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Monday, February 2, 2015

Trip Report: Getting to Shanghai Pudong Airport (PVG) and checking in with VNA

Other chapters:
  • Intro: Ticketing and Getting Ready
  • Checking in at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)
  • SEA-LAX on Alaska Airlines
  • Quick stop in Los Angeles
  • Checking in at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
  • LAX-PVG on American Airlines
  • Another quick stop in Shanghai
  • Getting to Shanghai Pudong Airport (PVG) and checking in with VNA (current entry)
  • Flying PVG-SGN on Vietnam Airlines on an A321
  • Arrival at Tan Son Nhat Airport (SGN)
Author's note: Yes, it's weird that I have a VNA segment in this itinerary. It was an AA fare where the rules allowed for a connection onto VNA from AA's PVG flights.
The check-in hall at PVG.
We take good old reliable UberX from our hotel to Shanghai Pudong Airport (PVG). Our driver, with a clean and fully-optioned Nissan sedan, spoke decent English, well enough to crack a couple of jokes, then quietly and efficiently got us to the airport, even offering us bottled water along the way. 

UberX is my preferred way to travel to/from PVG, definitely over taxis, but with 2 people and luggage, it was nearly the same price and more convenient than the maglev train, which requires walking about 250 meters to transfer to the Shanghai Metro subway system.

43USD and 45 minutes later, we find ourselves in the terminal. 

First order of business is to retrieve the bags we had deposited at the left luggage counter. We pay our remaining balance of 25CNY (~4USD; 200CNY [32USD] paid from before) and grab our bags and boxes from the back room, untouched from where we left them the previous day. I'm quite pleased with this service and would totally use it again... it made our short visit to Shanghai so much easier.

We load our luggage carts (free at PVG) and head upstairs to the central check-in area. 

We find the Vietnam Airlines (VNA) counter, which has plenty of staffing but no one in line, even with 2 departures to Saigon (SGN) and Hanoi (HAN) within 1.5 hours. The counters are actually staffed by China Eastern (MU) employees, overseen by VNA managers... the boarding passes are even printed on MU paper. 

While the employees obviously know how to work the computer system, they don't seem to be authorized to do anything beyond basic functions. Our agent speaks English well enough, and to her credit we are checked in very quickly, in under 5 minutes. When the boarding passes (BPs) are printed showing seats in Row 33 on the A321, we politely asked to move forward. On the map below, you can see why:
Click for: VNA's Airbus A321: The Most Accurate Seat Map Available
This is where the fun really started. The agent says that there aren't any other pairs of seats available. I ask about seats by the emergency exit, and she says that it was VNA's policy of not assigning exit row seats on flights that are not full, so the the system blocked her from assigning those seats.

At this point I know I wasn't going to get anywhere, so I ask to speak with the VNA manager. He is very friendly and tries to help (or so I think), but he repeats the policy of not being able to assign the exit row seats, and that there are no other seats available for us.

After a few minutes of going back and forth, we give up and proceed towards security.

We first go through exit immigration, which is first come-first served. It only takes about 5 minutes since crowds were light, but I can see how it may get backed up during busy times.

Nice architecture at PVG.
Next is security screening, and I notice that in the middle of the area, there is a designated priority security line for VIPs, elites, and premium passengers. Regular lines are about 10 people deep. Yes, I know I'm bad, but I decide to press my luck and hold out our AA Platinum cards with our MU boarding passes for a VNA flight in economy class. By all rights, we shouldn't have been allowed to use the line (no relevant status, no premium cabin, different alliance), and I figure the worst that would have happened would be getting shooed away into another line.

I had guessed correctly that the line attendants either weren't knowledgeable or didn't care, and we are allowed in with no problems whatsoever. I would label this a YMMV (your mileage may vary) situation. We scan our BPs (which, my guess, only checks to see if we have a valid BP or not), had our bags X-rayed (shoe removal not required), and we are through to the gate area in less than a minute.

Passengers milling around  Gate D82
before departure.
We take a couple of people-movers to get to our gate, D82 for the day. The gate area is full of waiting passengers... I guess they showed up 3-4 hours before departure. No signs of gate agents yet, so we find a place to sit and eat some of the snacks we brought along in preparation for being in economy class for 4 hours.

At about 1h15m before boarding, the gate agents show up to start processing the flight. Being the persistent type, I approach another agent about seating. This time, nothing about the policy about not assigning exit row seats, but rather that the seats are already assigned.

Boarding is about to start.
I thank her and step away... and no, I'm totally not satisfied with this answer. When she walks off, I speak to another agent, and her reply is that the seats are open, but they can't assign them at the gate!

If one thing's clear to me, it's that VNA just doesn't want to assign these seats, instruct the agents to not assign the seats, but leave the agents to rely on their own creativity on why the seats can't be assigned.

Finally, I spot another VNA manager who shows up, and I start chatting it up with him. I ask him about the seats, if there was any possibility of getting an exit row seats, and he asks for our BPs and walks away (score!). 

He comes back with the same BPs, but he had scratched off our original seats and handwrote 14A/14B. I inquire about if this was ok, and he assures me that he blocked out those seats for us, so it will be fine.

The happiness of succeeding through persistence is short-lived when we finally get on board...

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