @adamminter.

That noted, I’m not optimistic that we’ll get to the bottom of this, unfortunately. After all, we’re still at the theory stage of deciphering why we can’t read a kindle during take-off in the US. Mysteries of the air, I suppose.

 

Is Delta Airlines Scamming its Customers With Change-Ticket Fees?

The other day I purchased a ticket from Delta Airlines, the world’s largest airline, for international travel in the month of September. Then, as sometimes happens, something came up and I needed to change the dates of my outgoing flight by a few days.

I had no illusions: change ticket fees are expensive. Generally, they reflect the difference in fares between the one purchased and the one now desired, and a straight-up penalty. Nonetheless, when I called Delta I was more or less confident that I’d get a straight price for the change, and that’d be that.

How wrong I was.

So. Wednesday morning (Shanghai time) I called Delta’s premium help line (I’m platinum medallion with the airline) and informed the customer service representative that I’d like to move my outbound flight to a date four days earlier. Within two minutes, the operator quoted me a price – $360 – and then told me that she’d like to send me over to the ‘international desk’ where I’d likely get a better price. Sure enough, I did: $340. Still, it seemed odd to me that different customer service reps at the same airline were quoting different prices to change a ticket. So I decided to wait a day, and see if the price changed.

Less than 24 hours later I called the premium line again. This time I was told that the price for the change would be $560. I told the rep that it’d been $200 cheaper the day before, and to please transfer me to the international desk. Sure enough, at the international desk I was given a cheaper price: $540. Of course, that price was $200 more than what I’d been quoted the day before – a fact that I mentioned to the customer service representative.

His brusque response was to tell me that “prices change every day.” His tone, meanwhile, projected: “You are an idiot.”

I hung up the phone and immediately re-dialed the premium customer service line one more time. This time I reached the friendliest operator yet, and – go figure – the friendliest change ticket fee: $321. I immediately agreed to it. Nonetheless, I was sorely tempted to call back and see if I couldn’t find an operator who would bring it down further. After all, if five calls and five different operators had brought me my cheapest price yet, what could a sixth call do? Continue reading

China Southern Got the South China Sea Memo

The other day, in the midst of a long flight on China Southern Airlines, I turned – as I like to do – to the in-flight magazine. Nihao is actually better than most and, after losing myself in a brief essay on the nature of time (I’m not kidding), I flipped to the back, and the maps, where I came across this curious map – and sub-map, in the lower right corner – showing the airline’s domestic Chinese services.

And, below, a close-up of the circled area:

Those who follow these sorts of things know that sovereignty over the “Islands of [the] South China Sea” is fiercely contested between China and the other countries that border them. It’s a touchy, touchy issue, a source of military build-ups and diplomatic spats and, in the case of China at least, the belief that if you claim sovereignty often and loudly enough, you get sovereignty. With this in mind, I’ll point out that – in my experience – airlines aren’t often in the habit of including maps of politically sensitive areas to which they don’t fly in their inflight magazines. At a minimum, it’s a potent reminder of just how potent (and ubiquitous, in some quarters) this issue has become. And China Southern, I’d dare say, got the memo. Next: checking Malaysian Air’s inflight for its treatment of the disputed Spratlys. Stay tuned …

A banking advertisement you won’t see at US airports.

Spotted in Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris:

For my non-French speaking readers, the caption reads: Pakistan is the world’s second largest textile exporter. We see a world of opportunities. And you?

Needless to say, this advertisement is pretty much unthinkable in a US airport, and that underlines for me the unfortunately black-and-white understanding of Pakistan (Pakistan = scary Muslims) that seems to prevail in the US, stoked – in large part – by a mainstream media that seems determined to cover the country as a conflict zone, solely, rather than as something more nuanced and complex. Of course, parts of Pakistan are conflict zones – but presumably there’s very little overlap between those parts, and the parts that make it a major textile exporter. It’s be nice to see more coverage of the latter, in part as a primer on how to deal with the latter.

Of course, I could be wrong, and this ad is running in English all over US airports. If so, please let me know.

Bus Station No More? A Quick Traveler’s Note on Delhi Airport’s New Terminal 3

I spent much of the last two weeks in India, and the one that I’m going to share with my readers is a sign that I found in the brand spanking new, much vaunted, Terminal 3, at Indira Gandhi International Airport (the rest of that trip shall remain shrouded in secrecy, occasionally broken on twitpic). Opened in mid-July, the new DEL is – on the surface, at least – a significant upgrade on the old DEL, which – famously – was often compared to a bus station. The place was a dump.

The new DEL is big, clean, filled with technology and efficiency (I beg to differ on the latter point), and the subject of fawning coverage in the international media (here, here, and here), which not only praises the airport itself, but also the symbolic meaning of the airport for an India desperately in need of new infrastructure. So, I’ll admit it: as a travel geek, I was excited to see this new temple of flying. And now that I’ve seen it, I’d like to share with Shanghai Scrap’s readers something that I’ve never seen, anywhere, in any airport, on the planet:

That’s right: a sign prohibiting foreigners from exchanging money in the airport. Or, more specifically, a sign prohibiting foreigners from exchanging money past security. So, in other words, if you’ve cleared security and you still have a wallet full of rupees, you either are going to have to exchange them wherever you’re going, or dump them in the very small handful of concessions operating in Terminal 3. What makes it more irritating, if not offensive, is that Indian passport holders – they can exchange money.

I’m guessing that there’s a commercial motive behind this “rule,” and if so, I’d like to go on record as saying that refusing foreign exchange so that visitors feel compelled to unload their rupees in crappy airport shops is, to put a fine point on it, very bus station-like. But perhaps I’m off on this? Are there other major international airports out there which preserve the right of foreign exchange only for native passport holders? Is there a perfectly good, perfectly reasonable, explanation for this rule that I’m missing? Comments are open.

As the flight ascended, the knife descended.

The other morning, as my flight ascended into the sky over a major Asian airport, I felt something hard fall to the floor beside my feet. Curious, I leaned forward and saw, on the floor, something that I initially mistook as a piece of the seat in front of mine. I picked it up, turned it in my hand and realized that – rather than holding a loose part – I was actually in possession of a quite serious 3.5 inch (89 mm) knife. Below, a photo of the sheathed weapon.

Slightly stunned, I turned to the fellow beside me – and he suggested that I give the blade to a flight attendant. I must admit, my initial thought was: “Thanks cowboy, but I have no interest in being the guy who has to answer for finding a titanium-framed knife stowed in a magazine pocket (or beneath a seat) on an international flight operated by a US airline. You do it.” But that was just my first thought, the one that happened before the good citizen sprung into action and pressed the flight attendant call button. At the time, we were still ascending, so a flight attendants didn’t exactly come running – providing me plenty of time to snap a photo of the knife (later, ID’d the brand and model, which you’ll find here), and speculate on just why it had been stowed away on my plane (which, as it turns out, regularly transits between North America and Asia). Conclusion: no idea. Continue reading

Beyond Security Theater: Unsecured Theater, and the Shanghai Metro X-Ray Machines

Not long after the 9-11 attacks, Bruce Schneir, a US security expert, coined the term “Security Theater.” The original definition was made in his book, Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World, but for the purposes of this post, let’s use the definition presented in this easily accessed essay from the New Internationalist:

Security theater refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security. An example: the photo ID checks that have sprung up in office buildings. No-one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards.

In essence: dumb terrorists will be fooled while everyone else  is inconvenienced. And, it goes without saying, the smart terrorists will find vulnerabilities (for an example of a smart fake terrorist, see Jeffrey Goldberg’s classic debunking of the security at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport).

Which brings me to the x-ray machines that Shanghai installed in recent months at subway stations across the city (every station I’ve visited, at least) in advance of the massive Expo 2010 (World’s Fair) opening May 1. These have been the subject of much derision from locals and expats (for a contrarian view, see “Confessions of a Shanghai security staffer“), largely due to the fact that they are staffed by teenagers, most of whom appear to be more interested in text messaging and/or checking out the hottie with the fake LV bag. In any case, to my mind, these x-ray machines don’t qualify as “security theater” because they project incompetence, not security. An example: last night, just after 10:00 PM, I entered the People’s Square station. If it’s not Shanghai’s busiest, it’s certainly in the top three, and if you were going to install x-ray machines in only one subway station, that’d be the one. Below, the x-ray machines just outside of a line 1 gate, as I found them last night (ie, switched-off):

After the jump, the Hengshan Road station, 15 minutes later, as I exited: Continue reading