How airline ticket scalpers took over the Chinese market

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(CNN) – When I made up my mind to travel outside of Hong Kong in early March, the city’s daily Covid-19 cases had just surpassed 50,000, the highest mortality rate in the world.

But I was trying to go ShanghaiMy hometown, for the first time in over two years.

I knew it would be difficult to travel from the Covid hotspot to an area with a strict zero-covid policy. I thought I was ready for all the hassles and hurdles to go back to – numerous Covid-19 tests, time allowed from work and mandatory hotel quarantine, not to mention the huge cost.

Little did I know that challenges were just the beginning.

Third party pressure

In late February, rumors surfaced that Shanghai was reducing the number of inbound flights from Hong Kong as well as limiting capacity to 50% per flight.

The policy was not made public, but the response was swift. When I checked the airline ticket websites, I noticed that the dates for flights in the near future are turning gray one by one. In less than an hour, all available slots for the month of March were fully booked.

Panicked, I turned to a travel agent I knew. The next day, she called me and offered me the option to go to Shanghai with Hong Kong Airlines on March 8.

“Do you want it or not? Decide now, or it will go away,” the agent urged me.

I was not instinctive in making decisions under pressure. But seeing the tickets disappear at a speed I had never seen before, I decided to go for it.

Medical workers collect PCR test swabs in Hong Kong

Medical workers collect PCR test swabs in Hong Kong

Low Ping Fi / Xinhua / Getty Images

My flight was canceled three days before departure. The airline did not offer an official explanation, but a popular theory was put forward that it was the result of Shanghai’s increased control over inbound flights from Hong Kong as the city was reporting a Covid-19 outbreak. I arrogantly phoned the airlines and searched for more options, just to see if everything was sold out.

I feel trapped in an infinite loop.

Scalpers and scams

After that, I turned to another ticketing agent: Ms. Yu, who I found after booking recently on social media that she had scored for someone else.

Ms. Yu has no website. She only runs her business through WeChat, a popular social messaging app in China.

Air ticketing agents in China were selling very discounted tickets from airlines. But since China has essentially sealed itself off from the outside world and reduced the number of incoming tourists, international flights have dropped to a minimum of 2% of pre-epidemic levels, the state aviation administration said.

However, the demand for Chinese people studying and working abroad is constantly increasing. And the extremely low supply of flights to China turns these agents into scalpers who resell popular tickets at exorbitant prices.

I asked the agent how much “premium” I would have to pay for the ticket within a month.

“To be honest, it’s really expensive these days. I think it’s out of a lot of people’s budgets,” she replied. “I usually alert my customers immediately to their inquiries.”

It’s not just about money. Tickets are essentially sold on public ticketing platforms and agents are not preferred. What they can do, however, is keep a close eye on the reservation system and quickly pick up any remaining tickets.

The agent said there are boats that constantly search for requested flights and seize available tickets, but the system still requires significant manual work.

The UA said she had to work overnight to monitor the ticketing system, as airlines “leave some bookings late at night.”

For the date I planned to travel, she asked for 11,000 RMB (about $ 1,650) for a new booking. That was a ridiculous amount for a 2.5-hour route. Prices before the epidemic ranged from $ 300-450 per trip.

Realizing I had no other choice, I agreed to the price and paid a 450 deposit, which the UA said would return to me if she could not secure a booking within 24 hours.

Since air tickets and Covid-19 test results must be worked out together, she suggested that I do a Covid-19 test line every day for the entire week, rules to make sure I could book if she got a last minute seat. According to my test time before the flight.

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Luckily, the UA helped me book on March 8th. She informed me just 20 hours before the scheduled departure. At the same time, my next day’s PCR test came back negative. I was ready to go.

Tickets are not a promise

The day of my journey has come. Hong Kong International Airport was wonderfully quiet, with only a few counters operating.

When it was my turn to check in, I confidently presented everything – my travel document, covid test report and QR code assigned to mainland travelers.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Wang. The flight is full. We can’t take you on the plane today,” said the airline clerk.

“The Shanghai authorities only allow 50% of the capacity and the space is filled. But we can be sure that you do this on tomorrow’s flight.”

Airline staff members apologized. They continued to comfort me and promised that I would get a seat for the same flight tomorrow.

They also said that they could arrange a PCR test at the airport immediately so that I could prepare the required report the next day. I felt like I had no choice but to say yes. The airline also gave me $ 1,000 HKD ($ 128) in compensation.

While waiting for the airline to process my case, I saw a group of four young college students following around the airline staff, urging them to board the flight. They looked tired and trivial. The students later told me they were booked on the same flight and route as me, but on a different day.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t take you on that plane. Look, is that woman waiting there? She has a ticket, but we can’t take her today,” the clerk replied to the group pointing in my direction.

A girl from the group approached me and started talking. After I confirmed what Clarke said was true, she asked me to add her as a friend on WeChat so we could keep in touch.

Her name was Sarah Wang. She told me that she was with some other friends who were mainland students studying in colleges in Hong Kong. Unable to afford any of the high-priced tickets from scalpers like me, she bought tickets offering flexible bookings and stayed overnight at the airport hoping to board the plane.

Author's view from the morning on the flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai

Author’s view from the morning on the flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai

Serenity Wang

When money is not enough

The next day, I finally got on the plane. Instead of getting excited, I got frustrated and tired.

Despite all the difficulties, I was one of the lucky ones to make it home.

Together, I spent over $ 3,000: I lost $ 160 for a canceled booking and then paid 1,726 for a new booking, plus $ 1,130 for a mandatory quarantine hotel.

In some cases, even money cannot buy a trip home. I found out that the scammers were targeting foreign Chinese and taking advantage of their frustration.

Student Sarah Wang told me that her trick worked and eventually she reached Chengdu in southeastern China with a regular booking ($ 420). But before that, she lost સ્ 940 to a scalper who promised her two bookings from Hong Kong to the mainland if she paid the deposit. The person never responded after the payment was transferred.

I could have fallen into the same trap just as easily. The agent who received the original booking does not seem more reliable to me.

The fighting market in China has been the Wild West since the early days of the epidemic.

In March 2020, the China Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC) announced that it would reduce the number of international flights to only one flight per week for each Chinese airline. On top of that, there is a liquid “circuit breaker” system that can suspend a route for up to four weeks if more than four positive cases are found on the same flight or route.

Meanwhile, Sarah Wang has joined a WeChat group that has been the victim of an airline ticket scam. The group has over 30 members – all fellow foreign Chinese who are trying or going home.

Overall, they believe they have lost more than $ 70,000 to scammers who pretend to be ticket scalpers.

CAAC has issued regulations on the prices of international flights – it has imposed price controls and banned certain ticketing proxies, transfers and exchanges.

But the black market is constantly thriving.

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