Time runs short to plane a trip to the Olympics

 - June 2, 2008, 7:33 AM

“If you’re reading this and haven’t made travel arrangements for the Olympics yet, you’re definitely behind the power curve,” Nancy Pierce, technical sales and support manager for international trip planning for Jeppesen, told AIN. The Beijing Olympics are being held from August 8 to 24.

“According to the CAAC, China’s equivalent of the FAA, the first deadline for trip plans was March 31, and the bulk of our requests made that deadline. It doesn’t mean you can’t apply now but you need to allow at least 20 to 30 days before your desired departure date. It’s OK to stop at multiple cities, but last-minute changes, either before departing the U.S. or while in China, are going to result in a 24-hour delay to get approval,” she said.

Critical trip planning issues begin in the U.S., according to Nan Zhang, client relations manager of Jeppesen China. “Very few private aircraft have the range to get to Beijing from their home airport in the U.S., so Anchorage is the primary staging area for the trip,” she said. “Most operators will stop there to refuel before heading over water so you can count on it being crowded.”

Shaen Tarter, general manager of Great Circle Flight Services in Anchorage, Alaska, agreed. “We’re going to see a lot of traffic in August,” he said. “We’ll be putting on enough fuel and line service [personnel] to meet the demand but you have to remember a busy day here on Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is maybe a dozen business jets. A day with 20 or 30 jets is going to be very taxing. Those jets come in here hungry for fuel and there are only three FBOs [Great Circle Flight Services, Million Air and Signature] to feed them.

“The good news is that at that time of year the weather is usually sunny and in the high 60s or low 70s with 19 hours of daylight. The bad news is that it’s also the height of the tourist season and the hotels are already going to be full. So if you’re planning on putting up a crew here you really have to book early.”

Jimmy Young, master trip support specialist for Universal Weather & Aviation, said the CAAC requires a detailed itinerary in and out of China as well as complete passenger and crew information.

“You’re going to need a visa, passport number and have a local sponsor,” he said. “Ideally, someone in China invited you to attend the Olympics; if not, a local sponsor will have to be arranged for you.” Matching a visitor with a sponsor will involve a fee that could reach several thousand dollars, said Young. The purpose of the sponsor is to assume responsibility for you, your crew and all paperwork the entire time you’re in China.

Young said when the CAAC approves an application, the authorization includes a permit to enter the country, arrival and departure slots and a parking spot. “You may request any arrival time; however, CAAC will check the status of your sponsor,” he said. “The order of priority is those with invitations from the Chinese government, then those with invitations from the Olympic Committee, then an Olympic corporate sponsor and finally everyone else.”

“If you fall into the category of ‘everyone else,’ you have to show proof you have Olympic tickets and must have a local sponsor. …The rule might relax some as we get closer to the Olympics but at this point the government is still sticking to it,” Young explained.

Expect the Plan To Change

Zhang said Beijing Capital International Airport has 1,450 slots per day but commercial flights consume about 1,300 of them.

“There is a peak period from noon until 6 p.m. when it would be highly unlikely for a private aircraft to get a landing slot,” Zhang said. “Your ideal slot is not going to happen; you’ll probably get pushed to late at night or early in the morning.” Then there are parking issues.

During the Olympic period there are 60 stands available for parking private aircraft, and an additional 29 backup parking spaces about which the government isn’t being very clear. “What we do know is there will be a lot of dropoffs,” Zhang added.

One might not expect a lot of “dropoffs” considering there will be a huge new, highly touted FBO that has been built specifically for private jets.

Jet Aviation and Beijing-based Deer Air, a subsidiary of HNA Group, signed a joint-
venture agreement under which the two companies will operate a 35,475-sq-ft FBO currently under construction but slated to be operational in time for the Olympics.

The three-story FBO features passenger and crew lounges, refreshment areas, weather briefing and flight-planning accommodations, meeting rooms and client offices. It will have its own 24-hour border police and customs clearance, security checks, baggage screening and metal detector.

The new FBO will be accessible only to head-of-state aircraft. Everyone else classified to get VIP treatment will compete for whatever parking slots remain on the airport and the passengers will be required to use the old Gate 6 facility that’s been in
use for years for private aircraft. Qualifying for VIP treatment depends upon your sponsor.

The one advantage to Gate 6 access is that it has its own customs, immigration and quarantine (CIQ). Those that don’t qualify will be picked up at their aircraft by a bus and taken to the airline passenger terminal to join everyone else going through the main terminal CIQ.

Those who aren’t lucky enough to get a parking spot on Beijing Airport will be asked to reposition their aircraft for parking after dropping off the passengers.

Those who want to stay near Beijing will be asked to fly to Tianjin Airport, the primary designated alternate. It is about 30 minutes away via a bullet train that is currently under construction.

Young stressed that Beijing hotels are scarce and the prices are high. “A five-star hotel is going to be $1,000 to $1,500 per night, with a minimum stay of as much as two weeks, and it’s non-refundable if you don’t use it,” he said.

Most five-star hotels aren’t downtown and are nearer to the airport, but there is good shuttle service to the games. The five-star hotels near the heart of the city in areas most desired by tourists, notably Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, are already heavily booked, as are the few hotels near the Olympics.

While trip handlers such as Jeppesen and Universal are taking care of your itinerary and hotel they will also arrange for ground transportation. It is practically impossible for a foreign national to rent a car in Beijing.

Vanessa Smets, key account manager for international sales for Avis Benelux, dispelled any thought of renting a car. “If you want to drive a car in China you need a Chinese driving license and a residence permit for at least three months,” she said. “To obtain a driving license, you need to pass a written exam that is available only in Chinese. Additionally, all the road signs are in Chinese. We offer rental cars, but it is a very small part of our business in China; we provide a car and driver.”

Smets said that under normal conditions English-speaking chauffeur-driven cars in China compare in price to rental cars in Europe without a driver. However, she cautioned that the rates have increased for the Olympics.

Young said Beijing is also regulating traffic and limiting the number of vehicles allowed on the street on a given day by implementing an odd/even system, so vehicles with license plates that end in an odd number may drive on odd-numbered days, while cars with even-numbered plates drive on even days. “It is important to make arrangements with a service that’s large enough to have sufficient cars to cover its customers,” said Young.

A security car and driver comes with a tab as high as $1,000 per day, but that specialty is already filling up. Matt York, global handler relations manager for Jeppesen, said, “Security is extremely tight everywhere. The key issue for every facet of an Olympic trip is ‘early planning.’"