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Passengers booted off of KLM plane

Anyone who has flown to or from China knows the drill.  Flight attendants on international carriers are often very…particular about following the safety guidelines.  Many upwardly mobile Chinese tend to believe that rules are for other people.  Hilarity often ensues.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines confirmed Friday that one of its aircraft traveling from Beijing to Amsterdam was suspended from taking off after six Chinese passengers quarreled with flight attendants on Wednesday.

The Netherlands airline told the Global Times Friday that “there was an incident with Chinese passengers on board and that the aircraft returned to the gate,” but refused to reveal more details on the incident.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China was not available for comment by Friday due to the week-long Spring Festival holidays.

Six passengers, all in first class, were late for boarding and refused to wear their seat belts as well as turn off their mobile phones when the aircraft was preparing to take off from the Beijing Capital International Airport for Schiphol Airport, the Beijing-based The Mirror reported on Thursday.

A passenger on board surnamed Lin said in the report that he heard a fierce quarrel and a middle-aged female passenger speaking rudely and threatening to take photos and expose the photos online.

The report said the captain of the flight refused to take off until the passengers were taken away by airport security.

For some, the problem is unfamiliarity with the basic protocols of air travel.* And there’s always going to be a few people who, regardless of nationality, are just assholes.**  I flew back from Kunming this week and as soon as the wheels hit the tarmac in Beijing, the flight attendants were running around playing “whack-a-mole” with passengers who assumed that since the plane was not in a death spiral it was safe to get up and open the overhead bins.  I thought I saw one attendant actually tackle a dude.  And this wasn’t a language issue.  This was Hainan Airlines (one of my favorites) and Chinese passengers.

On Weibo, few are buying the “language barrier” excuse.  Most of the comments are deriding the KLM passengers who were removed from a plane, complaining that such boorish behavior is a loss of face for other Chinese travelers.  Others speculated that they must be members of a corrupt official family.  Still more lamented that money rarely seems to buy good manners among the 暴发户 baofahu, the Chinese term for the nouveau riche.

That said, in a lot of these cases language barriers do make the situation worse.  There are several unpleasant things that recur every year: my annual prostate exam, renewing my visa, and at least once every twelve months willingly placing myself in the surly and sometimes openly hostile embrace of United Airlines.

Say what you will about Chinese carriers, most of the staff speak a foreign language.  They might not speak it well, but they have functional communication skills in important topics like “coffee or tea?” “would you like a newspaper?” and “sit down, sir before your pink wheelie suitcase falls out of the bin and gives somebody a concussion.”   (Okay, I made the last one up but you get the idea.)

United Airlines? Chinese passengers are lucky if even two of the cabin crew speak their language.  Or any language other than English.  The route to and from Beijing must be a primo gig because the crew is always a senior group of hardened and jaded attendants.  You imagine if you met one out on the town, she’d be croaking through her menthol smoke about how she once made out with Neil Young.***

On my last flight on United, there were the usual shenanigans with people ignoring the rules.  I know this pisses off the attendants but the response was hardly a soft power win for the USA.  One attendant asked a passenger to put his seat back up.**** When he didn’t understand her, she — how predictable was this? — just talked louder and slower.  Then she started threatening him.  All the while the dude was looking around to see if anybody could tell him why the women with the horrible bottle dye job was screeching in his general direction.  Finally another passenger — a Laowai — translated for him and he complied.

So it goes both ways.  I have a hunch that the level of entitlement among passengers in the first class cabin on a flight from Beijing to Europe ranks somewhere between “God” and “The guy who has pictures of a naked Xi Jinping holding a goat.”  It’s the same impulse that causes drivers here to speed up when approaching a cross walk. (If pedestrians don’t want to be hit by a car, then why don’t they just stop being poor and buy their own car?) At the same time, international airlines, American carriers in particular, can do a better job about staffing their planes with more people who can communicate across cultural and language barriers.

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* h/t @MissXQ

**Why can’t this be the first line of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

*** YJ once found half of a worm in her salad on a United flight. When she showed it to the flight attendant the response was “that sometimes happens.” After fuming silently for a few minutes, YJ turns to me and says, “Don’t ever bitch to me about ‘Chinese service standards’ again.”

**** By the way, one of my ALL TIME pet peeves — the compulsive recliner. I can’t even speak rationally about this.

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  • http://bokane.org Brendan O’Kane

    You missed the opportunity to draw the conclusion that high net-worth Chinese air passengers are essentially all Alec Baldwin.

  • Brian Eyler

    As noted in your post, problems run in all directions. I took a transpacific flight on Delta from Beijing to Detroit last week. Early on I noticed that the US based service staff when serving drinks and food.was ignoring passengers who appeared to be Chinese The US based staff passed several times on communicating with the 12 year old Chinese teenager beside me and 2 minutes later a China based staff provided service in Mandarin. Both the teenager and I were offended by this behavior.

    I’d like to sit in on the training session or the back of plane huddle entitled “Identifying native Chinese passengers and subsequent service treatment.” Better yet, I’d like to toss my wife into that conversation and see who survives her wrath.

  • T Wayne

    Agree with you 100% on the United flights. I travel 3-4 times a year between Beijing and the states. They are certainly can be a surly bunch at times. They are actually worse in the business class. You rarely see them and they act like they are doing you a favor when they do come around. Chinese flight passengers are a story of their own. Besides the one getting out of their seats upon touchdown, it is the inconsiderate ones who have to rush down the aisle and not wait that bother me the most.

  • Tim

    Similarly unpleasant experience with United – you’d think that flight attendants on international flights would know that people who don’t speak English do not necessarily have a hearing problem.

    To top this, you cannot bring duty free liquor on United flights due to FAA restrictions from Shanghai. This is not in fact true but try telling that to United.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shirley.fedorak Shirley Fedorak

    How about airports? Spent 2 hours and 10 minutes in a customs line-up in San Francisco because they had too few agents working and I’ve got to think this had something to do with the several jumbo jets from Asia landing at the same time–not necessary to provide the same quality of service?

  • quick

    One quick fix: KLM only has business class and economy class, no first class.

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