After 15 nights in Hong Kong, I decided I needed a little R&R and I headed over to Macau for a 3-day weekend. To help set the stage for how the Typhoon Vincente saga unfolded, I will share a little bit about the weather the weekend leading up to the storm.
Saturday was about the smoggiest day I’ve ever seen – ever, anywhere. Even locals were having trouble with the smog. Hotels were giving out free masks to guests (I know understand why people wear the masks.) The actual temperature hit about 97 degrees with a feels like temperature of 110 degrees. On Sunday, there was a noticeable difference in the air – no smog, it was quite clear in fact. It was a bit windy in the morning and about 10 degrees cooler than the previous day.
One of the great challenges is that the only English TV channels at the hotel I was staying in were CNN and something called AXN – which could be compared to TNT or USA Network here in the states. CNN didn’t have any coverage of the typhoon – there were still on 24-7 news coverage of the Colorado Movie Theatre shooting and AXN doesn’t have any news on it. So I was totally unaware of what type of punch the storm was packing. I headed out of my hotel on Sunday for a day at the MGM Grand and Six Senses Spa. When I arrived at the MGM, I noticed several signs up with a “T1” on them. I knew that this was related to a typhoon warning, but didn’t know much more. And wasn’t really concerned.
By the time I left the spa, the warning signs were up for a T3 and I could clearly see the wind had significantly picked up and the rain begun. Macau was starting to experience the outer bands of the impending typhoon. I headed back to my hotel not really worried too much. At the hotel, nothing was being done to prepare for typhoon and so it made me feel reassured that must not be too much of a threat.
By the next morning, I had awoken to quite a storm and a note under my door that they were expecting the typhoon status to be upgraded to a T8 later that day. The note went on to explain that after the T8 sign was hoisted, the bridge going to the ferry terminal/airport would be closed as would be the bridges to mainland China. I hadn’t planned on departing the hotel until 4pm to catch a 5:30 ferry reservation which would get me back to the airport in plenty of time for a late-night departure.
Fearing that the ferries might stop operating, and I could get stuck in Macau, I quickly packed up and headed to the ferry terminal. I arrived at the ferry around 11:30 am and since I had paid for premier class ticket ($80 round trip) I was able to change my return trip (coach tickets are not changeable and not refundable, but coach passengers can try standby on the same day). I was told I had two options – a 1pm departure or a 2pm departure. The 1pm departure did not have a premium cabin, but the agent let me know that if a T8 was hoisted, the ferry service would be suspended, immediately. I went with the 1pm departure and there was a line of about 200 people waiting to go standby. As you can imagine, every seat on the 1pm ferry was taken.
The ferry ride was extremely bumpy as the seas were starting to churn. Instead of the 1 ferry sickness bag that would normally be placed in the seat back pockets, there were three bags placed in each seat back pocket.
Once I arrived back in Hong Kong, and before leaving the ferry terminal, I checked my flights and discovered that my Air China flight had been cancelled. I immediately started looking for a hotel and found one at the SkyCity Marriott at Hong Kong International Airport. I checked into the hotel and began phoning the airline.
I learned that I had been re-booked onto an 8am flight that would have me in Beijing by noon – in plenty of time for a 4pm flight to San Francisco. As the night went on, the storm worsened. The T8 flag was hoisted around dinner time. When the T8 flag is hoisted, almost everything in Hong Kong shuts down. The airport closes, all ferry service closes, the stock exchange closes, public schools close and so on. All non-essential employees are sent home to prepare.
As the weather got worse, I decided to go online and check my flight status for the next morning. Sure enough, I found the 8am flight had been cancelled flight. I called Air China again and no one was helpful, at all. The best they could do was put me on an 11:30am flight to Beijing that would have me missing my connection to San Fran. They all said they could not get me anything out of Beijing to the US for three days. Since I don’t have a visa for China, the last thing I wanted was to be stuck in the Beijing airport for three days. I asked them to re-route me on another Star Alliance Carrier and they refused. They insisted that only USAir – who booked the flight – could change the ticket.
I called up USAir and they confirmed what I suspected, Air China had to make the change. Just to be sure, I tweeted my travel guru @GaryLeff and he confirmed it as well. I called Air China back only to learn that the office had closed and wouldn’t re-open until the morning. The hotel suggested I head over to the Air China counter at the airport to see if they could help. So, in a T8 typhoon I got on the hotel shuttle bus and went into the airport (stupid move #1). Air China didn’t have any reps at their desk. I walked over to the United counter where there were still two agents left. I told them my situation, told them I was Star Gold, US Air Chairman, United Gold Premier and just plain begged. They told me that Air China’s desk would open at 9am in the morning (a late start time due to all the cancellations and typhoon) and that I should just show up at 8, get in line, and hope they could help when they opened. The United agents were very kind, but they couldn’t do anything. Wasted trip to the airport.
I re-boarded the hotel shuttle and as we left the airport, a tree branch hit the shuttle. The driver had to get out in the pouring rain to make sure there was no damage. By this point, the winds were extremely strong. The hotel doors would not stay shut on their own. The revolving door had been forced closed and roped off and all but one door to the hotel were closed tightly and had sand bags flanking them. In hind sight, the fact that I went out in that weather was absurd.
Around 10pm the typhoon was raised to a T9 and around mid-night or shortly thereafter the status was raised to a T10. It is only the second time in the past 67 years that a T10 has been issued. To give you an idea of what a T10 means, it has winds of 100 mph to 140 mph – it’s about equal to the winds you would experience w/a low category 5 hurricane.
During the night I could hear the winds whipping and the sea sounded like it was boiling. I could hear something clanging against the nearby ferry piers throughout most of the night. The power flickered on and off. The TV continually gave status updates. I wasn’t able to fall asleep until near 2:30 am because the noises were so unusual and the warning system kept waking me up as the status was raised from level to level. It was a surreal night and a surreal experience.
In the morning, I decided to make a quick call to Air China. I got a rep who spoke fairly good English and I explained the situation. Again, she said there was nothing Air China could do and I would just have to go to Beijing and wait for a flight to become available. When I asked her where I would stay since I didn’t have a visa and couldn’t enter the country she actually suggested that I request amnesty from China and special permission to enter the country and stay in a hotel. That was the most ridiculous suggestion of the day. She again told me I had to call US Air to make a change to the itinerary.
I asked the Air China rep – named Cindy – to stay on the phone while I called US Air and she agreed. I knew that I could get through to the Chairman’s line pretty quickly and within minutes I had a US Air agent on the call. She said she couldn’t help, but I pleaded and explained that Air China was on the line and she connected me immediately to her supervisor, Sue.
Sue was very helpful and talked with Cindy from Air China. Cindy told Sue the same thing they’d been telling me, Air China would not change my ticket and could not confirm me on a flight from Beijing to the US until at least Friday. I was literally in tears because I was so frustrated and exhausted. I think Sue was starting to understand my frustration and she said that in this extreme circumstance, since Air China was refusing to make a change or confirm anything, she would make the change on her end. I was overjoyed.
Cindy from Air China hung up and Sue went to work to find me a flight home. I was prepared to wait days if I had to. She found that United had a flight departing HKG at 11:30am (same day!). She didn’t think United would accept the ticket because it was less than 4 hours before departure time and that’s supposed to be the cut-off time. We were at just under 3 hours until the scheduled departure. I was very confident that the departure would be delayed because the airport was still closed and hoped that might make a difference. Sue went ahead and gave it a try and sure enough, she was able to get a confirmed spot for me on the United flight. And not just any seat, but a seat in United Global First. (I was supposed to fly first class on Air China.)
In the end, I was so grateful that Sue was able to make the change – even though it’s not US Air’s policy to make changes on tickets after travel has begun. I am glad that she saw the unenviable position I was in with Air China and that being stranded in Beijing would not have been a good option. And I’m glad that US Air gives their supervisors the power to make this type of decision on their own without having to call dozens of other people. This was obviously an extreme circumstance and Sue’s help was tremendous.
On my way over to the airport the winds were still high and the rain was coming down in sheets. There were trees down all over the place, branches littered the roads and the puddles were starting to turn into small ponds. Running from the shuttle bus into the airport left me drenched. I tried to take pictures, but the wind and rain was so strong that most of them are too blurry to share. This is the most decent one
I checked in and headed to the lounge. From there, I had a great view of the runway. No planes landing or taking off. For hours I sat and watched as planes remained parked at their gates. Finally, around 1pm I saw the first signs of movement (I arrived at the airport at 9am!) They announced that my flight would be boarding and I hurried over to the gate (which was about the furthest gate you could possibly depart from – gate 532.
What I discovered upon arriving to gate 532 was that it meant boarding a bus and being shuttled out to the plane. Now, while the typhoon level had been lowered, it was still at T3 and quite rainy. We waited on the shuttle bus for about 20 minutes and then people started dashing for the uncovered stairs to make their way onto the plane. Everyone was wet, but very happy to be on-board. Once we were onboard there was still a weather delay and then a delay due to the sheer # of planes that had to take off. ) But in the end, I didn’t really care how long we were delayed, I was on an airplane and would be headed back home at some point.
In the end, the Hong Kong government said 129 people were injured (mostly from flying debris), 72 of those were hospitalized. Hundreds of trees were uprooted and there was localized flooding. In China, three people died as a result of Typhoon Vincente and in Macau, more than 3,000 people were stranded at the ferry terminal and airport, 250 people were injured and there was severe flooding. I’m glad I made the choice to leave Macau early!
I grew up in Florida and have experienced many, many hurricanes in my lifetime. This experience was nothing like any of those hurricanes. I am grateful that I was lucky and the hotel was very safe and very concerned about guest safety. I’m grateful that I had a hotel to stay in and wasn’t stuck on the floor of the airport like thousands of other travelers were. And, as I’ve already said, I’m grateful to US Airways and Sue for helping me get home. I hope to never experience a T10 again!
Here are few more pictures