Angry Travelers Protest Airline Delays in China

For airline crews working on Chinese domestic flights, getting passengers to obey the seat belt sign is the least of their worries.

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Wang Zhao / AFP / Getty Images

An Air China plane prepares to land at Beijing Capital International airport on Sept. 4, 2012.

For airline crews working on Chinese domestic flights, getting passengers to obey the seat belt sign is the least of their worries. Travelers upset at the airlines’ crowded flights, long delay times and erratic service have taken to venting their frustration in often dramatic ways — threatening fellow fliers while airborne, mobbing airport tarmacs in protest and holding flight staff hostage, according to a recent report by Reuters.

Today’s customers have high expectations for service, according to Li Yuliang, the head trainer for China Eastern Airline’s Shandong office — a legacy of the fact that for years, only China’s elites could afford air travel. “But when they actually fly, they find the services are not as good, especially when there is a delay, and these disappointed passengers make a lot of trouble,” Li told Reuters.

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Airlines haven’t been helping matters by being less than forthcoming about wait times and the reasons for flight delays. Just last week, passengers in the southwest city of Guiyang fought with ground employees after their flight was delayed, Reuters reported. “The staff’s attitude was bad, so I can understand their anger but I strongly disagree with police not arresting the passengers,” a 28-year-old office worker surnamed Tong, who did not want her full name used, told Reuters after witnessing the event.

Other protests have taken place earlier this year. In April, following an overnight stopover due to inclement weather, about 20 travelers stormed the runway at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport — less than 200 yards from a taxiing Etihad Airways plane from the United Arab Emirates, the Shanghai Daily reported. In August, two customers upset about being denied compensation for a flight delay forced open the plane’s emergency exit door, Reuters reported. And in October, passengers on a Jetstar flight held the plane’s crew and its Australian pilot hostage in the arrivals area of Shanghai’s airport for six hours, after their trip was diverted there from Beijing, the Telegraph reported.

Air travel officials fear that the delays will only worsen. Since 2010, the number of passengers flying commercially in China has increased 10%, and the International Air Transport Association predicts that 379 million people will take to the country’s skies by 2014. To deal with the upswing in travelers, manufacturers project that airlines will launch one new plane into China’s skies every other day for the next 20 years.

Jeff Zhang, a pilot for one of China’s top three airlines, told Reuters that passengers aren’t the only ones suffering during delays. He said pilots make money only when they are in the air, and airlines are unable to get the maximum use out of their planes, with just 20% of China’s airspace open for commercial routes.

“It’s like an eight-lane highway with just two lanes open,” Zhang said. “No one likes delays. But this is all because of the narrow air space.”

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