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Segment running in China: Joining the nightly "UCB Interest Group"

Segment running in China: Joining the nightly "UCB Interest Group"

Old Mar 1, 19, 2:13 am
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Segment running in China: Joining the nightly "UCB Interest Group"

Introduction
The concept of mileage runs is not unfamiliar to frequent flyer friends in China. If you've talked to any seasoned flyer on Air China (CA)'s frequent flyer program, chances are that he/she has heard of Ulanqab (UCB) -- an otherwise unknown airport 200 miles northwest of China's capital, and a well-known go-to destination for segment running on CA.

CA's FFP, like many others, runs on a qualifying miles & segments system. Luckily the spend system hasn't yet caught on over here, however CA solves the segment-run warrior problem (which is quite problematic, as China has a number of ultra-short domestic routes) through awarding much less elite qualifying segments on lower buckets, though not without compensating domestic "First" flyers with an absurd number of segments: a whooping 3 for full-fare F and 1.75 for discount F. Coupled with government subsidies on the PEK-UCB route, F at ~$200 o/w has made CA1133/1134 to UCB almost the most economical route for earning segments, and if you're just short a segment or two, ~$20 o/w for 0.25 segments in the L bucket sounds also very nice.

I don't necessarily need the segments as I qualify on miles with OZ, but as I live in PEK and I've heard of UCB way too much to ignore it, I decided to fly this famed route solely for nighttime entertainment. As the end of CA's qualifying period was Feb 28, I booked this trip on Feb 27 to join a fully loaded plane, hopefully filled with frequent flyers!

Tickets
Thus I bought the cheapest economy bucket on CA1133/34 for a total of CNY 400 (~$60) incl. taxes. With local OTA deals I got a even steeper discount which paid for the metro/taxi ride to/from PEK. I got 622 miles on OZ (there is a 311 mi minimum, so there's really no point in booking a more expensive Y bucket) for this.

The flights were brief, but forbidden by MCT so separate tickets are necessary. CA1133 runs 19:55 - 21:15 from PEK to UCB, then the return CA1134 runs 22:00 - 23:15. This leaves 45 minutes to get off the plane, check-in, go through security and board. Could we make it?

PEK Terminal 3
The trip begins after a leisurely dinner then an hour long subway ride to Beijing’s T3 with two hours on the clock. I would not recommend arriving more than the time strictly necessary but I was advised of “additional security procedures” ahead of important events in the country. Arriving in PEK too soon will make you climb walls, if you arrive 50 minutes before scheduled departure you'll have time to spare.

The airport looked fairly busy when coming out of the subway but the CA check-in kiosks are abundant and a boarding pass was obtained in no time. Side note that since China uses proprietary airline systems that differ by departure airports, kiosks are almost nonexistent anywhere else in the country despite the push to modernize air travel. This means it will be impossible to get a return UCB-PEK boarding pass in PEK! Honestly the whole game of attempting to find your booking, select seats and checking in on Chinese carriers makes you cry and be grateful to U.S. legacy carriers, or the rest of the world for that matter.

Security was pretty empty at this time of day, but I still chose to use the CIP/J/F line through my cc. The passengers in front of me were not experienced at all though! After a lot of shuffling in their bags and confiscation of several liquids and too-beefy power banks, I passed through security and took a stroll to my gate. We were boarding through a bus, and notified in advance that *G was abundant on this flight, two VIP buses with leather seats were allocated to this flight instead of the usual buses you have to stand on. Nobody has luggage anyway, the flight was half-filled with (obviously) frequent flyers with QC35s, a phone and gold card in hand.

Our bird:


Onboard
On board the purser was obviously aware of what’s going on and spoke to several CA top-tier elites that she was aware of the end of qualification period, and “quite a lot of you here today.

Sitting in the front rows I overheard the F cabin crew confirming with everyone that "you're all coming back with us, am I right?" Those of us in the front rows also exchanged gazes confirming our membership in the "Ulanqab segment running club": it's obvious that those who are carrying just a bottle of coca-cola from the lounge and have basically nothing but the phone and wallet are part of us. (Jokes were exchanged that "You're not even respecting this legendary flight! You should bring a bag.") The atmosphere was quite nice, as once I caught eye contact with a platinum pax across me he smiled and said "If you are new here, don't worry: just follow the crowd. You'll make it."

We took off at 20:07, about 10 minutes late. The times are padded though so an on time arrival was expected - as said by the cabin crew “today will be a quick flight, we'll take everyone back to Beijing in no time and you'll be back home by midnight. No time wasted."

The cabin service was simple, bottle of water, newspapers, greeting the golds and platinums. The guy next to me (a CA plat) mentioned he feels sorry for the cabin crew on this flight: he did the same run last weekend, and the cabin crew had to an announcement in the lines of "We warmly welcome the 50 gold passengers and 20 platinum passengers on this flight..." This is a 737, that's about half the plane.

We landed a few minutes early, 21:10 and everyone got off quite orderly. As opposed to the usual "Thank you, goodbye" greeting when getting off the plane, the cabin crew smiled to us and said "Don't rush sir/madam, take your time, see you later".

"Transiting" UCB
The transit was quite simple: up the elevator to the departures level, be greeted by the check-in desk: "Ah, we were waiting for you." And passing security while briefly observing this somewhat new airport. Yes, half of the plane were turning around immediately. The 'usual route', as I have been told, through the escalator, was broken and the little group organized themselves to lead everyone to the elevators. Supposedly this has caused some disruption a few days before as I have heard, because a lot of usual passengers terminating in UCB were not aware of the stunt and followed the crowd, reaching the check-in desk in utter confusion.



This is definitely becoming an official segment-run flight. After everyone has received their return boarding passes the counter closed and the flight was called for boarding. There was no priority boarding lane: everyone going back was a *G or in F. Doors closed 20 minutes early, we departed on time (rare for China flights) and reached PEK after 50 minutes of flight.



Conclusion
This is perhaps the smoothest immediate turnaround flight in mainland China. Supposedly the first frequent flyers who tried this stunt could not make it due to a 45-minute check-in cutoff, but eventually the airport realized what was going on and adjusted the check-in deadline, and smoothed out the entire process from crew to return procedures to "accommodate" those of us with rather exotic itineraries. The times are convenient that if you live near the airport, it takes up no time to do a night-time segment run to boost status.

However for some frequent flyers, 200 miles was still 200 miles too far: comments were exchanged that CA should just run Beijing-Tianjin (analogous to JFK-EWR), or even better PEK to the new airport (analogous to JFK-LGA!). A seat mate joked if there was a PEK-PEK flight he’d take that in a heartbeat, however for us who qualifies on miles, would the 311 mile minimum still apply?
jimmielin is offline  
Old Mar 1, 19, 7:31 am
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looking forward to more
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Old Mar 2, 19, 10:14 am
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This is great, love the sense of community that seems to have emerged without deliberate organisation - especially as the crew and airport seem to be in on it too!
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Old Mar 2, 19, 10:34 am
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So funny.

BTW, at times in the past in the USA, there were flights between OAK and SFO, 10 miles, although I don't think they were sold as standalone tickets.
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Old Mar 6, 19, 10:13 pm
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Wow. This is brilliant. I must find a similar run somewhere else
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Old Mar 6, 19, 11:56 pm
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Excellent - and they way how they handle it sounds so not Chinese at all. Sounds like a fun trip with all like minded ones.
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Old Mar 7, 19, 2:01 pm
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Are the segment runners mostly expats or locals?
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Old Mar 8, 19, 1:17 am
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Originally Posted by 764toHI View Post
Are the segment runners mostly expats or locals?
Locals. I doubt the ground crew at UCB speaks much English if at all but it's not important, they just do a ID check and print out boarding passes.

There used to be a similar route by SC ("Shandong Airlines", which accrues to CA, but nothing else, so it's no use to me) that does an occasional PEK-UCB-INC-UCB-PEK 4-segment run every day, leaving early in the morning and coming back late afternoon. Lots of FFs "follow the plane" and do the daily rotation with the crew, from what I have heard. 4 segments in F would yield 12 qualifying segments on CA (for ~$600), so *G can be obtained in a weekend or two. It has been discontinued though. But it does show that UCB is a magical segment run airport for frequent flyers around here... I hear in the early years things were much harsher and some were stuck by the check-in deadline enforcement, but nowadays everyone's on it so there's even time to pop out for a quick smoke, they'll wait.
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Old Mar 8, 19, 1:25 am
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Originally Posted by sqtraveller View Post
wow. This is brilliant. I must find a similar run somewhere else
fra - lux - fra ...
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Old Mar 8, 19, 5:57 pm
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Originally Posted by tom tulpe View Post
fra - lux - fra ...
Prefer in SEA
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