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By Steerage To Shanghai And Back

Thu Nov 04, 2010 11:58 am

The Outbound Flight – Delta 19 October 09/10, 2010

I’d always suspected that those little paper sacks for “motion sickness” were really inadequate to deal with the real thing. As we accelerated on the take-off roll I could hear my wife having initial heaves, and then just after rotation the inevitable happened, with about 80% of the contents of the convulsion going into the bag as expected, but the remainder onto the Delta-supplied blanket that she had in her lap, and some flecks reaching parts of her blouse. After a discrete period of time, I suggested that she wouldn’t be eating dinner later, and could I please have it?

It was the start of our biennial trip to Shanghai to check on the welfare of elderly relatives and maintain close ties with classmates and friends. For many months we had been tracking fare differences between Delta out of Detroit and Air Canada out of Toronto. When the time for decision came, my wife decided on the Detroit option with discount tickets from a Detroit-based Chinese travel agency. But this time we would be flying Delta. Our previous trips to China had been mostly with Northwest.

These discount tickets… I assume that if you miss the flight you are screwed? Yet so many people seem fairly casual about getting to the airport on time. I would think there must be plenty of stories of flights missed because of traffic delays, last-minute illness, car problems, or any of those things that make me worry that my travel investment would be in jeopardy? Yet I haven’t heard any sad stories.

There were three in our party, me, my wife, and a friend. The friend was a worrier like me, and despite jokes at our expense, we left our homes in Sarnia very early, made it across the Blue Water Bridge into the USA without delay, and travelled down the I-94 to DTW with lots of time to spare.

We had a long wait in the newly Delta-branded McNamara Terminal, but as an “enthusiast” I could have spent the whole day there content to just watch the movement of people and aircraft. But gradually activity developed around the departure gate as our fellow passengers arrived, and boarding eventually commenced for Delta Flight 19 Detroit direct Shanghai.

Loading for departure

Boarding began with the “Business Elite” as expected and then moved to Economy by “zones”. That was a term that threw me off for awhile until I saw that my boarding paper said “Zone 3” in small print. There really wasn’t much of an orderly queue and after the other two members of my party slipped forward, I began to suspect that the quiet disorder of boarding might have something to do with the nationality of many of the passengers. I wondered why there should be a rush to get aboard? After all, we were going to be sitting in there for 15 hours or more on assigned seats?


How naïve of me! When I eventually got back to Row 49 where we were seated, I found the overhead lockers already jammed up with some of the biggest “carry on” items I’ve ever seen. But if you were repatriating Grandma’s Ming Dynasty vase to the Motherland, you would have made a big mistake stowing it overhead with all the jamming and shoving going on there! I know there is a safety factor built into the overhead bin locking devices but is it still enough?
Eventually the overhead bins were filled to 110% and we pushed back right on the money at 16:00. As we taxied out the Captain announced that we were number 2 for take-off, and that occurred just 7 minutes later.

Apart from the personal aspects of the take-off in row 49 as previously described, everything seemed to go smoothly and we climbed westwards. On my seat back map display the line representing the great circle route to Shanghai curved away to the northwest, but we continued almost due west to the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, then turned north. When things seem to be settled down, the captain came on the PA and advised us we were at 30,000 feet, we’d likely arrive 30 minutes early, and that it was 70°F in Shanghai.

Landing cards for Chinese Customs and Immigration were handed out and despite the fact that we had 14½ hours to fill them out, most people in the neighbourhood seemed to get down to work on them immediately.
A drink service came soon afterwards. I think I boarded the aircraft with a reasonably good attitude and outlook, and I was maintaining it despite the cramming of the overhead bins and my wife’s air sickness. But things didn’t seem right. The Chinese-American flight attendant was distributing the drinks without any warmth whatsoever. My wife, still recovering from her stomach problems, missed the drink offering. When our friend in the aisle seat tried to get the flight attendant’s attention, she was rebuked with a fairly sharp “just a minute!”

Soon we were back over the Dominion flying half-way up over the Manitoba/ Saskatchewan border and I was looking down at the sun shining on water, rock, and firewood. We may have the 2nd largest country in the world but much of seems to be just waste land.

The first meal service came and went 2½ hours after take off. I had the chicken which was quite good but not too hot. There were a lot of items on the food tray and they were wrapped in individual plastic packaging that was hard to compress and move out of the way. The flight attendant continued to be abrupt as she did her meal beverage service. Tea? You get one chance to answer. Snooze, you lose. She’s gone.

It was noisy this far back in the aircraft. I’d never really had a problem with noise before, but now I wished I had earmuffs. My two Shanghainese companions snooze away under their red Delta blankets. I always dress warmly when I fly and I had volunteered my clean blanket to the missus.


The duty-free cart was pushed around soon after dinner. Can you really get good prices on booze there? It seems like a throw-back to an earlier time. Behind the cart, a balding middle-aged man patiently waited for the cart to get past the washroom. In the departure lounge, I dubbed him “Mr. Comb-over”. Now I’m wondering what he looks like when he gets out of the shower? Must have hair down to his shoulder on one side.

At some point, I found the “In-flight Trivia” game on the seat-back display. As the miles go by, I spent a lot of time playing many rounds of the game against other passengers on board, identified by their handles and their seat numbers. It is very competitive if there are others logged in. I played and lost a very tight round with “Jim” back in 51C. The game proceeds slowly and after a few rounds you start to get a sense about what kind of people you are up against – technical people or the arts type. For me this game was the best part of the flight.

The trivia game was suddenly unavailable as we passed north of 60° but still south of Great Slave Lake, NWT. There is complete undercast below and moderate turbulence. Passengers are asked to return to their seats.
Four and a half hours after take-off I finished another winning round of trivia under the handle “Limeng”. I’d be champion of the flight if “Jim” does not log back on. There was still solid undercast below but our moving map display showed us over the Mackenzie River. We were still over Canada after all this time. It got a little discouraging to think that we’d settled into the flight, hours had gone by, but we still had so far to go.

Encouraged by my wife, who still remembered the caution about “deep vein thrombosis”, I crawled sideways from my seat and walked up the sloping aisle to the forward washroom. When I got there, I couldn’t get the door open. If the folks back home could see the “world traveller” now! Couldn’t even get into the can! Eventually I rediscover that you had to push in on the panel to make the door open. Inside it was still fairly clean but I am always thankful at these times that I am not a woman and normally don’t have to come into intimate contact with the appliance.

On my trip to the W/C, I found the aircraft cabin dark but almost every seat has a screen up. There is such a choice of things to watch! Nobody should be really bored.

Back to the moving map display at my seat, I was annoyed that it is in English and Spanish and the program cycles through 5 English screens and then 5 Spanish screens. I guess the USA is practically bilingual now. We go across the river to the Port Huron Lowes home and building store and find all the signs there in Spanish and English. That seems strange, so far north in the USA.

Two hours later, we had crossed Alaska and were out over the Chukchi Sea north of the Bering Straits. We actually have a slight tailwind at this point.

Another hour passes and I was jostled by my wife to accept the mid-flight snack – a modest portion of a sub sandwich, some cookies, and an apple. A healthy after-school snack, I guess. I must have been asleep, sitting up. A plastic glass of water follows and I accepted it dumbly. All the service so far has been carried out briskly, as though we were on a prison bus, being fed by humane but distant guards. I seem to remember North West cabin attendants as a little friendlier, maybe enjoying a little more what they did?

By then we were passing down over Eastern Siberia, above the Kamchatka Peninsula. There were no towns or settlements shown on the moving map display. We made our way down over the Sea of Okhotsk and across the island of Sakhalin almost 9 hours after take-off. Every time I go by there I think of Korean Air Flight KAL 007 and the 269 lives that were lost there to Soviet interceptors 27 years ago.

This seems to be the lowest point of activity in the cabin during the flight. I looked to the right and see that everyone in row 49 seemed to be asleep, with heads turned mostly to the left, some to the right. I looked out the window and below rocky hills or mountains were rising out of the clouds.

We have followed the sun westwards across the sky but the long day that began back in Sarnia, now ends 11 hours into the flight as darkness falls just before the South Korean coast line. There are many lights off shore (drilling ships?). For the last hour I have been completely exhausted. I kept falling asleep at the trivia game. Beside me, my wife was sleeping forward, with her head on the tray table.

Another hour passed as we moved slowly over Korea and out over the Yellow Sea. My wife woke up during this time and we discussed the cabin crew’s sour outlook. She had noticed it too. Several of the cabin crew are apparently American-born-Chinese or brought-over-early-and-America-raised. As an ex-mainlander herself, my wife has felt a sense of distain from these kinds of Americans and Canadians. Let’s be honest, the Chinese are not an easy group to travel with. Their manners are well…different than ours. “Please”,”thank you”, and “excuse me” are not commonly used and I can see where cabin staff would be put off by a passenger complement of 60-70% Chinese, many acting like they were still back in Chao-Pi-Gu County. But still, they pay their money, and they should be entitled to the normal western courtesies even if they aren’t reciprocated.

We came in off the Yellow Sea at the mouth of the Yangtze River and began our approach into Shanghai-Pudong. We had to do a couple of turns in a hold to the north of the airport and then we turn in to Runway 17. The final approach and landing were so smooth that it seemed like we just drove onto the runway. Our airtime from Detroit was 14 hours, 28 minutes, 8 seconds.

The taxi into the gate, unloading, and entry formalities went very smoothly. Excited and temporarily wide awake, we made our way into the old home town of my wife and her friend.

[The three weeks in Shanghai went quickly enough. We visited Expo 2010 twice. We had a happy reunion with cousins on my father-in-law’s side. We visited now-elderly couples who had been at our wedding 14 years ago. They seemed really glad to see us. In those cases, my wife stayed twice as long as intended. We had a boisterous reunion which was a hen party of 5 classmates from the famous Class of ’77. My wife shopped, and she shopped, and she shopped.]


The Return Flight Delta 18, 31 October, 2010

I was so angry with my wife that I banged my fist down on to the luggage cart, incurring pain that lasted for several hours, and a soreness to the touch that lasted a further two days.

A little later, when I calmed down, I said to her “there is a problem when the smartest girl in the village moves to the big city and still thinks that everybody else is dumber than she is”. That’s my wife! Between our arrival and departure, she had got the idea (“I was told” in Chinese parlance) that with a little BS about my medical condition, she could get our seats on the return flight moved from row 39, up to an exit row where we’d have more leg room. A telephone agent from Delta Reservations suggested that our party be at the airport to discuss this possible seat revision at the counter before 07:45 on the day of departure.

Now, I’ve been in China enough times to know that this kind of advice is BS in its own right.
Our party of three arrived smoothly at Pudong Terminal 2 just after 07:00 for the 10:10 flight and I was nicely starting the automated check-in, when my wife noisily objected to the way I was doing it. I, in turn, noisily objected to her interference in what I was doing. Some may think that a big white guy leaning over to have an argument with a little Chinese woman might look like spousal abuse. The optics are all wrong. However, that’s not reality. “Just be quiet”, she commanded, “and give me the cart”. I knew this was going to be one of those times where she’d have to learn the hard way.

As we proceeded slowly through the regular check-in line instead of using the express check-in, I got angry all over again. When we got up to a counter, one of our bags was over-weight, and we had to transfer items from bag to bag, awkwardly unlocking those damn TSA-approved locks she insisted on using. That’s when I hit my hand. Eventually after a lot of wasted back and forth in Mandarin with the agent about changing our seating, we were presented with boarding passes for our original seats 39A, B, and C. We could have got the same paper for less agony, 20 minutes earlier. It was a damn good thing I was right, otherwise I’d be hearing about it even now, several days later.

Things quickly got sweeter again, and we enjoyed breakfast croissanwiches and coffee from the Burger King located inside the air side of the terminal. The girls went off to shop and I sat and enjoyed watching the activity at the airport.
Our flight crew for Delta 18 arrived at 08:35 and they impressed me as a very professional looking group as they went through what appeared to be identity checks so they could get down to the jet way to the aircraft.


Eventually boarding was called, first for “Business Elite”, and then for Economy. My wife and her friend moved with all possible dispatch to the boarding queue, and with that finely-honed Shanghai instinct, they both infiltrated into the shorter Business Elite line when they thought it was doable.


For myself, I moved the end of the Economy line and was one of the last people aboard. I got a very friendly welcome from the flight attendant at the door. Once aboard, I still had to pass through the Business Elite cabin as part of the great unwashed. I think if I was paying the business fare, I would object to having all these people stumble through my living space as I tried to relax and enjoy a pre-departure drink. Couldn’t they use a back door?

Despite being almost the last to board, I found the port aisle still filled with people trying to jam large pieces of luggage into the overhead bins. When I finally arrived at my row (39) at 09:37, the bins were all full and I had to put my small bag under the seat in front.

When all the cramming was finished and things settled down we got a very warm “welcome aboard” from the Purser. Our captain for the first phase of the flight came on at 10:07 and said we were ready to go and waiting for push-back clearance. It seemed like it was going to be another on-time Delta departure. We waited, and waited. My wife and I used the time to calmly discuss the “check-in incident”. I told her I don’t like to tell untruths. She replied, “in China, 70% truth + 30% BS = 100% success”. We left it at that.

To make a long story short, we didn’t push-back until 11:37, an 87 minute delay. The captain frequently came on the PA to keep us informed. As time passed, he couldn’t keep the frustration out of his voice. Ground Control wasn’t telling him anything, and wasn’t giving him any estimates of how long the delay would last. He allowed that “the only aircraft that seem to be moving have Chinese-speaking pilots”. It was funny, the Chinese-speaking cabin crew translator left that part out when she repeated the captain’s remarks in Mandarin!”

I’ve read that in China, Air China sometimes gets preferential treatment with ATC, but I bet that is a dangerous game to play. “Preferential” works both ways. Maybe it was a legitimate delay. Maybe Henry Kissinger was inbound under a high security envelope? I’ll bet Delta questions the Civil Aviation Authority of China about this. Eventually the Chinese will learn that they have to be more open with information.

We took off from Runway 34 just before noon and climbed out through the brown Shanghai haze to the north-east towards Japan. For the first time in three weeks I saw a clear blue sky. Two hours later we were passing south of Tokyo Bay. Lunch was almost finished by then, tea was being served. Service on this flight seemed pretty normal – several notches warmer than on the outbound flight. In the starboard aisle, a cheerful male flight attendant was asking passengers if they “enjoyed their dining experience”. He just hit the right note, I thought, and promoted a warm friendly atmosphere in the cabin.

I got onto the “On-line Trivia” again but it wasn’t as much fun as before. The entertainment system had to be re-set twice during the flight and the continuity of the trivia rounds was lost. Some questions were repeated. I lost one round to “Vic” in 40G, but generally won the rounds until I got bored and turned to TV programs.

We followed a more southerly track on the return, across Japan, and then out over the Pacific. Tailwinds were pretty strong – 189 miles/hour, at one point. Darkness fell about 3½ hours after takeoff and the cabin lights were darkened too. I guess the message was “time to go to sleep, folks, however you might be able to manage it”.
I did a rough calculation 5½ hours into the flight and was discouraged to learn that we were still an hour short of the half-way point. Ahead of me 38A got up for the washroom. There was no communication with the two people blocking him, just a sense that you should get out of my way. Same thing on the return to the seat. In the culture I was raised in, at least a smile, a nod, or gesture of request is required for this manoeuvre.

The mid-flight snack was passed out at 6½ hours – a tasty sub sandwich, some wafer cookies, and an apple. They seemed to be from a Chinese caterer. Service is still up to snuff, by my modest standards. By cupping my hands between my face and the window, I could look out and dimly see the Big Dipper at the 10 o’clock position. The flight data system says we are travelling at 670 mph with a 106 mph tailwind. Soon after I noted those details the entertainment system needs rebooting for a 2nd time.

As we enter the 9th hour of flight, we are in the NE Pacific, south of the Alaska/Yukon border. “Bumpy ride, seatbelts signs back on” is the laconic announcement from the flight deck. Half an hour later I can see on the moving map display that we’ll make our North American landfall over Vancouver Island. Actually we pass just across the tiniest southern tip of the island and enter American airspace almost immediately. I am startled to see the bright lights of Blaine, Washington below us even though it is just 06:00 on the ground.

A controversy arose in the aisle. 38C complains that a member of our party had been constantly poking her headrest through the flight as she played the screen-touch game on her video display. “Do you have to hit it that hard? You’re moving my entire seat!” she complained. Two flight attendants attend at the scene and can only request that the two parties reach a “mutual understanding”. 38C looks like an unhappy woman. Maybe she was heading home after having enough of the Chinese in Shanghai and can’t endure the poking at the back of her head and the unbidden trips across her legs by her row mates?

After 10 hours, we met the North American sunrise over North Dakota. The process was much slower than I expected. I’ve experienced a few sunrises on the ground but I thought by hurtling eastwards at almost 700 mph, there would be a more abrupt transition from night to day. The experience was a reminder to me of what should be the obvious fact that the west coast is 3 hours behind us. When we are arriving at our workplaces in the eastern sunshine at 09:00, on the west coast, it is still dark and most people have at least another hour in Suzhou.

The cabin lights came on at 11:09 and breakfast was served quickly and pleasantly. I had been alert all the way across but just then I was starting to get tired. The tepid coffee perks me up a little as I tucked into the breakfast tray. I’m wondering how many passengers attempt the “chicken sausage”. I won’t describe it.

At 11:57 we crossed the western shore of Lake Michigan. I picked up a personal headset for 38A and tap him on the arm to get his attention. He just takes it, no indication of gratitude. A few minutes later, a few passengers (possibly first-time flyers, but maybe not) stand up and reach up to the overhead bins and attempt to get their carry-ons out for quick exit after landing. They are scolded by the flight attendants in what I would consider to be a reasonable tone.
Now we are manoeuvring into the Detroit area. The two cities of Detroit and Windsor, divided by the Detroit River, come into dramatic view. Wish I’d taken a photo! We appear to make a turn right-downwind and then right base and final for Runway 03R (I think). The approach was smooth but we land with a real bang. Total flying time was 13 hours, 10 minutes, 42 seconds.

The aircraft unloads quickly, as might be expected. As I exit the door, a flight attendant and one of the First Officers thank me and wish me good day. I appreciated that. It was a nice touch.

Inside the terminal, at Immigration, we are divided into American citizens and “aliens”. As Canadians, we go with the PRC passport holders. Any white faces in the queues are probably Canadians like me. But a significant number of the Chinese also hold the blue Canadian passport. They must be from the southern Ontario area like us. As a sensitive person, I felt that the personnel managing us “aliens” could have been a little more pleasant. If you don’t speak good English, just completed a long flight, and are probably a little nervous, being spoken to in a loud, somewhat impatient and condescending voice, probably doesn’t help. But later US Customs personnel seemed kinder, gentler. Processing into the USA took a full hour.

So this was our trip. As an aviation and travel enthusiast, I’m a little surprised that my report has a bit of negative tone. Modern aircraft and their seating configurations have made it possible for people of ordinary means to fly to distant places cheaply and frequently. For instance, while we were in Shanghai, my wife’s cousin made what was essentially a long-week trip from New York to see us and some other cousins.

But I suspect that 50 years from now, people will marvel at how we packed ourselves into these machines and hardly complained about it. What I would like to see in the years to come, is something akin to a railway sectional berth, where I could come aboard, pull the curtain across, and have a real extended sleep for the next 15 hours.
One more thing, it was disturbing the number of people coughing and hacking in a scary and continuous way all the way across. There seemed to be nothing in the way of medical surveillance for boarding passengers. It is 3 days after our return flight now and both my wife and I have been sick with cough and fever since we got back.
Posts: 73
Joined: Sat Nov 03, 2007 5:24 pm

RE: By Steerage To Shanghai And Back

Thu Nov 04, 2010 4:44 pm

I really enjoyed reading your report. It is nice to see a trip report on which relies on BOTH words and photos for a change! I found it quite compelling.

Quoting ronglimeng (Thread starter):
Modern aircraft and their seating configurations have made it possible for people of ordinary means to fly to distant places cheaply and frequently

You are absolutely correct about this. However, the downside of this trade-off is evident every time I fly in coach, even on short distances.

I think the negatives of coach travel have gotten worse in the past 15 years or so as "widebodies" have gotten smaller and all societies have become less formal (and, arguably, less civil).

Still, I find it amazing to this day that I can get on an airplane in Atlanta and fly to so many different cities around the world. I'll take it!

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Joined: Sun Nov 18, 2007 6:46 am

RE: By Steerage To Shanghai And Back

Thu Nov 04, 2010 7:55 pm

Interesting trip report! How was the coach seat in terms of comfort for sleeping. Did they hand out any eye masks or anything like that?

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