How I Survived The 33-Hour Flight From Hell

How I Survived The 33-Hour Flight From Hell

I hate flying. I hate the cramped seats, I hate the food and I hate the hurry-up-and-wait mentality of airports. Imagine my delight then after spending 33-hours trapped on a Cathay Pacific flight from New York to Hong Kong thanks to bad weather and the bad Chinese government. Welcome to the flight from hell.

This story originally appeared on Lifehacker in 2014.

33-hours spent in one place concurrently is a long time, so how did I come to be trapped aboard a twin-jet Boeing 777 for said amount of time? The whole thing was caused by a screaming heap of unfortunate events.

Four days ago, I boarded CX841 from New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, bound for Hong Kong. Once there, I would board another flight to Sydney, where I live. The flight from JFK to HK was meant to take around 15 hours. Unpleasant, yet manageable.

During our flight, however, things started to go sideways at the halfway point. Storms gathered over mainland China, including Hong Kong International Airport. The storms were so bad that when we attempted to land at around 10:30pm local time, the winds exceeded speeds that the aircraft could handle. As a result, we circled the airport for around an hour waiting for the weather to clear to no avail.

Hong Kong was closed to us.

Our pilot did some quick thinking and decided to land the plane at the closest available airstrip before everyone else in the air at the time decided to do the same thing. Our destination ended up being a small regional airport in Zhuhai, China, around 60km as the crow flies from Hong Kong International Airport.

Thanks to the turbulence, we landed at Zhuhai with the young man in seat 39H having thrown up several times due to severe motion sickness. That young man was unfortunately me.

The next several hours were tense. Rain was pouring outside and the water began to partially cover the wheel on the landing gear. We weren’t going anywhere.

The captain told us of our predicament: the crew was about to exceed their maximum flyable hours before a mandatory rest period needed to be enforced, and the weather over Hong Kong showed no signs of clearing up. We were in for the night.

Everyone sat patiently waiting to disembark from the plane with their carry-on baggage removed from the overhead lockers for around an hour. And then another hour. And another.

People started putting their bags back into the lockers when the second announcement from the captain sounded out through the plane.

Three hours had passed and the crew’s mandatory rest period now had to be enforced. We were in a plane without a captain, co-pilot or crew, but that wasn’t the worst part.

“The Chinese government isn’t letting us off this plane,” said the captain.

Oh shit.

We had chosen to land at a small regional hub airport, which meant that it was without Customs and Immigration officers ready to greet a plane-load of people travelling from America. As a result, we were kept on the plane. We would later find out that the Chinese government’s arsehattery went much further than simply keeping us out of the terminal, however.

Not only would the Chinese keep us on the plane due to Customs concerns, it would also go on to refuse three separate requests from Cathay Pacific to let us off. Cathay Pacific management worked behind the scenes to lodge temporary appeals for all passengers to disembark and walk around the abandoned terminal at the still-closed airport. It was denied.

The Chinese government also refused to let Cathay Pacific fly a replacement Boeing 777 aircraft with a relief crew to Zhuhai because getting us onto that aircraft would involve 300 people simply walking across the tarmac. Insanity.

While all this was going on, a plane-load of people, including the aforementioned young man in seat 39H, slowly went mad.


We landed at Zhuhai at 11pm in the evening, local time. By 2am, we all knew we were in for the night. The border wouldn’t open until at least 9am the next day, and even after that, the relief crew needed to come to China by ferry and subsequently by bus from Macau. The passengers all started to dig in.

The plane had run out of food, water, fuel for the auxiliary engine keeping the air conditioning on and bin space in the bathrooms. Worse still, I had forgotten to pack my asthma medication, as I thought I’d be only on the plane until Sydney, meaning I wouldn’t need another dose.

We had to go into survival mode on this plane.

At this point, I hadn’t eaten since JFK, simply because I’m concerned that the food the plane was serving had nuts in it. Since I’m allergic, this wasn’t ideal.

I managed to secure a packet of biscuits that had made it onto the plane that didn’t have nuts on it, and realised there were roughly 9 servings in the package. They’re Oreo biscuits, which means that there are actually 18 servings once you separate the two layers. I figure that one biscuit per hour should give me enough energy to keep going throughout the flight.

Likewise, there was very little water on the plane. I secured a bottle of water and sipped slowly, giving me just enough water to wet my whistle until the plane was refilled (which it soon was).

We would end up spending an additional 16 hours on the plane, and I had planned to occupy my time the best I could to save me going mad.

I’m not a games person, but thankfully I had several time-wasters installed on my iPhone and my iPad that could occupy hours of waiting for answers.

I also had a series of Doctor Who on my iPad that I could watch again. And again if necessary.

The secret is that even if you’ve played all of your games or watched all of your content on your tablet, you can play or watch it again just to help temper the tedium.

I ended up playing Flappy Bird, Tiny Wings, The Sims 3 Mobile and The Walking Dead Season 2 for iPad for around three hours, and watched Doctor Who for another five. The rest of it was spent doing laps of the plane, and taking turns sitting in different places.

Airlines won’t usually let you sit on the floor of a plane, but they made a special exception in this case. I was able to sit and listen to podcasts over and over again next to all the doors on the plane, including the front one which was opened for an hour to let some fresh air in before the Chinese told us we had to close it.

The plane ended up taking off at 2pm local time, and applause broke out in the aisles when we landed in Hong Kong 15 minutes later. It was amazing how close we were to our destination without actually being able to get there.

We walked off the plane and Cathay staff were there handing out letters of apology with $HK1000 ($A120) attached for our trouble. I grabbed my updated boarding pass for the flight back to Sydney and spent the next few hours deciding whether or not I could get back on a 777.

I’m still wondering that now after the flight.


  • You have to hand it to the airline though. They tried everything and even gave you $120 when you got off at HK.

    Nuts to the Chinese government though. What a bunch of arsehats! Had the same sort of thing in Singapore once but at least we were let off the plane, even if we were all corralled into a small non air-conditioned room for 6 hours.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I love Cathay for what they did to keep us happy on the plane. Really great service in a shitty situation. I have a real issue with the behaviour of the Chinese government however.

      • The Chinese government didn’t really act unreasonably, and I think blaming them is misguided. Like many countries, China has a list of approved diversion airports that handle traffic diverted due to weather, accident or other conditions. If your pilot made a diversion landing at an airport that wasn’t on the list, then they either didn’t get approval from air traffic control to make the landing in the first place, or misrepresented it as an emergency landing instead of a cautionary one. It should be obvious why they’re both pretty bad things to do.

        China’s response isn’t unique. Many countries have similar policies on landings at airports with no immigration and customs facilities.

        • Most reasonable governments in that situation will at least allow the people on the plane off said plane into a small detained area though, allowing them food, rest etc while the issue is being resolved.

          • That’s usually part of customs facilities. If the airport doesn’t have customs staff or security staff trained to deal with that kind of isolation, they tend to keep passengers on the aircraft instead. I haven’t experienced it directly myself but I’ve had former colleagues that have been confined to the plane after cautionary landings to regional airports in a few east European and Mediterranean countries, and I think one in India.

          • i think you are right. key word being regional airport – they would not have been the most equipped to handle things like this.

          • But, logistically, it’s not hard for a country like China to arrange something in those circumstances. Being Hong Kong’s international airline, makes me wonder if the treatment would be the same if it was a BA or QF…..

          • Western person has issues with standard Chinese laws. It’s not uncommon. One way to avoid it is to go via Dubai, but that brings another set of problems into play.

          • I was once on a plane which departed from Cuba and had to make an emergency landing in the US, as someone was having a suspected heart attack. The US officials did not permit us passengers to disembark the plane and this was not a small, regional airport. China’s behaviour is by no means exceptional.

          • I think you are seriously mistaken about how long it would take (after the realized the depth of the situation hours into the episode) to bring in qualified staff that can handle international passengers that haven’t gone through customs, arrange a safe an secure area that had no chance for mishaps and do this in less than a few hours of time once they realized the situation. They are a country protecting their borders first, and looking to secure the comfort of an airline passenger second. The incident is unfortunate but does make total sense.

        • I really think people should start displaying a little empathy for the average citizen or consumer. We always get these great, one-sided analyses that are fantastic for a particular point of view. Unfortunately, i think that when dealing with human beings, there’s a little bit of elasticity when it comes to doing things like detaining them, making assumptions on their behalf and treating them like garbage. It’s fantastic that you know a number of air traffic and customs protocol and procedure, it’s just missing a pretty vital humane element.

          • I didn’t respond to the human element of the story because I had nothing to say about it. I hate long flights too, being stuck on a plane for 33 hours would have been awful. I responded only to the ‘blame’ undertone of the article because I think it’s misplaced, if I were in the same situation I wouldn’t be blaming the Chinese government, I’d be putting it down to bad luck.

          • The blame was justified. The laws and procedures enforced by officials are not absolute, there is always room for common sense and compassion. Falling back on the idea of adherence to laws as being a good explanation for illogical or harmful behaviour is a bad idea. The fact that similar things have happened in other countries in other instances is not a justification and does not absolve these particular Chinese officials of their institutional stupidity.

          • @Kurtzweil: Play the argument, not the person, champ.
            @DannyAllen You should be better than that too.

          • @Nuts: Without changing the nature of human conflict, border control is an ‘ought’.

        • While I agree it’s not unreasonable, it was definitely strange. The pilot had a choice of of 2 other airports, Shenzhen and Macau, Shenzhen also being in Chinese government airspace. I find it strange that the pilot landed in Zhuhai of all places, as the other two are far more equipped to deal with a flight of Cathay’s passenger numbers. That said, Zhuhai isn’t exactly a backwater, being a fairly popular tourist destination, and China being China, local police could have easily doubled up as customs (that’s isn’t even a cultural sleight either) Having flown with Cathay many times, I’d rather give the pilot the benefit of the doubt that he followed protocol and that he was given approval to land at Zhuhai because his other options were exhausted.

          • Agreed, there could have been a lot of reasons for diverting to Zhuhai. Given the number of flights affected, the other airports may have been too full, could be anything. And Macau’s closer to Hong Kong than Zhuhai airport is too so it would have made more sense to go there.

            Still, even if they were directed to Zhuhai by ATC, I don’t think I’d blame the Chinese government for keeping people on the plane. In that case I wouldn’t blame anyone, everyone did their thing the right way, it was just unfortunate that the only available airport didn’t have the facilities to handle passenger offloading.

          • If it’s the day I think it is, Hong Kong was absolutely slammed by tennis-ball sized hail and storm. I’m presuming the closer airports like Shenzhen and Macau would also be affect by the same storm.

          • Seems likely, though Zhuhai is barely past Macau according to the map. Might have been right on the edge of the storm.

        • So because laws are laws, food and water, among other things, should be deprived? I’m sorry but what?

          While I can appreciate and agree with China protecting it’s borders and whatnot, I’m 100% certain they could have atleast provided some basic necessities as a good will gesture. As Luke stated above, the plane had run out of food and water. While I can understand that people are unlikely to die from lack of food, and in this situation also dehydration. But you never know, people abstain from food and water before flights quite often.

          They could have easily just loaded up a few local police cars or something similar with some fruits and bottles of water and taken it out to the plane.

          • I think a lot of the details of Luke’s story are fudged, but the sake of it we’ll go with what he wrote. The plane was due to land in HK at 10:30pm, so dinner had already been served. There would have been at least a few spare meals left over as well as snacks and plenty of beverages of different kinds. Water is kept in tanks for coffee and tea runs and almost never runs out over the course of a normal flight. As far as meals go, they would have missed breakfast only and had a slightly late lunch, hardly a major inconvenience. I don’t buy the story that the water mysteriously ran out, but even if it did there would have been plenty in the drinks tank and plenty of non-water drinks as well.

            They remained on the flight for 14 hours longer than they should have been, 8 of which would have been part of their normal sleep habit, leaving only 6 hours really of ‘survival’, as Luke put it. It certainly would have sucked, but in no way do I believe Luke’s portrayal of it.

          • I think you missed my point. Even if it were a short amount of time that they were out of food and water, I think saying ‘No there is absolutely no way in hell, even if you were dying, that you are allowed to get off of that plane’ is a bit on the extreme side. I feel that the Chinese government could have atleast provided some sort of a ‘Yeah, this is a shitty situation, but here, take these apples’ as a good will gesture.

            Again, I agree that letting people off of the plane into a terminal with absolutely no customs officers would have been bad, and what China did in that circumstance is well within their rights. I just feel that providing no sort of apology nor any sort of relief is just a douche move on their part.

            Further, I feel that China still would have maintaned the whole ‘No coming into our land’ attitude even if there were people dying in there. Because China.

          • We don’t know that the government said ‘no getting off the plane ever even if you’re dying’, and I doubt they would have done that if there had been a medical emergency. We also don’t know if they did actually apologise but it wasn’t passed on by the pilot, or the pilot passed it on but Luke didn’t care for it.

            I think I got your point, but mine has been that it’s very easy to point fingers at government as a big heartless bureaucracy without necessarily understanding all the reasons behind decisions. And the Chinese government in particular seems to be a popular scapegoat for westerners who don’t have much understanding of how the system works. I’m not suggesting it’s the best system ever or anything, but it’s not what a lot of people think either.

          • “because China”? What does that mean? Based on what do you equate China to your opinion? This is one of the most ignorant comments I have ever heard.

      • This is why, in my opinion, Cathay Pacific is the best airline currently in operation!

        I have always received brilliant service from Cathay, and like you, have experienced government red-tape bullshit. Haven’t experienced the two together, and I am glad to hear that their service was still so commendable.

        I have to admit, I was worried when I first starting reading, thinking (with the picture) it was going to be an article slamming Cathay. That’s the impression I got.

        Perhaps changing the title or picture could fix that. This reads like something that should promote Cathay, and does in my opinion!

      • From the customs point of view, considering the available airports at the time, there was little have been done unfortunately. CX failed in their duty of care to you. There was no reason (except being cheap) not to provide full catering for 2 extra meals and a decent drinks service. The compensation is pathetic. You should be looking for at least $1000 , a full refund, or a future free flight. $120 is poor considering all their failings.

  • I’m glad you survived your 33-hour flight of hell. Your pilots making the decision to land at an airport 60 km from Hong Kong and taking their mandatory rest probably saved you from another MH370. At least you had Oreos, Flappy Bird and all those other things to occupy yourself.

    It’s really tough that the Chinese government didn’t let any people disembark for customs reasons and the potential for illegal aliens. But at least they let the pilots fly back to Hong Kong instead of turning the plane back to JFK. Not like the Australian policy of turning back the boats. Sydney Kingsford Smith is really great in comparison, I really enjoy sitting on the tarmac for a couple hours each flight in and out of the country and also have to be sprayed with pesticides when we get through. I feel bad for the person on my flight who was ill and is at blame of restarting the quarantine process when they lost their breakfast as soon as they landed.

    Traveling by plane is hard. Given your story I’ll drive or take the boat on my next trip. It’s a lot faster and safer.

    • The potential for illegal aliens? On a plane coming from america? I wouldn’t have thought china would be a high priority target for people trying to escape their own terrible countries.

        • This is not true, nor does it occur…. I fly plenty and don’t 1) – Sit on the tarmac in Sydney for hours in or out, 2) – Get sprayed with pesticides EVER.

          Sitting on the tarmac can happen, due to a ripple effect from a delay, bad weather, security problem/scare etc…. But these events (in my experience) are few and far between.

          • It doesn’t happen every time, but I have been on flights into Australia in the last few years where it has happened (the pesticides thing).

          • Been flying in and out regularly since 1991, have yet to hear about it or have it happen to me……

          • Regular fumigation of all international aircraft landing in Australia before disembarcation stopped quite a while ago from most origins. But if the aircraft comes from a set list of origins or has made an unscheduled stop in an unexpected port, then cabin fumigation will still happen before the PAX may leave.

            Outside this, all aircraft and baggage are still fumigated at destination after the PAX leave.

          • Airlines can either spray fumigate each flight into Australia (and some other countries too) or have a long-lived pesticide infused into the fabric of the ‘plane that has to periodically reapplied. The economics of the choice depends on the airline and its fleet. But as said, EVERY flight arriving to Australia has to have pest precautions in place.

          • Fly to Perth from Denpasar. It’s happened every flight for me the last 4 years. The most recent one being September 2013.

          • I am aware of this, and understand the purpose too. But in all my years of flying (Hon Kong, South East Asia, Ethiopia, Zambia, Botswana etc.) I have never had my physical person sprayed with pesticide. That was my argument, fumigation is a very standard process everywhere that doesn’t involve each passenger being sprayed.

    • What an uneducated reply. How in the world do you relate the author’s experience to MH370 which has most probably resulted the loss of 200+ lives?

      In addition, why would they turn the plane back to JFK? Gosh, come out from your cave and see the world mate.

      • I must apologize for my satirical writing, it seems that you were only able to grasp what was on the surface and not think inwardly as to what happens here. Much like a joke, explaining the satire simply ruins it.

        You seem to be marooned, unable to think outside of your own mindset. Hey, I don’t blame you, a lot of media doesn’t attempt to criticize the audience it’s catering to. Mate, you need to get off your pedestal and look yourself in the mirror – a bit more understanding on how things are done elsewhere in the world and some introspection can go a long way.

        • I think it’s more a case of ‘too soon’ mate. No need to be so disrespectfully sensitive in your defence. You are acting like the comments section of an article govern the way you live your day to day life…..

  • Seems the Chinese are still quite paranoid for a modernising Communist country, Given there great strides so far, I’m surprised to hear that this sort of thing could still happen… On the bright side, you at least did actually land….

  • “I managed to secure a packet of biscuits that had made it onto the plane that didn’t have nuts on it.”… Why would the aeroplane have nuts on it; are they some aerodynamic requirement? Trying to save money by flying these roundabout routes is always a poor choice; it pollutes more, it takes longer, and there are hidden costs, as you found out. Next time fly home by Qantas, the route is direct and the whole flight only takes about 18-19 hours.

    • Qantas’ standards have dropped dramatically in recent times. Would be surprised to see them still in business in ten years, unless OWNED by Emirates, who is easily the better airline. Cathay easily trumps Qantas too.

    • what is your point really? that he should have chosen emirates because you stop over at Dubai instead of Hong Kong?
      or did you think Emirates is a better airline than Cathay?
      FYI, Cathay is a 5 stars airline and Emirates only has 4 stars. And Emirates constantly benchmark itself against Cathay (internally) because Cathay pretty much gets better ratings in almost all areas.

  • So, your 15 hour flight took 31 hours, and you only had two electronic entertainment devices for entertainment (because none of those 300 other passenger could possibly have anything interesting to converse about).

    You almost even had to borrow an inhaler, almost.

    Wow, your life is hard!

    • I agree. This is so close to being an actual story, you can almost feel the possibility.

      Maybe a story from another passenger’s point of view?

      “I was stuck on a plane for 33 hours with some dude who sat in the aisle huddled over a bag of oreos, muttering to himself ‘I must make them last…’ and wheezing every so often. Total freakshow man…”

  • I can feel your pain Luke. Economy is no place to spend 30 hours of your life in. But at least you were flexible enough to find something to do, instead of whinging about the whole thing. I wonder how other passengers took it.
    How were the parents with kids, or the claustrophobic?

  • Or, how about the smokers. ? This would be awful for smokers. (I’m one, of course.)
    Or people with disabilities, or claustrophobia, or chronic health issues/illnesses, what if their medications (like asthma inhaler) weren’t on the plane. Someone could die. I can’t believe there’s some rude comments on this story. Man, it would be not fun.
    If you don’t have any health issues or ailments, then you wouldn’t know. So I feel sorry for you to cut down others, because you don’t know what compassion is. Or empathy, for that matter. Obviously.

  • Crazy story. I live in HK and can assure you the weather has been terrifying this week so you wouldn’t want to be landing in it. Zhuhai is an hour’s bus ride from HK – so frustrating! I wonder whether they could’ve landed in Macau, the Macau government might have taken a saner approach. This sort of thing happens all the time in China – planes are constantly delayed because of military use of airspace and passengers just get left to wait and wait on the tarmac. There were a few incidents last year of frustrated passengers assaulting cabin crew.

    • Do the buses use a ferry out of Macau? Zhuhai is 60km by water, the land route is closer to 250km because it has to go up via Nansha, which would make for a pretty fast bus =) The airport itself is about 30km out of Zhuhai in the wrong direction.

      From what I could find out, 400 odd flights were affected with most being redirected to Shenzhen and Macau. I couldn’t find why CX831 was sent to Zhuhai instead of the others. Especially since passengers were allowed to disembark from the flight(s) that got redirected to Shenzhen.

  • Plane sensibly lands in safe location to avoid dangerous weather.
    Pilots sensibly prevented from flying when tired to prevent dangerous crash.
    Sovereign nation sensibly prevents random foreign dudes from wandering around without proper customs and immigration checks.
    Passenger arrives safely at destination a little late, but not dead or crashed or anything nasty like that.
    Darn, thats 4 lines not 3

  • Hell flights stories are like anuses: we’ve all got one, they’re all very important to us but no one else cares about them.

    Save it for the pub with your mates. This really isn’t interesting to anyone.

  • I think sometimes it’s just bad luck. Like Steve F. said, everyone has done everything right. The passengers copped some discomfort, but that’s the way it is. The vast majority of flights don’t turn out this way, the very few would, and all for sensible reasons.

    Sometimes, there is no one to blame – not the rich conglomerate airline, not the communist foreign government. It is simply bad luck.

    Accept that, and move on.

  • Lets have a couple of facts injected into the conversation

    1) approach in to HKG attempted around 730pm local
    2) regional weather was horrible
    3) pilot discontinued the approach due to bad weather
    4) aircraft held for 30-40 min.
    5) HKG basically closed due to microburst alerts
    6) aircraft in macau were not able to land due bad to weather at that time
    7) shenzen was experiencing heavy thunder storms at that time
    8) fuel doesn’t last forever,
    9) zhuhai weather was the only airport with acceptable weather at THAT TIME where a safe landing could be assured
    10) Airplane spent the night in Zhuhai safely with food and water provided through out the night

    hopefully this clears things up.

  • Ouch, @lukehopewell — Here I was, thinking flying to Perth from Sydney was horrible (I didn’t have a working display unit, CRT’s dropped from the roof, seat was hard, etc) — I’m told it was a purchase Virgin Australia made from Etihad, by one of their frequent flyers.

    Still, that was a five and a half hour.

    My hat to you, sir. I don’t begrudge your motion sickness at all.

    • It does say in the article “This story originally appeared on Lifehacker in 2014.”

      Doesn’t say why it’s been republished 3 years later though. Slow news week?

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