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Monday, March 23, 2015

Trip Report: The Adventures of Checking in at Sea-Tac

I started writing this report starting in the middle of my trip, when I met up with my VNA flight

Other chapters:
Alaska 737-800 at SEA
We are scheduled to depart on an Alaska Airlines (AS) at 7:55pm from Seattle (SEA) to Los Angeles (LAX), where we will spend the night before flying out the next morning to Shanghai-Pudong (PVG) on American Airlines (AA).

We planned on this overnight layover intentionally, so we could visit family and pick up some things to bring back to Vietnam.  Since we were staying in Los Angeles for under 24 hours, it wasn't considered a stopover and therefore didn't increase the cost of the tickets by breaking up our itinerary into two separate fares.

In my past experiences, what typically would happen was that our flight down to LAX would be treated as a normal domestic flight, and our bags would be checked to LAX, since we were spending the night there.

Domestic check-in time for AS is 40 minutes with or without checked baggage, and we arrive a bit early at the counter (70 minutes before departure) so we don't have to rush. By virtue of our Platinum status with AA, we have access to AS's first class check-in, as well as priority boarding, so we are in no particular rush.

So we plan accordingly, packing as if we were going to grab our bags in LAX and spend a night in Los Angeles. Things were not to be, however, when we stroll up to the counter, happily stating that we are checking in 4 pieces for the flight to LAX.

The agent takes our drivers licenses, taps a few keys, and asks, "Are you flying to Shanghai?" I tell her that we are, and she continues to tap at a feverish pace. After a couple of minutes, she asks for our passports, which strikes me as odd because we are flying a domestic flight, but I dig them out of my backpack and hand them over.

The agent takes them and walks to the back office. Though I'm not in panic mode, I do start feeling a growing concern that something was amiss. Is there a problem with our booking? Is one of the flights canceled ore rescheduled? Is the TSA after us? (That last one was more funny than concerning.)

After a few minutes, the agent comes back and loudly declares, "You were supposed to be here sooner!"  I politely point out to her that we're well before the cutoff time, and she's essentially ignoring us, not to be rude, but to type as fast as she can and asking us about our trip to Shanghai and onwards.

As best as I can put together, the system is treating us as international passengers and demanding all the foreign travel formalities. Obviously, this agent has has handled international check-ins before but not as experienced as those from legacy carriers, which leads us to our next hurdle:

"Where are your visas?"
Interlude: While China requires a visa to visit as a tourist with a US passport, at certain airports including Shanghai there is a "Transit Without Visa" (TWOV) program available, as long as we are flying onto a 3rd country (in our case, Vietnam) and staying no more than 72 hours (23 hours for us). 
Also, Vietnam requires visa for US passport holders to have a visa before entering. However, a visa waiver program was instituted for certain visitors who had a Vietnamese heritage. upon which Vietnam would issue a "certificate of waiver exemption" that looked like a visa adhered to a passport page and essentially acted like a visa.
Airlines use a system called TIMATIC that explains the travel documentation requirements for all possible combinations of departing city, connections, and final destinations. 
I tell the agent that we don't have visas, and explain the above as to why we didn't. I know she referenced TIMATIC to know in general that we needed visas, but I still show her my printout of the TIMATIC results, which I had in case there was a problem in CHINA... I didn't figure I would need them in Seattle!

The agent accepted the fact that we qualified for China's TWOV program, but did not accept that our "Certificates of Visa Exemption" were valid for entry into Vietnam, as it was not a visa per se. She runs to the back office again, and after a few minutes comes out.

She finally finishes checking us in, saying that she is using our places of birth as evidence of our entry (which is fine for my wife... but I was born in the US, so I have no idea how that would work). In any case, we get the boarding passes printed, all the while the agent keeps grumbling how we should have been here earlier, and I have to keep pointing out that a) we should have been checking in as a domestic itinerary, and b) we were still there before the international check in time of 60 minutes. I also wanted to point out her lack of understanding the TIMATIC results, but at that point we just let her be.

Now it's on to checked luggage... which of course is tagged all the way to PVG and not LAX, where we had intended to unload some things and redistribute. More typing, more grumbling, and a compromise, but she's able to short-check 2 of our our bags to LAX (the ones we REALLY needed), and the other 2 go all the way to PVG.

At this point, I realize that AS doesn't provide priority tags for the bags, which would be important in PVG if we wanted a chance to have our bags be one of the first to come out from a full B777. I sprint down to the AA counter, which luckily was only about 100 yards away, give my 15-second elevator pitch as to why I needed their priority tags, and sprint back to the AS counter. Having never tagged a bag as priority before, I actually have to show the agent how to put the priority tags onto the luggage tags (fast forward: our bags are some of the first out at PVG, thanks to the priority tags).

We finally have boarding passes in hand and get into security 45 minutes before our departure. Thankfully we have TSA Pre-Check, so we're through in less than 5 minutes, but without enough time to check out Alaska's Board Room lounge, we just head out to the gate, and we start boarding within 5 minutes of our getting there.

So much for our relaxing pace to start our trip!

After the scrum at check-in, we have a quick, uneventful flight down to LAX. Our AA Platinum (PLT) elite status allows us to board with AS's elites, as well as select preferred seats at the time of booking. Normally, non-status passengers can only select non-preferred seats towards the rear of the plane, but can pick any seat when they check in 24 hours ahead of time, including exit row seats.

On this flight, we are sitting in Row 17, which is the 2nd exit row with ample legroom and full recline (whereas Row 16 has limited recline). Interestingly, the tray tables on AS's exit rows are NOT in the armrests, but on the seatback instead, meaning that these seats have the same width.

On descent into LAX, making the turn over downtown
Los Angeles. For reference, the purple light is Staples Center.
Alaska is also unique in offering a baggage delivery service guarantee: If your bags don't arrive to baggage claim within 20 minutes of the aircraft door opening, AS will give you a certificate good for $25 off your next flight with AS, or 2,500 AS Mileage Plan miles. I've gotten into the habit of starting my phones stopwatch just to remind me if I should ask for a certificate. You don't even have to wait at baggage claim... you can talk to any airport agent, or contact AS within 2 hours of arrival via phone or even through Twitter @AlaskaAir.

Alas, AS again proves its efficiency and our bags come out in just 11 minutes, and we're on our way away from LAX.

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