Flight cancellations and delays have sparked frequent incidents of air rage aboard Chinese flights and at airports. Brawls between passengers and attacks on crew have also occurred with some frequencym many of them filmed and posted online. In 2012 a plane carrying 200 people from Zurich to Beijing was forced to turn back after a fight between two Chinese passengers. An airport in Kunming saw chaotic scenes in 2013, when thousands of angry passengers were stranded for hours after thick fog delayed flights. Passengers stuck at the airport for more than a day struggled with airline staff, damaging computer equipment belonging to an airline, while police broke up scuffles. [Source: AFP, January 12, 2015]

Describing a plane journey from Urumchi to Lanzhou in the 1980s, Theroux wrote, "Every seat was taken, and every person was heavily laden with carry-on baggage — big skull-cracking bundles that fell out of the overhead rack. Even before the plane took off people were softy vomiting, with their heads down and their hands folded." After it took off "the plane was very hot and then so cold I could see my breath. It creaked like a schooner under sail." When the announcement was made that the plane will be landing, passengers began pushing and shoving and grabbing their bags before the plane touched down.

In July 2004, a man with a history of mental illness tried to hijack a domestic Air China flight to South Korea, saying some friends of his on the plane were carrying bottles of acid. The situation was resolved quickly. The plane made an emergency landing in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou and the man gave himself up. No acid was found on the plane. In December 2004, a passenger punched a stewardess and a dozen other passengers blocked the doors when the flight attendants insisted that oversize luggage to be checked in rather than jammed on the overhead compartments.

In the mid 2000s, a Chinese national legislator was charged with striking a flight attendant who refused to let him on a plane because he didn’t have a ticket. After the Henan Airlines plane crash in August 2010 that killed 42 people in northeast China,officials discovered that 100 pilots who worked for the airline’s parent company had falsified their flying histories.

Pilots Locked Out of the Cockpit and Air Traffic Controllers Asleep on the Job

The Lonely Planet guide of China reported the following incident: "amused passengers watched the pilot (returning from the toilet) locked out of the cockpit by a jammed door. The co-pilot opened the door from within, then both men fiddled with the catch and succeeded in locking themselves out of the cockpit. As passengers stared in disbelief, the pilot and co-pilot attacked the door with a fire-ax, pausing for a moment to draw a curtain between themselves and the audience."

In August 2014, a Chinese aircraft was forced to delay its landing because two air traffic controllers were asleep fell. AFP reported: “The Boeing 737 was preparing to land at Wuhan airport in central China but had no response from the air traffic control tower for 12 minutes, reports said. Contact was eventually made and China Eastern Airlines flight MU2528 from Sanya landed safely, according to "Because air traffic control was asleep on duty, [the plane] called many times," civil aviation authorities said in a statement quoted by the Chinese business magazine Caijing. "But there was no reply, and no contact could be made with the control tower." [Source: Agence France-Presse, August 19, 2014]

“"Air control work is truly exhausting, but it is unforgivable to sleep on duty," a post on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, said."Hundreds of people's lives depend on the actions of flight tower controllers. We entrust our lives to you," the post continued. “Another post read: "Such serious consequences. Should let him sleep as much as he wants in prison."

Flight Delays and Airport Brawls in China

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Air China Flight 1236 was supposed to take off at 8:10 p.m. for Beijing from Xian., hometown of China's famous terra cotta warriors. It felt like the warriors could have marched faster. What was supposed to be a 100-minute flight last month ended up delayed, diverted and canceled to the point that it took passengers 18 hours to get to Beijing. China's skies are in a state of almost permanent gridlock. During the month of July, only 17.8 percent of flights departing from Beijing's airport were on time, according to FlightStats. In August, on-time departures improved, but only to a miserable 28.8 percent. The U.S. website ranked Beijing worst out of 35 top international airports for punctuality, with Shanghai close behind. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 16, 2013]

“The maddening delays have become a drag on the economy and the trigger for near-riots. In a nation that prides itself on social order, state media reported 26 brawls at Chinese airports between May and August, 2013. One Hong Kong airline has started teaching its flight attendants kung fu.... A new genre of cellphone video on YouTube shows airport brawls in which stools become projectiles and irate passengers smash telephones and computers.

“One stormy night in July, there were three separate incidents at Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport in which passengers beat up airport staff members, some of whom suffered injuries that required hospitalization. The following weekend, 30 passengers stormed a runway in Nanchang, in Jiangxi province, after a seven-hour delay. "The airlines are always coming up with different excuses. You never find the right person to ask, and the passengers just get angrier," said Tao Yuanyong, a Beijing travel agent. The stock answer when passengers ask why a flight is delayed is "air traffic control," a vague phrase implying there's no clearance for an airplane to take off or land.

“The crisis hit a breaking point this summer, the worst time of year for delays because of the rainy season. Stung by a flurry of bad publicity, civil aviation authorities on July 18 enacted a policy known as "unlimited takeoff," which lets planes from the busiest airports take off regardless of whether a landing strip is available. Aviation authorities have also threatened airlines with penalties and loss of routes if they incur excessive delays. The result is that airlines tend to hustle passengers into planes that then pull away from the gate, making it look like the flight is on time. The passengers end up strapped in their seats on the tarmac waiting for a runway — or in flight, circling an airport, wasting fuel and polluting the environment.

The Air China flight from Xian in August 2013, already delayed nearly two hours in boarding and taxiing on the tarmac, landed in Taiyuan rather than Beijing. A thunderstorm was the cause, passengers were told. After an hour on the runway in the coal-mining capital, the flight to Beijing was canceled and passengers placed for the night in shared rooms in a guest house run by the provincial water authority. Many, no longer trusting Air China, took a train for the remaining 300-mile journey and arrived in Beijing at 3 p.m. Those who gambled, waiting for a plane, did only slightly better, making it to Beijing at 1:30 p.m., roughly 18 hours after checking in for what was supposed to be a less-than-two-hour flight.

Protest by Angry Passengers at a Chinese Airport in April 2012

In April 17, 2012, Duncan Hewitt wrote in China Beat, “Several papers reported how twenty airline passengers, furious at having been delayed overnight at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport when a flight was cancelled — and at receiving no compensation for their troubles — burst past security guards and blocked a runway near the plane they were eventually due to leave on, forcing one international flight that had just landed to change its course on the taxi way. The protesters were soon removed from the runway, but to the anger of some local media , the authorities were apparently initially unwilling to take any further action against them (though after much media criticism, they were later reported to have been given unspecified “administrative punishment.”) [Source: Duncan Hewitt China Beat, April 17, 2012]

It’s perhaps not surprising: with Chinese people increasingly aware of their rights as consumers — and, perhaps, as citizens too — these days, protests by passengers angry at shoddy treatment by state-run airlines (many of which still seem to hanker for the unaccountable days of old) have become commonplace, and the police are often very wary of intervening for fear of provoking a violent reaction . (I saw such a case myself at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport a couple of weeks ago, when a passenger furious at the cancellation of his flight due to fog leapt onto the counter of an airline desk and began screaming at the top of his voice. Two young policemen hovered nervously nearby, watching but taking no action.) These days, it seems, achieving total unity of opinion among people who feel increasingly empowered as individuals may not be quite as easy as it was in the days when the People’s Daily first wrote such headlines.

Air Rage Incidents in China

In August 2008, stranded passengers in Kunming smashed computers and desks and clashed with police after being stuck at the airport over night because their flights were cancelled because of bad weather. The passengers had to spend the night on the planes or in the terminal without food. Many became angry after taking taxis to a hotel where the airline said they could stay only to be turned away.

In December 2014, Chinese travellers threw hot water and noodles on a Thai flight attendant and threatened to blow up the plane after they became furious over where they were seated. Associated Press reported: Angry Chinese travellers uploaded photos and videos from inside a Thai AirAsia charter flight bound for Nanjing. They said a Chinese couple berated a crew member of the budget airline before pouring hot water and throwing noodles at her. The flight returned to Bangkok and the pilot asked a group of four Chinese passengers to disembark. They were reportedly upset after being told they couldn’t sit together and even after a flight attendant helped them change the seats. [Source: Associated Press, December 15, 2014]

“In footage aired by China’s state television CCTV, a male passenger loudly threatened to bomb the plane. He later said the attendant was scalded by accident during a tussle over a receipt they had requested for the hot water. After the plane turned back, the captain and the crew invited the passenger to discuss the situation and reached “an amicable conclusion,” Thai AirAsia said.

The dispute involved four Chinese travelers. The Times reported: “Two of the four, a man and his girlfriend, argued with flight attendants about seating arrangements. After pouring hot water over the flight attendant, the woman climbed over seats and punched windows, threatening to jump out of the aircraft. Less than a week later a fight broke out a China Air flight between Chongqing and Hong Kong after two female passengers complained about a child making a noise near them. The pilot considered returning to Chonggqjng but decided to carry on. [Source: Jamie Fullerton, The Times, December 27 2014]

China National Tourism Administration said the tourists disrupted the flight, hurt other passengers and “badly damaged the overall image of the Chinese people.” According to Associated Press: It comes at a time when the Chinese are travelling more but also becoming notorious for rough behaviour. “The Chinese tourism administration did not say what punishment the tourists could face, but the statement suggested that the lead tour guide for the trip be punished for failing to offer proper behaviour guidance and that the tourists be black-listed from traveling.

Chinese Travelers Open Emergency Exits on Moving Plane

In January 2015, two Chinese passengers angry about their delayed flight opened the emergency exit doors in protest as the plane was taxiing, forcing it to abort takeoff. The passengers ended up in jail. The incident took place in the early hours of a Saturday morning, after the China Eastern flight was delayed by a snow storm. [Source: Associated Press, January 10, 2015]

Associated Press reported: “Angry passengers complained about the delay and a lack of ventilation, and a man surnamed Zhou opened two emergency exits to prevent the plane from taking off, forcing it to return to the gate. A total of 25 passengers were held for questioning while the rest continued on to Beijing aboard a separate flight. Police said in an online statement that Zhou and a tour guide named Li have been placed under 15-day "administrative detention" for opening the doors and inciting passengers with false information. Concerns over lengthy tarmac waits prompted U.S. aviation authorities to pass regulations in 2010 requiring planes to return to the gate after three hours.

FP reported: “The passengers were forced to wait in their seats for hours late Friday and early Saturday after their China Eastern flight from the southwest city of Kunming to Beijing was delayed, Xinhua news agency said. After requesting that they be allowed off the plane for health reasons, some passengers "opened three emergency doors in an attempt to stop the flight". Zhou and Li were members of a 25-person travel group which got "overly excited", leading to the opening of the doors. The other members of the group were detained for questioning, but apparently later released.

“The passenger told Xinhua that those on board were worried that the vice captain could not control himself after he "swore and cursed", the agency said. The plane had already been delayed for five hours before they boarded, only to face further delays while ice was cleared from the aircraft, the report said.

China’s Rich Black Fliers

Reporting from Wenzhou, Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “Here in this smoggy coastal metropolis, the nouveau-riche heart of entrepreneurial China, the latest sign that one has really made it is not a Benz, or even a Bentley. It is a helicopter. Perhaps 10 of Wenzhou’s super-rich have one. Guan Hongsheng has three. Although, really, who’s counting?” “For us, a workweek is 80 hours or more. So you know what we need? Fast,” said Mr. Guan, a gold-necklaced, yacht-sailing titan who made a fortune as a trader. To relieve the stress of making vast sums of money, he said, there is nothing like zipping around in a copter. “Only then can I truly relax,” he said. “It’s that simple.” If only it were legal, too.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 18, 2011]

“Mr. Guan and his friends are black fliers — part of a minuscule group of wealthy Chinese who fly, quite literally, in the face of the law. The first Chinese rich enough to own their own aircraft, they have collided in midair with the Chinese military, which controls the country’s airspace and never contemplated such a fantastic development, much less authorized it. Just asking for permission to take off can involve days of bureaucratic gantlet-running, and still end in rejection. Getting permission to land can be another hassle altogether.”

“So black fliers take to the air clandestinely, flitting where the authorities are unlikely to notice or care, occasionally causing havoc on the ground below, risking fines that would send an average Chinese to the poorhouse but which, for most of them, do not have much of a deterrent effect.” “It’s like this — your family, your wife, won’t let you go out and pick up girls. But you went out and did it anyway,” Mr. Guan said. “Secret flying is like secret love. You do it, you don’t tell people about it.”

“Just how many pilots make black flights (in Chinese, hei fei) is unclear, but their number is assuredly tiny,” Wines wrote. “In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration says that nearly 237,000 general aviation aircraft were actively flying in the country in 2010. By comparison, experts say, China has perhaps 1,000 registered private aircraft. No one knows how many of those make black flights. But Cao Wei, who runs a Beijing company that leases small aircraft and trains pilots, says there are several hundred unregistered aircraft, and all of those do. A large percentage of aircraft that make black flights, he said, are helicopters, much favored because they do not need a runway.” “You don’t need much space, and you can have a flexible flight plan,” he said. “Say your home is a few kilometers from the golf course — you just hop in your helicopter, fly low, and go there. It’s very difficult to discover.”

“Mr. Guan keeps his American-made Robinson copter in a quasi hangar at his yacht club, on the banks of the milky Ou River some 30 minutes from downtown Wenzhou. For now, he limits his flights of fancy to the airspace over the river, where he is unlikely to draw much attention. Theoretically, he and others can fly wherever they wish. Practically, the obstacles are daunting. “

Hei fei pilots have gotten into more than their share of scrapes. Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “Several have been mistaken for UFOs while aloft over major cities, including a helicopter pilot whose evening excursion last July over the airport in Hangzhou, north of Wenzhou, tied up a score of commercial jets on the ground. A rich pilot in Dongguan, a south China metropolis, made national headlines in 2006 when he used his helicopter to pursue and subdue thieves who had stolen his luxury car.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 18, 2011]

More recently, an especially unlucky pilot wandered onto air traffic controllers’ radar screens between Shanghai’s two major airports during last year’s Shanghai International Expo, which, like most Chinese spectacles, was smothered in a blanket of anti-terrorism, anti-dissident security. Most brushes with the authorities are less dramatic. Mr. Guan was apprehended in March 2010 after he and other hobbyists flew two helicopters around Wenzhou without government approval. The penalties ranged up to 100,000 renminbi, or about $15,400, but “we were able to talk them down to 20,000,” he said.

China Aviation Oil Scandal

In December 2004, China Aviation Oil, a Singapore-based company controlled by the Chinese government, declared bankruptcy after losing $550 million in derivative trading, the biggest derivative trading loses in Singapore since Nick Leeson list $1.4 billion. Chen Jiulin, the chief of executive of the company, was arrested in connection with the case. Other executives were required to surrender their passports.

China Aviation controls most of China’s jet fuel imports and has a virtual monopoly an jet fuel sales in China. It lost in the derivative trading mainly by betting that the price of oil would go down in 2004. Instead of revealing the losses the company tried to sell shares of the company to European and Asian investors. Deutsche Bank bought a 15 percent share of the company.

As was the case Leeson affair it is unclear how such large losses were able to mount. Some called the whole affair China’s Enron scandal. Ironically in 2002, China Aviation Oil was named Singapore’s most transparent company.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2022

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