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China Learns Airline Etiquette, the Hard Way

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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On Monday West Air flight PN6272 was taxiing to the gate at Jiangbei Airport in Chongqing, China, when a passenger decided, for no discernible reason, to open an emergency exit door, thereby deploying the evacuation slide. His impulsiveness had precedent. Two days earlier, members of a tour group on a China Eastern flight in Kunming, furious over flight delays, pulled open emergency exits on their plane just as it was about to take-off for Beijing. And their madness was preceded, in turn, by a Xiamen air passenger who on December 14 opened an emergency exit during taxi so that he might “get some fresh air,” and on December 12 by a China Eastern passenger who opened -- yes -- an emergency exit on a parked, just-arrived aircraft so that he could “get off the plane faster.” 

Taken alone, none of these incidents would rise to the level of news. Taken collectively (and in combination with a lengthy history of similar incidents), they suggest that China is facing a crisis of airborne sanity and civility. The Chinese government itself seems to have embraced that framing: the China’s National Tourism Administration has created a “National Uncivilized Traveler Record” that it now distributes to travel-related businesses around the country. (The group who opened emergency exits on January 10 has already been placed on it.) 

The most straightforward explanation for the crisis is that the Chinese public is simply inexperienced at flying. Unlike, say, their American counterparts, they can’t recite pre-flight safety announcements by heart and they don't understand the gravity of opening a plane's emergency exits.  

Not only that, but the population of Chinese travelers has grown rapidly in recent years. Data assembled by Boeing shows that China’s total available seat kilometers -- that is, the number of kilometers available to be flown by individual passengers -- increased from 3.51 million to 8.7 billion between 1992 and 2012. And that’s just the start. The International Air Transport Association projects that China will surpass the United States as the world’s largest passenger market by 2030. Though no data exists on how many first time fliers are responsible for China’s unruly passenger incidents, they are the unerring stars in many accounts in the Chinese press. (For example, the hapless man who opened an emergency exit for fresh air on December 14.) 

Making matters worse, China’s millions of new fliers are walking into airports at a time when civil aviation authorities and airlines are struggling to handle their numbers (while sharing limited airspace with a jealous Chinese air force), resulting in miserable delays that are consistently among the world’s most chronic. In December, for example, China’s two biggest airlines -- China Southern and China Eastern, and Air China -- had the world’s 47th, 51st and 43rd worst performers on the FlightStats Airline On-Time Report. And that was at a low traffic period. Last year, during the typically high traffic month of August, China Eastern was on-time an abysmal 36.39 percent of the time

Sooner or later, passengers get where they’re going. But in the meantime, the airlines are notoriously stingy in paying out compensation (and government standards for compensation are laughably low) and, in their quest to avoid paying out, have a tendency to be less than forthcoming about causes and expected durations of delays. Such circumstances can test the patience and good will of experienced travelers; for inexperienced travelers, it can feel like they’ve been conned into buying tickets for a luxury version of the evasive bureaucracy that their vacation was supposed to help them escape. That doesn’t excuse the tantrums, but when state-owned airlines act like state-run airlines -- as they often do in China -- it certainly explains many of them.

All that said, part of the reason there seems to be a crisis with unruly Chinese travelers is that the Chinese government prefers it that way. Beijing has clearly decided to treat these sorts of incidents as teaching moments for the broader public on basic questions of decorum, the better to improve the country's reputation elsewhere in the world. This pedagogical campaign has support from the very top: in September 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping, while visiting the Maldives, famously urged Chinese tourists to stop littering, eat fewer instant noodles, and quit damaging coral reefs.  

China’s state-owned media has followed his lead, diligently reporting on even minor unruly passenger incidents. (Last week Chinese media covered the totally un-newsworthy cigarette smoked by an illiterate Chinese farmer in a Cathay Pacific lavatory on Christmas Day. Such an incident, if it happened in the United States, wouldn’t make the police blotter.) It's not that these incidents aren't embarrassing for image-conscious officials and citizens. But the hope is that publicizing copious examples of how not to behave when flying will accelerate the improvement of China's etiquette -- and its image abroad.  

Fortunately, time, more airports, and more experienced Chinese travelers will solve most of these problems. Others can be addressed by a simple commitment to treating passengers as long-term partners in China’s new aviation journey and educating them. No doubt there will still be occasional trouble in the air, but perhaps in time nobody will feel it's worth covering. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net