How airline ticket resellers conquered the Chinese travel market
By Serenitie Wang, 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.
But I was trying to go to Shanghai, my hometown, for the first time in over two years.
I knew traveling from a Covid hotspot to an area with a rigorous zero-Covid policy was going to be tricky. I thought I was prepared for all the hassle and hurdles – countless Covid-19 tests, approved furloughs and mandatory hotel quarantines, not to mention considerable cost.
Little did I know the challenges were just beginning.
In late February, rumors emerged that Shanghai was reducing the number of inbound flights from Hong Kong and capping capacity at 50% per flight.
The policy had not been publicly announced, but the reaction was swift. When I checked airline ticket websites, I saw dates of flights in the near future turning gray one after another. In less than an hour, all available slots for the whole month of March were full.
Panicked, I turned to a travel agent I knew. The next day, she called me and offered to fly to Shanghai on March 8 with Hong Kong Airlines.
“Do you want to or don’t you want to? Make a decision now, or it will go away,” the agent insisted.
I was not comfortable making the decision under pressure. But seeing the tickets disappearing at a speed I had never seen, I decided to take the plunge.
Three days before departure, my flight was cancelled. The airline offered no official explanation, but a popular theory has been floated that it was the result of Shanghai’s extra screening of inbound flights from Hong Kong as the city reported outbreaks of Covid-19. . I frantically called the airlines and searched for more options, only to find that everything was booked.
I felt trapped in an endless loop.
Scalpers and scams
Then I turned to another ticket agent: Ms. Yu, whom I found on social media after seeing the recent booking she had marked for someone else.
“Ms. Yu” doesn’t have a website. She just runs her business through WeChat, a popular social messaging app in China.
Airline ticket agents in China used to sell deeply discounted tickets to airlines. But while China is essentially cutting itself off from the outside world and reducing the number of inbound travelers, international flights have shrunk to a miniscule 2% of pre-pandemic levels, the state aviation administration said.
However, the demand for Chinese people studying and working abroad continues to grow. And the extremely limited supply of flights to China has turned these agents into dealers reselling coveted tickets at exorbitant prices.
I asked the agent how much “premium” I should pay for a ticket in the month.
“To be honest, it’s really expensive these days. I feel like it’s beyond a lot of people’s budget,” she replied. “I generally notify my clients as soon as they request them.”
It’s not just about the money either. Tickets are mainly sold on public ticketing platforms and agents are not privileged. What they can do, however, is keep a close eye on the reservation system and grab any remaining tickets quickly.
The agent said that there are bots that constantly search for requested flights and grab available tickets in no time, but the system still requires considerable manual work.
Yu said she had to work nights to monitor the ticketing system, as airlines tend to “drop some reservations late at night”.
For the date I planned to travel, she asked for 11,000 RMB (about $1,650) for a rebooking. It was a ridiculous amount for the 2.5 hour ride. Full prices before the pandemic ranged from $300 to $450 per trip.
Feeling I had no other choice, I accepted the price and paid a $450 deposit, which Yu said would be returned to me if she couldn’t secure a reservation within 24 hours.
As airline tickets and Covid-19 test results have to work in tandem, she suggested that I line up one Covid-19 test per day for the whole week in case she finds last minute seats that I could book, to make sure I would have time to get tested before my flight, according to the rules.
Luckily Yu helped me get a reservation on March 8. She informed me barely 20 hours before the scheduled departure. Around the same time, my PCR test from the day before came back negative. I was ready to leave.
A ticket is not a promise
The day of my trip has arrived. Hong Kong International Airport was incredibly quiet, with only a few counters in operation.
When it was my turn to check in, I confidently presented everything – my travel document, a Covid test report and a QR code assigned to travelers to the mainland.
“Sorry, Ms. Wang. The flight is complete. We can’t get you on the plane today,” the airline employee said.
“Shanghai authorities only allow 50% capacity and the space is full. But we can arrange for you to arrive on tomorrow’s flight.
Airline staff members apologized. They continued to comfort me and promised that I could get the seat for the same flight tomorrow.
They also said they could arrange a PCR test at the airport immediately so I could have the required report ready for the next day. I felt like I had no choice but to say yes. The airline also gave me HKD$1,000 ($128) as compensation.
While waiting for the airline to process my case, I saw a group of four young students following the airline staff, begging to be let on the flight. They looked tired and unhappy. The students told me later that they had been booked on the same flight and route as me, but on a different day.
“Sorry, we couldn’t get you on that plane. You see that lady waiting there? She has a ticket, but we can’t even get her up today,” the employee replied to the group, pointing in my direction.
The girl in the group approached me and started talking. After confirming what the clerk said was true, she asked to add me as a friend on WeChat so that we would stay in touch.
Her name was Sarah Wang. She told me that she was with a few other friends who were mainland students studying in colleges in Hong Kong. Unable to afford one of the most expensive tickets from resellers like me, she bought a ticket that offered flexible booking and stayed at the airport overnight, hoping to catch a flight.
When money is not enough
The next day, I finally got on the plane. Instead of being excited, I felt discouraged and tired.
Despite all the difficulties, I was among the lucky ones to have returned home.
In total, I had spent over $3,000: I lost $160 for the canceled reservation, then paid $1,726 for a new one, plus $1,130 for the mandatory quarantine hotel.
In some cases, even money cannot buy a return trip. I learned that scammers were targeting overseas Chinese and taking advantage of their desperation.
Student Sarah Wang told me her tactic worked and she eventually made it to Chengdu in southeast China with a regular-price ($420) booking. But before that, she lost $940 to a scalper, who promised her two bookings from Hong Kong to the mainland if she paid the deposit. The person never responded after transferring the payment.
I could have fallen into the same trap just as easily. The agent who secured the original booking for me no longer seemed credible.
The fight market to China has been the Wild West since the early days of the pandemic.
In March 2020, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) announced that it would reduce the number of international flights to one flight per week on one route for each airline to China. On top of that there is a fluid ‘circuit breaker’ system that could 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 a WeChat group for victims of airline ticket scams. The group has more than 30 members – all overseas Chinese compatriots who were or are trying to return home.
In total, they believe they lost over $70,000 to scammers posing as ticket resellers.
The CAAC has implemented regulations on the pricing of flights at international prices – it has imposed price controls and prohibited certain ticketing proxies, transfers and exchanges.
But the black market continues to thrive.
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