Friday, November 03, 2006

Trapped at Bangkok Airport

Hong Kong, China


Call me Viktor Navorski Junior. Unlike Tom Hanks' character in The Terminal, I only spent three days trapped at Bangkok's airport. Like his character, I would occasionally visit Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose picture I could always find at the fragrance counters. No Stanley Tucci, though.

* * * * *

DAY ONE

"Sorry. You can't board flight," the counter agent for Bangkok Airways said. "Letter wrong."

She was right. My last name was misspelled by one letter on my Chinese visa. I had noticed it weeks earlier and meant to have it corrected but forgot.

"They won't let you in with error," the counter agent explained.

Her assessment of Chinese Immigration's eagle eyes may or may not have been accurate, but her airline's policy was not to take a chance. An airline can be fined if it transports you to a country which denies you entrance. Consequently, risk-averse airlines take a hard-line approach when checking your international travel documents.

Fine, I thought, I'll have the problem sorted in one of the "special administrative regions" of China that a U.S. citizen can enter without a visa. I'll turn in my now-unusable ticket to Xi'an, China, for a refund and hop on the next flight to Hong Kong or Macau.

Except that it was 12:30 in the morning.

Luckily, the managers of Bangkok's new Suvarnabhumi Airport understand that international travel operates 24/7. Restaurants, stores, information counters, ground transport and money exchanges were open all night. If this had happened at LAX, I'd have been looking at six hours without food or water or the most elementary services.

Two flights were leaving for Hong Kong at 5 a.m., so I queued up when the counter opened at 3 a.m.

"No tickets for sale," said the counter agent, who looked like a Thai version of Jackie Brown, worn out and approaching middle age working for a third-rate airline. "These flights are charters."

"Are there any empty seats on the flights?" I asked.

"No tickets for sale. These are charters," the counter agent repeated.

"That's not my question. Are there any empty seats on the flights?"

She called for her supervisor who came over, and we repeated the exercise. After some debate, I forced the supervisor to admit that at least one of the jets had an empty seat.

"Please sell me a ticket. Code it as a Y fare and sell me the seat," I said.

"No. Against rule."

"What rule?"

"Against rule."

The Owner Wants To Earn Less Revenue Than Possible Rule, apparently. Either the tour packager did not buy the empty seat, in which case I would be the buyer, or the tour packager bought the seat but failed to re-sell it, in which case the airline had the rare opportunity to sell the same seat twice. But logic is powerless in the face of "against rule."

At this point, I was too tired to deal, so I surfed the web for a cut-rate bed near the airport and flopped at the Avana Hotel, which caters to Thai and Chinese budget tourists at a rack rate of $40 a night.

* * * * *

DAY TWO

"No one-way allowed," the ticket sales agent at Air Asia said.

"I have China visa," I said, showing her the visa and gambling she wouldn't notice the typo. "I also have onward ticket from Beijing to Turkmenistan. You can sell me a one-way ticket to Macau."

"I talk to supervisor," she said and vanished.

The onward ticket requirement is the bane of independent travellers. Many countries have a law which states that you cannot enter the country unless you already possess a ticket out of the country. But many independent travellers do not know when they will leave the country, or by what route, or by what means of transport. If you have the vague notion of flying into a country with an onward ticket requirement and riding a train out, you are in the grips of a catch-22, because you can't enter the country without the onward train ticket but you usually can't buy the train ticket until you are in the country. (Travel agents can obtain the train ticket for you in advance at an exorbitant premium.)

Fortunately, countries with modern tourism policies understand this dilemma and do not enforce the onward ticket requirement. China and Thailand are two such countries.

Unfortunately, the airlines strictly enforce the onward ticket requirement, even if the destination country does not. The airlines' position is that they don't want to risk being fined and they can't be expected to know the nuances of enforcement policy in every country.

I call bullshit.

The only people who benefit from an onward ticket requirement are airlines and travel agents, who force you to buy a round-trip ticket when all you need is a less-expensive one-way ticket. The airlines have lawyers who identify the formal entry requirements for every country into which they fly, so asking the attorneys to determine the actual state of on-the-ground enforcement isn't a vast additional burden. And we're talking about China, a country with millions of visitors a year, where ten minutes of internet research reveals that the onward ticket requirement is not being enforced. The airlines enforce the rule solely as a profit-padding device.

By the time the ticket agent returned from her lengthy meeting with her supervisor, I had accepted the fact that I needed to buy a round-trip ticket if I were ever going to leave the Bangkok airport. But ticketing for the Macau flight was now closed, so the issue was rendered moot.

Gulf Air, the flag carrier for Bahrain and Oman, had the next flight to Hong Kong.

"We don't sell tickets here," the counter agent said.

"What do you mean? You have half a dozen flights a day in and out of here," I said.

"We don't have any ticket-selling facilities at the airport. You can't buy tickets here," she explained.

I went back to the hotel and knocked back bottled water like it was Scotch.

* * * * *

DAY THREE

"I am getting on a plane today to Hong Kong or Macau if it's the last thing I do," I said to myself. By this time, I was tired of airport food, tired of standing in line, tired of pushing my bags around on a cart.

Emirates had the next flight to Hong Kong. I walked up to the Emirates ticketing booth; to my surprise, there was an employee present. I asked to buy a round-trip ticket to Hong Kong, and she quoted a reasonable price. I bought the ticket, checked in and, two hours later, was finally out of Bangkok.

* * * * *

EPILOGUE

Government offices are housed in the "China Resources Building," which sounds more cheerful than "Your Imperial Overlords."

I explained to the Chinese consular officer that I needed my Thai-issued visa corrected to remove the typo. She leaned over and pulled from beneath her desk a large three-ring binder and began flipping through it for the applicable rule. After about four minutes of silence, she gave up on the binder.

She reached down again and pulled up one of the largest books I have ever seen. It was hard-bound, about three times the thickness of a Bible, and large format, like an art book or an old-fashioned bank ledger. It was written in Chinese characters, which made it appear even more intimidating.

Four minutes of silence passed as she looked through the book. Six minutes. Eight minutes.

"No rule," she finally said.

"She's going to say she needs to talk to her supervisors," I thought.

"I need to talk to the supervisors," she said and disappeared.

After about ten minutes, she returned.

"We cannot do anything to the old visa because this office did not issue it," she said, "but there is something we can do."

I knew where this was going.

"We can issue you an additional visa for $100."

For want of one letter.

I paid my fee, completed the paperwork and, two hours later, received formal and correctly spelled permission to enter mainland China.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Gabe said...

I randomly came across this blog while searching to see if I could remove old visas to make room for new ones... Probably much to your chagrin, I was able to enter China last May (2007) with a visa that contained my name with one misspelled letter.

5:13 AM  

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