As VietJet Air flight 175 prepared to leave Hanoi for Ho Chi Minh City, a 43-year-old passenger opened the emergency exit door because he wanted to go to the bathroom.
Nguyen Thanh Chuong, a farmer from a village on the outskirts of Hanoi, activated the Airbus A321’s evacuation slide, causing a three-hour delay and costing the airline tens of thousands of dollars. He’s not alone. The sudden creation of a middle class and the rise of discount carriers is causing headaches for flight crews and ground staff across Asia as the world’s fastest-growing region for aviation welcomes 100 million new fliers every year.
“People are now more mobile than they have been in the history of mankind,” said Graham Hunt, head of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Asia in Singapore. “The fact that you have people who have never before seen an airplane getting on airplanes is a real challenge.”
Vietnam will be among the 10 fastest-growing aviation markets in the world in the next two decades, according to the International Air Transport Association. One in five of the nation’s 90 million citizens flies today and within two decades virtually all Vietnamese are expected to travel by air, according to Airbus Group SE.
Chuong’s decision to open the emergency-row door in April cost VietJet about $30,000 and a chain-reaction of flight delays, Managing Director Luu Duc Khanh said in an e-mail. The airline, which has been operating for almost four years, says at least 30 percent of the 10 million passengers it will handle this year will be first-time fliers.
Khanh advocated better communication and education for the public, as well as “sterner warnings from airlines and aviation regulators” to reduce the number of such incidents. Chuong was fined $687, but was excused after he showed that he lives below the poverty line and his family is recognized for contributing to the nation’s revolution.
While opening an emergency door costs time and money, aircraft design makes it impossible to do so while the plane is in the air. Yet other blunders occur that compromise safety as well as profits.
Among 300 air-security violations last year, Vietnam had two near-collisions, two incidents where air traffic controllers lost contact with planes preparing to land, one plane that went to the wrong airport and a hijacking scare when a pilot accidentally pushed the wrong button, according to reports in Tuoi Tre newspaper.
Aviation security violations jumped 96 percent in the first half of 2014, Vietnam News reported in July.
Stories of confused and errant first-timers meddling with emergency exits regularly crop up. A 61-year-old opened one in July in Thanh Hoa province, claiming he forgot Vietnam Airlines’ instruction not to do so without a cabin attendant’s permission, while a farmer opened another one in April to get some fresh air, according to local media.
“We’re trained to keep a close eye on passengers sitting near the exit doors,” said Huong Nguyen, 32, who has worked as a flight attendant for two carriers, including one based in Vietnam.
VietJet said it also stations cabin crew outside bathrooms to avoid mishaps when first-time fliers fail to lock the door, and tells passengers to use airsickness bags to dispose of chewing gum.
“It took me a while to figure out what to do,” said Le Ngoc Linh, a 24-year-old Hanoi hairdresser who boarded her first flight about five months ago. “I saw a woman walking back and forth down the aisle, looking for the toilet.”
Some passengers argue loudly with flight attendants because they don’t understand instructions, others take life jackets from under seats, assuming they are included in the ticket, Huong said.
Cases of passengers harassing or abusing staff are common. A 35-year-old Hanoi resident was barred from flying for six months for slapping an airport employee in April after being told her carry-on luggage exceeded weight limits, Thanh Nien newspaper said. Another woman was fined $344 for kicking a VietJet employee in June, Tuoi Tre newspaper reported.
Flight attendants are trained in martial arts to fend off unwanted touching, Huong said.
Vietnam gradually liberalized its aviation market, fostering low-fare airlines such as Jetstar Pacific Airlines Aviation JSC and VietJet that have brought air travel within the reach of millions. A round-trip ticket between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City -- the distance from London to Oslo -- can cost as little as $108.
At the same time Vietnamese have more money to spend on travel. Vietnam’s per capita income doubled to $1,740 in 2013 from 2007, according to the World Bank.
“Suddenly you have a lot of lower-income families who can afford air travel,” said Nguyen Xuan Thanh, a Ho Chi Minh City-based senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in Vietnam. “This is similar to what is happening in China.”
Things have gotten so bad there that China’s National Tourism Administration created a “National Uncivilized Traveler Record” for the travel industry. In January, members of a tour group angry about a weather delay opened emergency exits on a China Eastern Airlines Corp. flight in Kunming just before takeoff. The previous month, a first-time flier opened an emergency door on a Xiamen Airlines Co. to get some fresh air as the plane was taxiing for takeoff.
As more people travel in Vietnam, more are also heading abroad for the first time. Visa applications to the U.S. jumped 50 percent this year, leading to a two-month waiting period, said David McCawley, U.S. countrywide consular coordinator in Vietnam.
Vietnam is asking the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to upgrade its safety ranking so its carriers, such as Vietnam Airlines, can fly to the states. Joost van der Heijden, head of Asia marketing for Airbus, said he expects air travel “to, from and within Vietnam” to grow more than 10 percent a year over the next two decades.
Meanwhile flight attendant Huong and her colleagues are keeping an eye out for those newbies. Most are easy to spot because they look nervous or excited, she said. “Some of them carry helmets and sometimes they put their helmets on when the plane is landing.”