Air rage: Chinese increasingly frustrated by delays

Angry passengers are resorting to extreme measures to protest delays as the country's restricted air corridors become clogged with millions of new fliers each year.

SHANGHAI – Airline crews and ground staff are assaulted, passengers storm a runway and a person yanks open an emergency exit door on a plane.

In China, angry passengers are resorting to extreme measures to protest delays as the country's restricted air corridors become clogged with millions of new fliers each year – a fact attributed to the fast rise of the middle class and cheap flights.

There have been dozens of incidents involving irate travelers on both domestic and international flights this year as airlines struggle to stick to their schedules.

Manufacturers predict a new plane will take to China's skies every other day for the next two decades, and that means more delays.

Some 30 years ago, flying was a travel option only available to top government and company officials, who needed a special document from their employer to buy a plane ticket.

While most Chinese people still use trains for long-distance travel because of the lower cost, rising income and cheaper flights as a result of increased competition mean more people are flying. More than 270 million passengers flew on domestic routes in China last year, up nearly 10 percent from 2010 and more than 70 percent from 2003, according to government data. The International Air Transport Association projects 379 million will be flying domestically by 2014.

Airlines have been adding planes to keep pace with the increased demand. Boeing predicts China will need to add 5,260 new airliners worth $670 billion over the next 20 years.

OVER THE TOP

Airlines are increasing the number of flights but with China's air force controlling much of the airspace, flight delays are likely to become increasingly common.

The results can be over the top.

In April, around 20 angry passengers dashed toward the runway at Shanghai's main international airport, coming within 200 yards of an oncoming plane from the United Arab Emirates. Their action was sparked by a 16-hour flight delay.

In August, two passengers furious after being refused compensation for a delay yanked open an emergency exit door on their plane, resulting in a further delay.

An Australian pilot and crew were surrounded and threatened by an angry mob in October after a Jetstar flight, which originated in Melbourne, was diverted from Beijing to Shanghai because of bad weather, Australian media reported. That incident echoed another involving a United Airlines flight that was delayed for three days in Shanghai. Media reported frustrated passengers started shouting and rushed at the pilots.

Last week, angry passengers came to blows with ground staff after their flight was delayed from Guiyang, in southwestern China, according to a witness.

"The staff's attitude was bad, so I can understand their anger but I strongly disagree with police not arresting the passengers," said the 28-year-old office worker, who only gave her last name as Tong.

There have been other equally bizarre, yet peaceful acts. A group of passengers sang songs over the public announcement system after airline staff deserted the terminal in Shanghai when all flights were grounded due to a thunderstorm this year.

The cause of these protests partly lies with the Chinese carriers themselves. It is not uncommon for passengers to have to wait for hours inside a plane or at the boarding gate without any information about how long the delay might last.

"In the past, only 'first class' people had the privilege to travel by plane so the average Chinese has very high expectations for services," said Li Yuliang, an independent civil aviation commentator who is also the chief trainer for China Eastern Airline's Shandong office. "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."

In the case of the runway protest in Shanghai in April, all passengers, including those who ran out to the tarmac, were given 1,000 yuan ($160)  in compensation from the carrier, Shenzhen Airlines. None of the protesters was reprimanded.

According to the Civil Aviation Administration of China, about a quarter of the 2.4 million domestic flights were delayed in 2011. The ratio is roughly comparable with delays seen in Britain but this data does not reflect delays that occur after all the passengers have boarded the plane.

TIGHT AIR SPACE

China's skies are hardly crowded, but its restricted routes are. Experts and pilots say airspace allocated for commercial use is only around 20 percent. "The airspace is too small. It's like an eight-lane highway with just two lanes open," said Jeff Zhang, a pilot at one of the top three Chinese carries.

In addition, the lack of up-to-date equipment at airports, such as those used to navigate pilots in bad weather, relatively stricter safety standards and the scarcity of trained air controllers are also adding to flight delays, they say.

With the military unlikely to make more space available for commercial use, it is up to the airlines and aviation authorities to make the best use of the resources they have. 

"As a pilot, I want to fly as soon as possible, too, because I don't get paid when I'm on the ground. The airlines don't like delays either since they want to use their aircraft as many times as possible," said Zhang.

"No one likes delays. But this is all because of the narrow air space."

 

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