What It’s Like Flying To China In The Era Of Coronavirus (Incredible, Photos)

The SARS-CoV-2 virus originated in China, and though they’ve had a handful of acknowledged cases pop up recently they’ve largely beaten the virus by going “full Wuhan,” lockdowns that were far more severe than anything in the U.S. or Europe. You couldn’t just go to the grocery store. People were tested and quarantined in government quarters, separated from their families.

The country is especially cautious letting people in, because that risks re-igniting the virus. However there are Chinese nationals looking to return home. This is the story of what it’s like to fly today from Los Angeles to Beijing. Except you can’t actually fly to Beijing. Air China’s CA988 has actually been landing in neighboring provinces – either Shijiazhuang or Tianjin – for quarantine.

This trip cost $4900 one-way in coach on Air China, plus $1400 for hotel and food during a 14 day stay prior to release.

At LAX the crowds for the mere dozen or so international flights are socially distanced:

None of the passengers on board are taking any chances, everyone was in full PPE getup.

Everyone’s temperatures were checked throughout the flight. Several people did develop fevers. They were moved to the back of the aircraft.

Inflight many people didn’t eat or drink. Fewer interactions, and less contact with flight attendants, meant less risk. On arrival a fleet of ambulances met the aircraft for passengers who had developed fevers. Deplaning was 3 rows at a time to prevent congestion and allow for distancing.

This flight landed in Shijiazhuang where everyone had to go through passport control. Border officials weren’t taking any chances.

COVID-19 tests were administered to arriving passengers.

Everyone was quarantined at government-assigned hotels – which hotels depending on whether passengers sat near someone who had developed a fever inflight. It took six hours to go through immigration and testing and reach a quarantine hotel. That’s less time than it took to enter Hong Kong, but the Hong Kong process seemed more civilized (with snacks!).

You’d have to really want to go to China badly. United and Delta, your flights are caught up in a diplomatic row between the two countries, are you sure you want to do this?

(HT: Reid F.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. No Asia travel for me for a while. I will miss it but not going. I wonder if people developed fevers because of how they were dressed and just overheated?

  2. @ Gary — Did this flight occur today or was this posted to Twitter today? It is hard to fathom that this is what the flights to China are like today, especially given how certain Americans are acting. Maybe Avianca and Virgin ARE toast after all, plus a BUNCH of other airlines. This is surreal.

  3. I would like to see China once in my life time, but it will be many, many years from now. Many more places to explore. Really, hazmat suits.

    would love to know the true infection rate and death toll in China (and Russia).

  4. Incredible. Seems like it won’t be back to normal until a vaccine is available.

    I have a relative who is being recruited for a teaching job in Asia–don’t know how China is going to handle an influx of foreign educators for the upcoming school year, unless they cover the cost of everything, A-Z, to get the faculty there.

  5. I don’t understand how people can look at what China is doing with inbound passengers, and the funds spent to do in-country testing (supposedly $280M to test everyone in Wuhan) and still believe there is massive fraud in their reported infection rates. They look and act like a country that has basically eradicated Covid-19.

    Certainly when the final epidemiological studies are done, there will be a spike in the number of cases reported. But this is similar to all reporting on all pandemics, and should not be considered fraud, though I’m sure some will label it as such…

    As well as the inbound test, my buddy who returned there a few weeks ago reported another test after the first week of quarantine.

  6. @ Gary — My biggest takeaway from this post is that airports will never be able to handle social distancing with a volume of passengers anywhere near pre-COVID-19 levels. I don’t see how they could handle even 50% of prior volume. Some airports are at a much bigger disadvantage than others. For example, how could the old LGA terminals handle even 25% volume? It is a serious awakening that, absent the virus magically disappearing or the development of a vaccine, almost all airlines will be bankrupt within 12 months.

  7. The fact is my friends in Shanghai China have been able to go to restaurants, even night clubs drinking without mask no problem. So this inbound check is effectively blocking transcontinental virus spread. Support.

  8. Why is nobody talking about the real issue – the virus disproportionately effects a specific demographic of people (obese, elderly, other already sick people). Remember the outrage at college kids on spring break? Thousands of them no observing even the slightest safety standards. Did a single one of them die or even end up in the hospital on a ventilator? Best illustration of why this is such BS. And as far as the ‘but they’ll infect other people’ argument I would say this: you already have everyone locked down, why not refine it and release guidelines that address the true risks to general public based on your risk factors. The unfathomable amount of money being spent (and lost) on this should be put to protecting the demographics that are actually at risk – oh, and you’d have enough left over to rebuild the country’s entire infrastructure and every school.

  9. You’d have to be desperate..Shijiazhuang is a world-class shithole, completely devoid of any redeeming features.

  10. @Paolo, please. Average IQ there is a good 30-40 points higher than anywhere in the US. Plus, I bet you can walk on the streets of Shijiazhuang without tripping over shattered glass or inhaling the particulate matter of incinerated police cars.

  11. Life is mostly normal in Taiwan, no new cases for 40+ days and only 2 deaths. But our borders are still closed, no foreigners allowed.

  12. @Jason
    Breathing is germane…Shijiazhuang is one of the most polluted places on earth.

  13. It’s always interesting to see how blind Americans are to their own decrepit, dangerous, militarized, and corrupt cities, and love to think how cities in China are hellish crapholes, completely overlooking the comparatively low quality of life in their own cities. Shijiazhuang is not the garden spot of China, but has safety and great infrastructure like a full beautiful and growing Metro system and high speed train that almost any American city would envy, and its residents certainly have a higher quality of life than people living in places like Baltimore, MD, Flint or Detroit, MI, Baton Rouge or New Orleans, LA, Philadelphia, PA, Camden or Trenton, NJ, and one can go on and on and on . . . .

  14. I am an American working im China and fully support the massive efforts made to control the virus now. Most of my colleagues are back at work, schools have reopened and generally people walking around outside without worry. I am sure there are valid criticisms for how China failed to disclose, was late to disclose, etc etc etc but the current reality is that China has managed the outbreak control with the focus and attention required to prevent further pandemic. Sadly, the U.S. is now the poster child for chaos and ineptitude in national leadership…

  15. @CRM1902 one of my best friend’s mom died from COVID 19, and she wasnt obese or had pre-existing conditions. Once you lose someone close, not sure if you woukd maintain the same callous attitude….

  16. Gary,

    The reason UA and DL desperately want to fly to China ASAP is exactly because of A) the $4900 one way ECONOMY fare B) the fact that AC managed to pack a B777-300ER full at that $4900 o/w ECONOMY fare which points to a huge surge of (temporary) demand from returning Chinese nationals and finally C) to exploit a Chinese rule that only allows Chinese airline to fly only one route to any given country at once weekly frequency. A rule that has apparently bred the $4900 o/w economy class fare in the 1st place

  17. @the-expat….I think you’re missing my point. The attitude is not callous or even emotional, it’s one based on facts and data and appropriate response based on those things. I’m sorry about your friend’s mom, but but of course there will be exceptions. You don’t manage 100s of millions of people based on exceptions. You don’t close an entire highway system down because a person with a spotless record was killed in an accident. You don’t close down the country because someone died of the flu. I was simply making the point that we’re not managing based on the reality of the situation. Maybe your friend’s mom was in a high risk group (I didn’t mean to say obese or elderly were the ONLY factors), maybe she didn’t follow some basic guidelines like washing hands, I don’t know. Either way she was probably just unfortunate enough to be in the .01% (approximate) that should have been fine. The toll on the other 99.99% is simply not worth what we’re doing. Create risk groups, manage those groups and someone’s likelihood of death from the virus shouldn’t be any worse than that of the flu or getting hit by a bus crossing the street. Of the total US population under 30, maybe there were a few hundred deaths out of 70Million people? Even at 1000 deaths, you’re at a fraction of a fraction of a percent. There are so many things more deadly to someone in that age group that we do practically nothing about. How can you not manage this to the demographic reality?

  18. @CRM1902 What people like you don’t understand is that the 18 year olds may not be at the hospital on a ventilator (but they CAN be), but they may have been asymptomatic, and passed it along at home to their 60 year old mother who ends up at the hospital. You are thinking too linearly… A friend of mine told me “I’m not sick, so *I* shouldn’t need to wear a mask!”, and I answered to them, “I am sure every person in here thinks they aren’t sick, but science tells us that probably at least 1 of them is…since we don’t know WHO that person is, if we ALL just wear the mask, odds are everyone who isn’t sick stays that way!”…

  19. I do understand that…but the CAN you’re talking about is not a % chance that is any worse than the flu or crossing the street or just living a normal life. As for the passing it on – we already have EVERYONE locked down. You can still tell that 18 year old not to visit their grandmother. We are already doing that anyway (nursing homes locked down, hospitals not open to visitors, etc…). I’m not saying lift every and all restrictions and guidelines. What people like you don’t understand is data and how to use it to solve problems efficiently. Why does the response to this have to be all or nothing? You are looking at it as a binary problem. If everyone was at equal risk, then yes, treat everyone equally. But there are massive disparities in the risks between groups. There’s a reason 18 year olds don’t get colonoscopies. There’s a reason people without diabetes don’t check their blood constantly. Once you get out of the identified risk groups you are going to be dealing with exceptions (that 100 out of 70,000,000 who did die) – you don’t manage entire systems to exceptions.

  20. @CRM1902 you are correct you can apply statistics to do cost benefit analysis in any situation to justify “tolerable” deaths. But I manage factories and I can tell you that we are committed to get all injuries (let alone fatalities) not to 0.01% but to ZERO because that is the culture of my company, to protect people as people not cattle. We dont cut corners on safety equipment or processes because only 0.001% deaths will occur. I agree with you we would not shut the factory down (which would ensure no injury at all) but we take extreme measures in use of protective gear, lots of processes and training and failsafe measures. Sadly, the U.S. is now reopening the economy with only a hodgepodge of measures compared to China…. so what was preventable is now becoming inevitable.

  21. But with all your efforts, the deaths still occur. This is a travel site…plane crashes still happen, cars still crash even with decades of safety improvements and operational guidelines. You keep implying that I feel we should just do absolutely nothing. I like your factory analogy. If one job role on your floor accounted for every death would you apply the same guidelines/training/restrictions on every other job? No, you wouldn’t. And here’s where we may just have to agree to disagree: It’s great the goal of your factory is 0 deaths – it should be for a strictly economic enterprise. The USA, however, is a country of over 300 million people that is governed by a principal of majority rules (what’s good for the many is good for the few). That’s how it is whether you want it to be or not. And by the way, people die every day for reasons ranging from natural causes to lightning strikes. It is expected that people will die (unlike the your expectation when going to work) So, yes, there is a number of deaths (I don’t know what it is) due to the virus that should be ‘acceptable’ because the way things are being handled now adversely effects all 300 million. Your factory does not have a 0.0% chance of a death or injury, yet it still exists. If your factory employed 1,000 workers and 2 died, wouldn’t you put your efforts into how you should best protect workers in those roles instead of treating all 1,000 like they were at the same risk regardless of their job? I feel like a broken record, but I do believe we should continue to have restrictions and guidelines, but there is enough data to tell us how to focus them so large groups of the population can resume their lives without risk of death/injury beyond what they were faced with 6 months ago.

  22. Right, why would you hire someone would try to run the factory efficiently? Henry Ford was clearly an idiot coming up with that idea. Efficiency doesn’t mean no safety standards. A factory with 0% risk of death or injury is one that doesn’t exist, so get off your high horse all of your people have a risk and you do things to manage it. OK, let’s expand on your factory analogy…

    We’ve established the risk of death/injury isn’t 0, that’s only what you strive for. There is some chance your workers will die or be injured. If someone on the line were killed, you’d probably shut down the entire factory for a period while you did a detail investigation as to what happened. At the end of the investigation you’d have some findings (they employee should have been wearing a haz-mat suit, the machine should have an emergency shut-off switch, etc). Then, you would use those findings to adjust the way your factory operates based on the specific risks you identified. But you wouldn’t say, well if that guy has to wear a haz-mat suit everyone does – if you would, I can’t believe anyone would hire you. Everything you do is filled with risk and you manage it. You put a seat belt on in the car, but you don’t put on a life jacket every time you drive over a bridge for the non zero chance that your car may go off it. Your factory must lose a fortune if they have you running it with the attitude that you apply everything 100% across the board to every employee and every piece of equipment regardless of risk factors, independence of events or how changes effect efficiency.

    Sam thing with the virus. It does not effect all people equally (in fact it’s vastly disproportional between groups), so the guidelines should reflect that.

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