This picture taken on January 4, 2013 shows stranded travelers arguing with police and airport officials at Changshui International Airport in Kunming, in southwestern China's Yunnan province, after massive flight delays hit the airport and stranded thousands of fliers. The airport reported nearly 10,000 passengers at the airport at midnight on that day.
Watch out, there may be a chair-throwing, equipment-smashing, face-slapping fight brewing, but no, this isn’t a rowdy saloon in a rough part of town. It's an airport in China.
It’s been a long, hot summer at the country’s air terminals, where travelers frustrated by chronic delays seem to be on the verge of rebellion, attacking flight attendants, ignoring security protocols and engaging in screaming matches with airline staff. Things have gotten so heated there's a new Chinese term for when passengers gang up on airport and flight staff: "kong nu zu," or "air rage tribe."
"Everybody knows that Chinese airlines are awful when it comes to being on time, and they usually make the problem worse with really (bad) communication," said Matt Sheehan, an American journalist who lives in Beijing and recently witnessed and wrote about one of the melees.
“It's almost a paternalistic stance, as if you're privileged to be able to fly their airline.”
It's the long waits that seem to be fueling passenger fury the most.
In June, just 18 percent of flights left on time at Beijing airport and just 28 percent had punctual departures from Shanghai, according to FlightStats.com. (To compare, 65 percent of flights left on time from New York’s JFK International.)
Those miserable statistics put both Chinese cities at the bottom of the list of on-time departures at major international airports.
Observers cite many reasons for the delays: bad management, a limited amount of airspace available for civil aviation, and severe pollution in many of China's big cities that makes visibility so poor that flights have to be delayed or cancelled.
Then, there’s the explosive growth in air travel in the region. China is already the world’s second largest domestic flier market, right behind the U.S., according to the International Air Transport Association Airline Industry Forecast.
China will add almost 160 million new passengers into the market by 2016, IATA predicts.
'People take a vigilante approach'
With the system straining to accommodate everyone, no wonder many fliers are flipping out. Here is a sample of some of the recent incidents:
In mid-July, a group of passengers angry over being delayed by bad weather broke through security and stormed the runway at Nanchang airport, The Telegraph reported.
A few weeks earlier, a passenger furious over a delay was recorded smashing phones and computers at a gate at the same airport.
Then, there was the fracas at the airport in Beijing in May, where an argument over a delayed China Eastern Airlines flight quickly turned into a screaming match.
When a passenger threw a plastic water bottle at the staff, an airline manager tried to fling a metal stool into the crowd of fliers before being subdued.
Sheehan, who recorded the incident, believes an “immature awareness of consumer rights” is one of the reasons why travelers are resorting to violence.
“Chinese people have just begun waking up to this idea that as a consumer you're entitled to certain protections, but they don't have any of the institutions like consumer rights groups that do this professionally,” he said.
“So what ends up happening is people take a vigilante approach to punishing airlines, usually taking it out on who or whatever is in front of them.”
Flight attendants learn self-defense
A British businessman on board a Hong Kong Airlines flight recently described how an elderly passenger lost it when the plane was delayed for six hours at Sanya Airport in Hainan province.
"He went completely mental and stormed up the plane and into the business class. I heard a punch and looked up and he was attacking the stewardess," Graham Fewkes told the South China Morning Post in March.
"What surprised me was that passengers were applauding as the man was hitting her.”
Hong Kong Airlines is training its crews to be prepared for such incidents. Since 2011, the carrier has included a class on Wing Chun – a martial art -- as part of the basic training courses for all of its flight attendants.
The class is offered to "boost health and improve body strength" and give flight attendants "more confidence in dealing with emergencies on planes,” the airline said, in a statement to NBC News.
Sheehan, who spends lots of time on Chinese airlines, doesn’t believe the situation will improve any time soon. His best hope is that with more high-speed rail lines connecting China’s cities, airlines will start feeling the heat.
“When you factor in security and delays, high speed is just as fast and more comfortable than flying here,” he said.
First published July 31 2013, 1:14 PM