The unfriendly skies: Chinese passengers' outrageous behaviour

February 2013 might have been the worst month ever to be an employee of an airline flying in or out of China. Blame, however, can't be laid at the feet (or landing gears) of the airlines that seek to exploit one of the world's fastest growing air-travel markets. This state of affairs must be pinned on an ornery cast of Chinese passengers.

The lowlights are noteworthy:

  • February 6, Kunming Changshui International Airport: In a video that has gone viral internationally, Yan Linkun, a mining executive and county-level Communist Party official, smashes two boarding gate computers and attempts to send the frame of a sign through the glass door standing between him and the second flight that he and his family have missed.
  • February 14, Beijing Capital International Airport: Six business-class passengers travelling together refuse to fasten their seat belts or turn off their phones prior to take-off, then become abusive toward the flight attendants and captain, forcing a return to the gate and a substantial flight delay.
  • February 20, Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport: Flight delays on a Melbourne-bound flight on China Southern result in two Chinese passengers beating an employee to the ground. Photos of the crumpled attendant circulate on Sina Weibo, China's leading microblogging platform.
  • February 22, Air France Flight 132, somewhere between Paris and Wuhan: Two men, reportedly drunk, swipe between seven and 16 bottles of wine (accounts vary) from a drink cart. When confronted, they become so belligerent that the pilot has to intervene. They still manage to threaten the life of a passenger whom they judge as particularly nosy.

That list is just the start. A query for "air passengers" and "February" on Chinese search engines reveals other reported incidents, including disruptive drunken passengers and at least one more passenger trying to break down the doors between the boarding gate and the plane (and succeeding in this case). Then there's the story that has been widely circulated in China of somebody (parents?) allowing a child to defecate in the aisle of a packed passenger jet.

Of course, unruly, rude, demeaning and even dangerous behaviour isn't the sole provenance of Chinese passengers. Foreign airline passengers behaved badly in February, too - but not nearly in the numbers reported for their Chinese counterparts.

On the planes I found the people weren't human at all.

What has made the Chinese skies so unfriendly? The week-long Chinese New Year holiday that ended February 15 is one cause. For many Chinese, this is the only time of year they are able to travel; not surprisingly, packed planes, overloaded air traffic control systems, frequent delays and very short tempers result. Moreover, those planes are often packed with first-time flyers who bring high expectations of airline service - especially as compared with the low-level of service they might have experienced in China's much more popular but less expensive railway system.

Such misbehavior didn't begin this Chinese New Year. According to the Wuxi Daily, a government-owned newspaper, bomb threats have become a common passenger response to delays, with 45 bomb hoaxes in the past nine months alone (the paper implied - but didn't specify - that those hoaxes were related to delays). Notoriously, about 20 disgruntled and delayed passengers at Shanghai Pudong International Airport stormed a runway in April 2012 and held up at least one other flight.

Most public discussion of these incidents tends to focus on alleged flaws in the Chinese character. This sort of social navel-gazing might strike some foreigners - especially security-focused Americans - as short-sighted. But in China, where maintaining the national "face" is a policy priority shared by rulers and ruled, it's a real concern.

Take, for example, Wen Fei, the woman who was threatened for her nosy behavior while trying to dissuade the wine thieves on the flight from Paris to Wuhan. Despite the fact that - by her own account - they told her that she should stay out their business and keep her mouth shut if she hoped to leave Wuhan alive, she didn't focus her microblogging attention on the safety risks at hand. In a subsequent tweet to Sina Weibo, she posted what she said was a photo of one of the wine thieves and commented: "When Chinese people go abroad, what's lost is not money but character. All kinds of bad behaviour reflect poorly on the image of the Chinese."


News reporters are similarly focused on how all these incidents make the Chinese look. On February 27, the state-run Wuxi Daily interviewed an airline purser, Zhou Hua, with experience on international routes. The question at the heart of the story was specific: How do Chinese passengers compare with passengers of other nationalities? Zhou, speaking both for himself and his colleagues, noted: "We are neither unpatriotic nor biased against our compatriots, but we prefer to serve foreigners." Why? Among the reasons he enumerated were that foreigners throw away their trash, wear their seatbelts, flush the toilets and bring their own slippers (rather than wandering around in their stinky socks - a complaint often levelled against Chinese air passengers by other Chinese air passengers).

Typically, national-level state media in China push back against suggestions that foreign social mores are superior to Chinese ones. But in this rare case, even national-level editorial writers are willing to accept the notion that Chinese air passenger behavior may hint at deeper problems. On March 1, Yu Jincui, a reporter with the hypernationalist, Communist Party-owned Global Times newspaper, wrote of the Air France wine thieves and other misdeeds by Chinese:

"The causes for such small-mindedness are complicated. It's a matter of low-quality character and morality due to inadequate education.

"Besides, decades of poverty imprinted an instinct among Chinese to snatch and grab when they have the chance.

"With the rapid development of China's economy, the living conditions of Chinese have improved a lot. But the character of the Chinese has failed to advance with the times."

Is this fair? Should every Chinese - including hundreds of millions who can't afford to fly - be held responsible for the misbehaviour of often well-heeled air passengers? The answer, for at least a few microbloggers, is a decided no. For them, the fact that so many of the air rage miscreants fly business class or internationally suggests that these issues result from people who don't fear the consequences. In effect, money and power corrupt, and on airplanes they set off entitled, temperamental behavior.

On February 27, Mangy Youth, the handle for a microblogger in Hangzhou, offered a cynical expression of this sentiment. In his tweet, he references the cheap "green trains" that were once China's most popular means of long-distance travel:

"When I took the green trains I thought the people were very dirty, so I switched to bullet trains. But I found there were a bunch of dirty men on bullet trains, so I turned to the high-speed rails. There I found people with money but lacking character, so I changed to planes. But on the planes I found the people weren't human at all. In this way I found that the people on the green trains weren't dirty."

It's an apologetic, egalitarian sentiment, suggesting that - all things considered - it's better to ride the rails with the lower classes, and all the unpleasantness such rides might entail, than to fly high with the sweet smelling but corrupt elites. Still, Mangy Youth won't be downgrading to green trains any time soon, and neither will the almost human passengers with whom he now loathes to fly. For better, and often for worse, they're all prisoners of the unfriendly skies.