My Strange, Tai Chi-filled Trip on China’s Budget Airline

Spring Airlines
As China continues to charge down the path of modernization, airplanes have started to replace trains as the primary method of long distance transportation, thus birthing an army of affordable airlines. Modeled off America’s Southwest Airlines, Spring Airlines makes domestic air travel delightfully affordable with prices as low as 288 yuan ($46) for a single seat.

Armed with this information, my friends Max and Ben and I purchased three one-way tickets from Shanghai to Sanya for 360 yuan ($58) each. As naive Americans accustomed to the strict, oftentimes draconian laws of the FAA, we expected that our Spring Airlines flight would be no different from one on any American airline.

We were completely unprepared for the surprises that awaited us.


5:58 am – We arrive at Shanghai’s Hongqiao International Airport a cool hour and a half before our scheduled 7:30 am takeoff.

However, I get the sense that nobody really knows what they’re supposed to be doing. None of the self-check-in kiosks are turned on, nor are there any airline employees in sight. My fellow passengers and I conclude that the best bet is to form two lines at each check-in desk, one for passengers with checked bags, and one for passengers without.

6:05 am – Still no sign of any Spring Airlines employees, but hey, the lady in front of me has a live chicken under her arm, so that’s pretty cool. I notice that most of the people waiting to check in are the elderly and young women with small children. I wonder where all the men are.

6:20 am – With only forty minutes left until boarding, the Spring Airlines employees finally waltz through the front door of the terminal and man their stations. Apparently the rule about arriving at least an hour and a half before your flight doesn’t apply at Spring Airlines; they prefer to keep passengers on their toes.

6:35 am – After grudgingly paying the $50 checked bag fee, I proceed to security, where I am pleased to discover that I can keep my shoes and belt on. The metal detectors scream as I pass through their gates, but the airport security employees don’t seem to mind. After a few waves of a security wand, I’m cleared to move on. The TSA would be wise to follow their example.

6:43 am – I bite into a mouthful of processed chemicals and plastic wrap.

Ravenous upon reaching the departure gate, I failed to notice that the pastry I just purchased had a thin film of plastic on the bottom. Trying to refrain from thinking about all of the places that piece of plastic has been, I sprint to the nearest trash bin and spit out the contents of my mouth.

The young mother next to the bin looks at me in horror and clutches her baby, perhaps concerned that my barbaric Western behavior will rub off on her child.

They clearly didn’t have lanky Americans in mind when they designed this plane.


7:20 am – As we enter the plane, I notice that there is no first class, just rows upon rows of green seats cramped together as close as possible. That’s how Spring Airlines is so affordable—they just cram an absurd amount of people on each flight.

When I say cramped, imagine stretching your legs about a foot under your seat and accidentally hitting the feet of the passenger two rows in front of you. That cramped. They clearly didn’t have lanky Americans in mind when they designed this plane.

Another blow comes when I discover that my seat doesn’t recline. I still consider myself fortunate though, as I read that morning Spring Airlines is planning on introducing standing-room-only aircraft in the future. Scenes of passengers flying around like rag dolls during turbulence flood my mind.

7:32 am – The flight attendants do their rounds and go through what to do in case the plane lands in the ocean. They remind multiple passengers to turn off their electronic devices. I feel assured of my safety on Spring Airlines.

7:40 am – We’re taking off, but the man to my right is still watching some historical drama on his phone. I give him a nudge and nod towards his phone, but he merely points to his headphones to explain that he’s too busy to deal with me at the moment.

In my desperation, I catch the eye of a flight attendant, who, to my immense relief, is already on the case. Dressed in a white button-down blouse underneath a dark green vest with a Peter Pan hat on her head, she reminds my neighbor that Chinese law prohibits the use of electronics during takeoff and landing and all that. The man pouts a bit, but eventually surrenders his phone to the flight attendant, my hero.

7:45 am – Our glorious aircraft continues to climb to cruising altitude as it slices through the gloomy grey clouds above Shanghai. After making sure that the coast is clear, the man next to me switches on his phone again. Not confident in my ability to overcome this man in a physical altercation, I instead start praying.


8:13 am – The captain switches off the fasten seat belt sign and it’s off to the races. A throng of children whizz down the aisle, laughing and jostling each other. I chuckle adoringly at these carefree kids.

8:15 am – My admiration turns to horror as the smallest child produces a red rubber ball from his pocket and throws it to a tall boy standing 20 feet away. I peek over my seat and witness what looks like poorly organized baseball practice: children scattered in the aisles and chairs screaming and throwing balls of different sizes all over the cabin.

9:30 am – An irritated flight attendant reminds the man behind me for the fifteenth time to turn his phone off, which he adamantly refuses to do because he doesn’t want to stop watching his beloved rom-com. After bringing backup in the form of the copilot, the man relents and angrily turns off his phone for the rest of the flight.

10:04 am –It seems as if those men crowded around seat 5A are playing cards and throwing money on the tray table. Yes, these men are actually gambling on the plane, though I cannot make out which game they are playing. I watch the next hand. After a round of excited chatter and more bills on the tray table, a loud cheer erupts from the crowd of men. Someone has won it big on Spring Airlines.

10:32 am – As the heroine professes her love for a tall muscular man with a three-foot-long ponytail in my neighbor’s drama, I drift off to sleep.

Imagine if you stood up on a US Airways flight and started shadowboxing.

Stretching exercises on the flight.
Stretching exercises on the flight.


11:00 am – Ben urgently shoves me awake and points toward the cockpit. Expecting to see a fire, I instead see the flight attendant standing in the middle of the aisle leading the passengers through a series of exercises, some Tai Chi and some I’ve never seen before. I tear the sweet sound of Kenny Chesney from my ears and hear a robotic voice on the PA counting out the reps: “yi, er, san, si!”

Imagine if you stood up on a US Airways flight and started shadowboxing. Every passenger would almost certainly explode in fright and possibly bum rush you. Ever seen Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay? That’s what would happen. You would be tackled on the plane by Federal Air Marshals and promptly sent to Gitmo.

11:02 am – Genuinely confused, I look around the cabin and see that all the elderly passengers—and almost none of the younger ones—are doing the exercises along with the flight attendant. After the last set of earlobe tugs, the robotic voice thanks us all for participating and informs us that we will certainly feel very relaxed now.

Feeling a little tense from all the anxiety during the flight, I regret not participating. I make note to do so the next time I fly Spring Airlines.

11:10 am – We descend into Sanya without a hitch and begin taxiing. All things considered, the flight was cheap, entirely safe, and provided a pretty entertaining experience, as well as a unique look into the culture of Chinese air travel and how it differs from air travel in the United States.

If I had to choose, I’d take the little leaguers, gamblers, and Tai Chi exercises over a quiet ride on Southwest Airlines any day.