(CNN) – When I decided to travel outside Hong Kong in early March, the daily number of Covid-19 cases in the city had just passed 50,000, with the highest death rate in the world.
I knew traveling from a Covid hotspot to an area with a strict anti-Covid policy would be difficult. I thought I was ready for all the hassles and hurdles to come back – the endless Covid-19 tests, approved leave from work and mandatory hotel quarantine, not to mention the big cost.
Little did I know the challenges were only at the beginning.
Third party pressure
In late February, rumors emerged that Shanghai had reduced the number of flights from Hong Kong as well as reducing capacity by 50% per flight.
This policy was not announced publicly, but the reaction was swift. When I checked the airline ticket websites, I saw that flight dates in the near future are graying out one by one. In less than an hour, all available appointments for the month of March were fully booked.
Panicked, I turned to a travel agent I knew. The next day, I called and was offered the option to fly on March 8 to Shanghai with Hong Kong Airlines.
And he pressed the agent: “Do you want it or not? Make a decision now, otherwise it will disappear.”
I wasn’t comfortable making the decision under pressure. But when I saw the tickets disappear so quickly that I had never seen them before, I decided to pick them up.
Medical workers collect PCR test swabs in Hong Kong
Lu Bing Fei / Shenhua / Getty Images
Three days before departure, my flight was cancelled. The airline offered no official explanation, but a popular theory has been put forward that it was the result of Shanghai’s additional control over flights from Hong Kong as the city was reporting a Covid-19 outbreak. I called the airlines frantically and searched for more options, only to find that everything was sold out.
I felt trapped in an endless loop.
Speculators and deception
Next, I turned to another ticket agent: Ms. Yu, whom I found on social media after seeing the last booking she made for someone else.
Mrs. Yu does not have a website. She only runs her business via WeChat, a popular social messaging app in China.
Air ticket agents in China used to sell deeply discounted tickets from airlines. The State Aviation Administration said China is essentially isolating itself from the outside world and reducing the number of passenger arrivals, and international flights have dwindled to at least 2% of the pre-pandemic level.
However, the demand for Chinese studying and working abroad continues to increase. The severe shortage of flights to China has turned these customers into speculators who resell coveted tickets at exorbitant prices.
I asked the agent how much “premium” I would pay for the ticket within the month.
She replied, “Honestly, it’s really expensive these days. I feel like it’s way beyond a lot of people’s budget.” “I usually warn my clients right away after they inquire.”
It’s not just about money. Tickets are mainly sold on public ticket platforms and agents are not given preference. However, what they can do is keep a close eye on the reservation system and get any tickets left quickly.
The agent said there are bots that are constantly searching for required flights and booking tickets available at any given time, but the system still needs a lot of manual work.
Yu said she had to work all night to monitor the ticket system, because airlines tend to “drop some late-night reservations”.
For the date I planned to travel, I asked for 11,000 yuan (about $1,650) for a new reservation. It was a ridiculous amount for the 2.5 hour route. Full pre-pandemic fares ranged from $300 to $450 per flight.
Feeling I had no other choice, I agreed to the price and paid a $450 deposit, which u said would send me back if she couldn’t secure the booking within 24 hours.
Since airline tickets and Covid-19 test results have to work hand in hand, I suggested I line up one Covid-19 test per day for the whole week in case I find any last minute seats I could book, to make sure I get them It’s time to make Testing before my flight, according to the rules.
Fortunately u helped me secure the booking on 8th March. She informed me only 20 hours before the scheduled departure time. At about the same time, my PCR test from the day before came back negative. I was ready to go.
Hong Kong, once a major global hub, has declined significantly during the pandemic.
Del de la Rey/AFP/Getty Images
A ticket is not a promise
The day of my flight has arrived. Hong Kong International Airport was incredibly quiet, with only a few working counters.
When it was my turn to check in, I confidently presented everything – my travel document, a Covid test report and a QR code for mainland travelers.
“Sorry, Mrs. Wang,” said the airline employee. “The flight is full. We can’t get you on the plane today.”
“Shanghai authorities only allow 50% capacity and space is full. But we can be sure you’ll make it to tomorrow’s flight.”
The airline staff apologized. They continued to console me and promised I would get the seat on the same flight tomorrow.
They also said they can arrange a PCR test at the airport right away so I can have the required report ready for the next day. I felt I had no choice but to say yes. The airline also awarded me HK$1,000 ($128) in compensation.
While waiting for the airline to process my case, I saw a group of four young college students stalking around the airline’s staff, begging to be allowed to board the flight. They looked tired and miserable. The students later told me that the same flight and itinerary had been booked but on a different day.
The clerk answered the group, pointing in my direction, “Sorry we couldn’t take you on that plane. Do you see that lady waiting there? She has a ticket, but we can’t even get her today.”
The girl from the group walked towards me and started talking. After I confirmed what the writer said was true, I asked to be added as a friend on WeChat so we can keep in touch.
Her name was Sarah Wang. She told me that she was with a few other friends who were students from the mainland studying at Hong Kong colleges. Unable to buy one of the expensive tickets from speculators like me, she bought a ticket that offered booking flexibility and stood at the airport all night, hoping to get on a plane.
A view of the author on a plane from Hong Kong to Shanghai
When money is not enough
The next day, I finally got on the plane. Instead of excitement, I felt sad and tired.
Despite all the hardships, I was among the lucky ones who managed to get back home.
Altogether, I spent over $3,000: I lost $160 for a canceled reservation and then paid $1,726 for a new reservation, plus $1,130 for a mandatory quarantine hotel.
In some cases, even money can’t buy a flight home. I learned that scammers were targeting overseas Chinese and exploiting their desperation.
Student Sarah Wang told me that her tactic worked and that she eventually made it to Chengdu, in southeast China, with a reservation at a regular rate ($420). But before that, she lost $940 to a scalper, who promised to book twice from Hong Kong to the mainland if she paid the deposit. The person never responded after she transferred the payment.
I could have fallen into the same trap just as easily. The agent who got me the original booking couldn’t have sounded more credible.
The Wild West has been a battle market to China since the early days of the epidemic.
In March of 2020, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) announced that it would reduce the number of international flights to just one flight per week on one route per airline to China. Furthermore, there is a liquid ‘circuit breaker’ system that can suspend the route for up to four weeks if more than four positive cases are found on a single flight or route.
Meanwhile, Sarah Wang has joined the WeChat group for victims of airline ticket scams. The group has more than 30 members – all fellow overseas Chinese who have been or are trying to return home.
In all, they believe they lost more than $70,000 to scammers who pretended to be ticket speculators.
The CAAC issued regulations on the pricing of international flights – imposed price controls and banned some ticket agents, transfers and exchanges.
But the black market continues to thrive.