Why you should take the next direct charter flight to China from Pittsburgh

April 4, 2019

I know, I know. The window to buy tickets was impossibly short. Your summer plans were already made. You had — what? — less than six weeks to apply for a visa. You would have loved to have been on the first direct charter flight to China from Pittsburgh on August 3rd, but the odds were stacked against you.

We hear you. China was high on my list and the direct flight from Pittsburgh to Shanghai was a great opportunity — not only cheap but also very convenient — so I went. But it wasn’t easy.

Getting the visa was a challenge since one, I am a business owner and two, my business is this media site called NEXTpittsburgh. Double red flag, pun intended. I was ordered to appear in front of the Chinese Consulate in New York for an interview and fingerprinting where I had to fork over another $140 visa fee.

I wasn’t exactly feeling welcome in China and thinking other countries might like to have me. All in all, it was tense and I got my visa (only good for 30 days instead of 10 years like most) a mere eight days before my flight.

But man, was it worth it.

China exceeded all expectations and the convenience of the direct charter flight made the trip that much better.

So there’s good news for you if you missed out: You’ll have more chances to take the direct charter to China in the next couple of years and it should be much easier than it was for me.

As Christina Cassotis of the Allegheny County Airport Authority told me, she’s already laying the groundwork for the next flight expected in 2019.

The goal is for regular charter flights from Pittsburgh to China. It’s a unique approach to getting direct service to China — a big deal for a city the size of Pittsburgh — and for Cassotis it has been a labor of love. So while the first charter went off with a hitch or two, it’s a start, and there’s a three-year contract in place for more flights.

“There was a very short selling window and a very unusual way for selling tickets of a charter nature,” Cassotis said of the inaugural flight in August. Next year the goal is to have online tickets for sale by February.

“I’d like to see several flights next year,” she said. “The goal is to continue to highlight Pittsburgh as the great first point of entry to the U.S.”

To that end, they installed signage in Mandarin at the airport, made customs clearance a breeze, lined up many smiling volunteers to assist travelers, and even added hot water stations. (The latter is a common sight in China, making for fast and convenient tea and noodles.) Would you get all that in New York? asked Cassotis.

They also had this delicious dragon cake at the gate, along with champagne.

The China Eastern crew was delighted.

As for the flight? After the cake and bubbly, I boarded the brand new Boeing 777 a bit buzzed and was dazzled by my business class private pod. Initially, I booked coach ($1,098, a great rate since the flight was subsidized) but got bumped up to business class for a very low rate since there were so few passengers leaving from Pittsburgh.

The 13-hour flight wasn’t just good, it was really good. Relaxing offline in my sweet, snuggly pod, I read, watched movies that I could actually hear and spent way too much time reclining the comfortable seat a dozen different ways, just because I could.

The service was exceptional, perhaps because there weren’t many onboard, and the flight went fast. Of course, sleeping on a smooth flat-bed seat beats stiff upright economy any day and I was deeply grateful, and now spoiled for life.

For the inaugural flight with 300-some travelers arriving from China, a festive welcome awaited in Pittsburgh, along with buses and a police escort which sped them along the traffic-clogged Parkway to town. That night most of them enjoyed a free welcome dinner at the Carnegie Science Center.

There were four groups of visitors from Shanghai, most of whom stayed two nights on average in Pittsburgh before leaving for Niagara Falls or D.C. or other destinations, said Cassotis.

While no such welcome awaited Pittsburghers arriving in Shanghai, there was one big difference in our travels: They took buses to their next destination. I took bullet trains from Shanghai to other cities.

At the ticket window, I wrote in my lifesaving Google Translate app: One high-speed ticket to Hangzhou, please.

To my surprise, in three different train stations in China, I saw not one or two bullet trains on the many tracks inside but dozens.

Yet another area where I am now spoiled for life.

Case in point: I took a train 124 miles from Shanghai, population 22 million, to Hangzhou, a city of six million, in 45 minutes. Which is like taking a train from Pittsburgh to Erie in that time. Of course, there is no train from Pittsburgh to Erie and only a very slow train from here to Harrisburg then onto D.C.

Had the Shanghai visitors taken a train from Pittsburgh to D.C., it would have taken most of the day.

It’s one of many reasons I highly recommend a visit to China. To see for yourself the billions of investment everywhere: in transportation and in an entirely new cultural district springing up in Shanghai along the Huangpu River. In the many clusters of lookalike high-rise apartments, up to 30 buildings on a single construction site, going up all at once in every city I visited. And in the massive new elevated walkways in Shanghai which add another layer of urban living comfortably aloft from the congested streets below.