BEIJING – Famed Chinese philosopher Laozi once wrote that “a good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
Tell that to the passengers of Air China Flight 1894.
From the good people at Ministry of Toufu comes this bizarre but strangely familiar news story based on a video shot by a passenger aboard a flight last week from the southern coastal city of Shenzhen to Shanghai.
The video – which starts 28 seconds in – shows a throng of incensed passengers swarming a minibus moments before a man is dragged out of the vehicle and is set upon by the angry crowd.
A lone police officer is seen for a moment then, perhaps wisely deciding for his own sake to stay out the fray.
The passenger at the middle of all of this was attempting to fly last Thursday when he was told that despite the fact that he and his travel partner both held Air China platinum frequent flier cards (the equivalent of a Star Alliance Gold Card), there was simply no way to upgrade both of them to their desired business class seats.
The two passengers caused a great stink, arguing with ground crew, claiming they were acquainted with Air China President Cai Jianjiang and attempted to prevent the plane from departing by claiming they were too sick to fly.
At one point, the rest of the passengers who had already boarded the plane were forced to disembark and go through security checkpoints again. By then, heavy fog had moved in over Shenzhen airport and the flight was cancelled.
Passengers on the plane were understandably furious with the decision to first hold up the flight for the two malingers and then to cancel altogether. Demands for compensation were only interrupted by the recognition of the two wayward platinum cardholders on a bus.
Irate passengers soon set upon the bus and to the loud approval of the camera-wielding masses, pushed the cowed passenger to the ground, where he laid prostate as the crowd screamed obscenities and demands for an apology at him.
The man’s travel partner soon came out of the bus to defend him, but her pleas to leave him alone were shouted down by the passengers (translation courtesy of Ministry of Toufu):
01:26 The woman cried, “We have already apologized!”
01:29 One woman from the crowd: “You also need to compensate us too!”
01:39 Several voices to the man on the ground repeatedly: “Raise your head!”
01:44 One voice: “Playing dead?”
01:56 Several voices repeatedly: “Give the reason! What the hell is the reason? For us to disembark?”
02:18 “Stand up!”
02:30 One woman: “He should also compensate each one of them.”
Police officers later escorted the two away.
Recent Chinese aviation history is dotted with similar examples of Chinese tourists banding together against perceived poor service, airport delays, or simply a lack of communication. While most of these situations end peacefully resolved, some do end in violence, sparking the government to take action by threatening to punish airlines that don’t manage their passengers.
Two years ago, I was on a similarly fated flight the ones mentioned above. The plane, delayed from another destination, never arrived and the flight was eventually cancelled. While no formal announcement was made initially, the mood soon turned sour when a single passenger requesting news on the location of the plane was tersely told they didn’t know anything and that she should sit down and stop asking.
Moments later, a crowd of passengers soon formed around the rebuked passenger and the ground crew. When news suddenly broke that the plane was not going to arrive and the flight summarily cancelled, the proverbial powder keg exploded and the passengers, earlier frustrated but placid, united in one voice to demand compensation and an apology.
One woman’s impatient question had in the span of ten minutes led to a situation that quickly spun out of control. In a bid to keep the peace, the ground crew at the gate soon offered meal vouchers, rebooked tickets and even compensation miles to those dogged enough to keep their vigil at the gate.
By no means are these events limited to China. After all, the trials and tribulations of flying in America were deemed worthy enough to dedicate an entire television series about it. However, the frequency with which these events seem to occur in China suggests that something – whether it be the already reported massive expansion of the air network in China or the introduction of a passenger bill of rights – will have to be done.
Or perhaps more meal vouchers lie ahead in our not so distant future.