SHANGHAI (Reuters) - 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 are becoming 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.
“When flights get delayed, passengers make a lot of trouble. Sometimes they even beat our staff,” Wang Zhenghua, founder and chairman of Shanghai-based budget carrier Spring Airlines, told Reuters in an interview earlier this year.
“Airlines are actually the weaker party. With the government calling for a ‘harmonious society’, the only thing we can do is to give them compensation to calm them down.”
With manufacturers predicting a new plane will take to China’s skies every other day for the next two decades, industry officials say congestion is only going to get worse. And that means more delays.
Some 30 years ago, flying was a travel option only available to top government and company officials who needed to submit 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 means more are now using planes.
Over 270 million passengers flew on domestic routes in China last year, up nearly 10 percent from 2010 and over 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.
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.
Earlier this year around 20 angry passengers dashed toward the runway at Shanghai’s main international airport, coming within 200 meters of an oncoming plane from the United Arab Emirates. Their action was sparked by a 16-hour flight delay.
It was not clear why they charged on to the tarmac, unless they were seeking to create a scene in order to boost their chances of getting compensation.
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) each in compensation from the carrier, Shenzhen Airlines. None of the protesters were 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.
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, for example, by using bigger planes or upgrading equipment.
“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.” ($1 = 6.2253 Chinese yuan)
Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Jeremy Laurence