34 Hour Cathay Pacific Flight… Ultimate Travel Nightmare?!

I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit at the CNBC headline I saw today — “Ultimate travel nightmare: 34 hours on a plane.” That did sound horrible, till I read the first sentence:

A Cathay Pacific flight from New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Hong Kong wound up being a 34-hour journey—including a 15-hour unscheduled layover in Zhuhai, China—where the 256 passengers never left the plane.

And then I thought to myself… hmmm, 34 hours on Cathay Pacific. Is that really the ultimate travel nightmare? 😉



Okay, I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek here, as obviously not everyone is flying in first class. The story itself is actually really interesting and crazy.

So first the flight was supposed to land in Hong Kong but diverted to Zhuhai:

When Cathay Pacific Flight CX831 left JFK on the afternoon of March 29, it was expected to be a routine 16-hour flight to Hong Kong. It was an uneventful trip until the plane made its approach into Hong Kong, which was in the midst of a nasty storm that included lightning, high winds and hail storms.

“It was rough,” one passenger said. “We had to abort our landing [and] pull up while constantly being buffeted by strong winds.”

The conditions were so bad, CX831 was diverted to land in Zhuhai, a Chinese city not far from Hong Kong.

Then Chinese immigration wouldn’t let passengers off the plane:

But once the aircraft landed in Zhuhai, the passengers and crew were forced to stay on board the Boeing 777. Cathay Pacific said the restriction was put in place by Chinese government leaders in charge of immigration and customs at the airport, who would not allow passengers to disembark.

In a letter to passengers, Cathay Pacific said, “The fact that we do not usually operate at Zhuhai airport, combined with the local immigration requirement that all passengers remain on-board, made this a particularly difficult diversion to handle.”

Then the crew timed out:

Meanwhile, the Cathay Pacific pilots and crew were now “timed out,” and required by law to rest. So the folks on Flight CX831 were forced to wait on their plane for a replacement crew to come to Zhuhai from Hong Kong.

Then they had to find a replacement crew, though the “Chinese authorities” wouldn’t let them fly there, so instead they had to swim (or something like that):

While passengers on CX831 waited hour after hour, a crew from Cathay Pacific worked its way over to Zhuhai. But even that journey wasn’t a quick one. The Chinese authorities wouldn’t allow the replacement crew to fly into Zhuhai, so they had to take a transport ferry across the Pearl River from Hong Kong to Macau, and then drive an hour to the city.

In order to truly determine how much of a nightmare this was, we’d need more information, like at which point in the journey they ran out of Krug. 😉


(Tip of the hat to @assareh)

Filed Under: Cathay Pacific
  1. well, we know that you drink two bottles of champagne in 8-9 hours. so i doubt they would have 8 bottles on this flight just for you onboard…

  2. Diversions from HKG *are* massively painful. I know CX (and most airlines) would shy from diverting from there, precisely because of these conditions. I’ve landed with a typhoon nearby before (1999) in HKG before. Surprised we weren’t diverted at all.

    That much said, the HK media didn’t report way too much about it, which meant the customers weren’t particularly annoyed (by their standards), so kudos as much as possible to the crew there.

    But Ben, since you weren’t on there, they couldn’t have possibly run out of Krug 🙂

  3. It was really an unfortunate situation. I believe this flight didn’t have enough alternative fuel to divert to Kaohsiung or Taipei, where CX could be able to send the crew sooner (might even had layover crew in Taipei to take over).

  4. How many bottles of Krug could you get through on a 34 hour flight? Assuming they do not run out (or they don’t ask China Southern to supply extra “Champagne”)…

  5. I believe your post completely disregards and disrespect all of those on board that plane. Very poor taste.

    Yet, one day, you will find yourself in such a predicament and some jerk will be laughing at you, wondering if you are hungry why not sample some caviar with Krug.

  6. While I don’t feel as strongly about this as PB, I also fail to see the point of this post. CX in Y sucks, and the only time I fly CX is when I can do J or F (thanks to this blog).

    If I have to be stuck in CX Y for 34 hours I might kill myself.

  7. It’s odd that they would choose to land in Zhuhai and go through all of this when they could have probably landed in Macau instead.

  8. Typical mainland Chinese nonsense. Let’s hope no one from the Communist Party had a family member on that plane, or the “authorities” at Zhuhai will be chipping rocks for the next 20 years!

    Seriously though, Zhuhai is a small domestic airport. Why wouldn’t they divert to Guangzhou, Shenzhen, or Macau, all of which are nearby and equipped to handle international passengers? Heck, from SZX there’s a ferry going directly to HKG!

    This is like diverting an international flight from JFK to White Plains.

  9. I agree with the above…it becomes a nightmare as soon as the Krug runs out…though I suppose you could make do with one of the Reds.

  10. The reason here is Zhuhai Jinwan airport (ZUH) is not an international airport. There’s no immigration or custom department in that airport. As some readers commented above, diverting to SZX, CAN, or KHH could have been better options.

    In terms of authorities, The Hor. Raymond Tam Chi-yeun, director of CMAB, was also on board. He couldn’t get off the aircraft either.

  11. OK. So the fact was SZX, CAN, MFM were all closed/full due to that storm. ZUH welcomed 15 aircrafts that day. CX831 was the first international flight landing in that airport.

  12. In my experience, when HKG shuts down the tarmacs at SZX and MFM fill up quickly. ZUH may have been the best of a bad set of choices.

  13. Given the length of the delay, I wonder if they even had enough food on board?

    The longest non-stop I’ve ever been on was a bit under 16 hours (due to strong headwinds); even though it was a long, long time ago (before IFE & all the gizmos). That wasn’t much fun so I can’t even imagine what the passengers went through.

    Lastly, the article states that everyone on board got “2,000 Chinese yuan (approximately $322)”. Doesn’t sound like a good enough compensation for losing a day of work/travel.

  14. @Arcanum: Guangzhou stretches the definition of “nearby”, and we don’t know how much fuel was left at that point. Don’t forget that HKG-JFK approaches the official range of a 77W.

    Shenzhen? There was a thunderstorm there too, with max wind speeds of ~40 MPH.

    Of the three alternatives you provided, Macau would seem like the best option… but how many other pilots do you suppose also had that idea?

    @Lantean: Considering that he polished off a bottle just over breakfast, they’d have to stock a few cases to be safe.

  15. If crews can get off plane, why can’t passengers?
    If a passenger is Chinese citizen or Hong Kong residents, they don’t need any documents other than their passport.
    For those passengers who do not hold Chinese passports,they are still allowed to legally enter in China. Chinese law stated that foreign citizens are allowed to enter special economy zone (Zhuhai,Shenzhen,Xiamen,Hainan) through the landing visa program for 72 hours.
    I believe there must be some miscommunication between Cathay Pacific and Chinese immigrants. If you don’t believe that, check this.

  16. It has nothing to do with your citizenship. The fact is there is no immigration facilities at the airport. So there is no way to get in.

    Last year there was also an incident that CA flight arrived later at Houston due to weather. All the people had to wait on board because no immigration officer was on duty.

  17. I wouldn’t want to be in coach on that flight. Usually bathrooms are already nasty after a 10 hours flight so I can only imagine how they looked/smelled like after 34 hours. 🙁

  18. I had this happen to me a few years ago on the CX 841 (the morning nonstop from JFK to HKG). We made two attempts to land in HKG during a typhoon and then diverted to Kaoshung. We were allowed off the plan after about an hour. A new crew was flown in and we landed back in HKG 5 hours later. Given the circumstances, I’d say it was handled very well. The difference might be that the typhoon was anticipated, so they may have loaded extra fuel on board. Sounds like this storm was unexpected.

  19. This is because that ZUH is only a domestic airport and does not have any Immigration. So technically there is no mistake for the airport or the government itself. In the meantime, the ZUH airport does not get business relationship so they won’t likely to give a courtesy to let the passenger get off the plane.

    I actually had a similar experience about 8 years ago on a flight from Bali to Shanghai. Due to the bad weather, we were landed at Hefei airport via Shanghai Airline(was *A at that time). it was a domestic airport with no immigration at that time. We were allowed to get off from the jet via a bridge. there is a temporary space for the passenger. No immigration that means nobody would chop on the passport. They closed the exit for that area so that the passenger could not escape. Food and water was provided though it was crappy. We were able to flight again after about 14 hour delay in this case.

    I guess the reason why we can get out and have food and water is that Shanghai Airline also operate in Hefei Airport. Somehow it does not apply to this case.

  20. I was very lucky to arrive on the 28th, the storm was pretty intense, and it rained for the better part of 5 days.

    As nice as CX F and J are, I cannot imagine being stuck on a plane for 34 hours, essentially losing a day of your life. There is a thread on flyertalk from a passenger who was stuck onboard that I was reading last week. He was not impressed.

  21. Not everyone can afford to fly First class like you are, so your snobbish comments, though might be humorous for some, considered to be rude by others. At least you know you are the Lucky one 🙂

  22. It amazes me how badly governments work when dealing with diverted airlines as this isn’t the first time we’ve read this type of event. After spending 3+ hours on the runway of a USAir flight with people freaking out, I can’t imagine in any class spending such an ordeal. It is frankly inhumane. I’d feel caged up and need fresh air – plus I only have enough emergency chocolate for a few hours!

  23. @Lana: From your comment it’s obvious you’ve never actually read Lucky’s blog.

    Shoo trolls! Get back under your bridge!

  24. @SimonCN is right for the most of his comment – except the business relationship part.

    Cathay does have a business relationship with Zhuhai Airport. They do a lot of touch and go training in Zhuhai. Although Zhuhai is only a small airport handling mostly 737 and 320, it has a runway long enough for a 380. The China International Airshow is hosted here every year.

    Cathay is playing the Blame-the-Bloody-Authorities card again. How the hell there would be a “government official in charge of the immigration and customs” if Zhuhai is a domestic airport in the first place. There is no immigration facility in Zhuhai Airport.

    The pilot made a terrible decision of diverting to Zhuhai – maybe the fact that he has done some touch and go training here some time ago made him more comfortable to do a landing in extreme weather conditions. He could have saved the passengers by going to CAN tho.

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