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.
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.