October 28, 2023

Fly Xiamen Air via China for a cheap ticket. But be prepared.

Attracted by the relatively low fares, I decided to test run an economy Xiaman Air (MF) flight from Bangkok to Sydney via Xiamen in mainland China.

In order to circumvent potential complications I have found with Asian airline sites, I chose to book via Booking.com which did make the process a lot simpler with its familiar steps.

The matter that unfortunately left a gaping hole in the customer satisfaction score was the messy and inefficient transfer process at Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport (XMN).

When I initially saw the five-hour layover in XMN, I thought “Okay, I’ll find a comfy lounge and settle in. Maybe do some emails.”

What I know now is that I needed almost all of that time to navigate the agonising procedures just getting to my next leg. Bear in mind I was only a transit passenger with luggage already checked through to Sydney and with a bright blue “transfer” sticker now adorning my shirt, should I get lost.

From my experience, most airlines will give you your onward sector’s boarding pass at initial check-in. Not MF. I was told my seat was allocated, but I had to get my second boarding pass in XMN. Hmmm, okay.

I also had to make a health declaration on a badly translated website while checking in. The beleaguered staff member just waved me away. “You do it later” and gestured impatiently to the departure door.

Xiamen Air B787 Dreamliner. The airline has twelve. (supplied)

The actual “in-air” service was fine. The planes were in my case a B737 NG and B787 Dreamliner. Xiamen Air’s fleet of 160 planes’ average age is less than 10 years, so you could call them a “new” airline. I subsequently deduced the average age of MF staff was not much more.

Young and attractive Xiamen Air female cabin crew (supplied)

The food was quite satisfactory and obviously tailored to Asian palates, served politely and efficiently by the well-presented crew. I say “well-presented” although I was concerned about the young female staff who, despite immaculate presentation, were waif-thin and at least visually, mid-20s. I secretly wondered whether they had to maintain a specific weight. One Chinese airline was rebuked recently for setting an upper weight limit of 49kg for their female cabin crew and staff. 

The Chinese have their own rules for disembarking an aircraft, so I just sat back and let the melee ensue, comfortable that I would gain no advantage in hurrying. Following the bright green “Transfer” signs through the labyrinthine path, I found myself among the voluminous mass waiting for immigration clearance at the four of 20 open desks. The few European passengers and I shared shrugs and bewildered glances. I’ve seen wounded snails travel faster than this queue. Thankfully I was able to sail through customs and found myself in China!

Glancing at my watch, I thought it best to get back in and get it over with. At this point, a visit to the dentist had more appeal.

The front of the stagnant Transfer Desk queue
Halted abruptly at the door I had to produce my passport, health declaration (fortunately screenshot) and … “Boarding pass?” I just shook my head and pointed to my lovely blue sticker to which the enthusiastic young official pointed vaguely to somewhere beyond the oversize cartoon figures greeting new passengers.

There is an actual 'transfer lounge' sort-of resembling a 'club' but with scant snacks and refreshments for purchase. But I still felt naked without my boarding pass.

After a search of the various counters and a couple of practice queues, I was eventually ushered by a sympathetic official who saw my big blue dot to the … (ominous music) … Transfer Desk where I joined another stagnant mass of bewildered passengers while gorgeous sky blue-suited attendants hovered nearby. The scene was intermittently interrupted by a young male supervisor feverishly clutching a 2-way and dashing behind the desk, looking very concerned at the check-in screen and running away again.

By the time I acquired my cherished boarding pass and made my way to the gate lounge, it was 15 minutes before boarding time. Time to grab a snack? Even as the food counters pulled down their shutters, I could see my quest was in vain. “Alipay, WeChat, Cash only. No credit cards”.

I was too exhausted to grapple with the convoluted airport free WiFi and while WiFi is available on board, it is a pay-to-use service.

When MF801 arrived in Sydney 9 hours later, it was a joy to breeze through our automated system and be waved cheerfully through customs. My case arrived in one piece and I was out the door in no time, leaving me wondering just what the heck all that nonsense was in Xiamen.

So folks, if you are contemplating the discount fare via a stop in Xiamen, brace yourself.

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