Extensively cancelled and delayed flights gave rise to angry mobs in Pudong.
“They are having their own cultural revolution over there,” stated a young Chinese-American guy who was standing next to me at a gate in terminal one of Shanghai’s Pudong airport. Though his remark was merely a quip, he seemed to be onto something.
A mass of angry passengers had surrounded a few airline employees who were barricaded behind their booth at the gate across the aisle. Everybody’s flights were severely delayed, some for days, due to weather — or at least that’s what we were told. I had previously tried to fly out the night before only to be told that my flight was one of at least a dozen that were canceled. When I arrived the following night I found a crowd of passengers surrounding the check-in counters, moving nowhere. Mass delays again, this time due to fog.
The angry mob that surrounded the airline employees were chanting slogans and hurling insults. Two grunts and a manager tried to calm the crowd. More or less all flights leaving the entire airport were canceled or delayed. This soothed nothing. These passengers were trying to get home for the Tomb Sweeping holiday, and no excuse on behalf of the airline — even one firmly grounded in sound logic and reason — would serve any purpose. The guttural roar of a finger waving man was followed up by an unceasing shriek from a stout woman pushing her way through the crowd. This was an egalitarian affair: the old, the young, white collar and blue collar workers were all venting their rage upon the three airline employees they had surround.
The mob’s outrage soon reached a crescendo as one man stepped to the fore and grabbed the manager around the neck and dragged him out from behind the counter. With a shove he expelled him into the vile heart of the mob. It descended; the manager just had to take it — not even the single police officer the airline had deployed to keep order could really do anything. The cop just watched impotently and followed the mass as they continued wailing at the roughed up manager. Perhaps this was a wise move. Any type of authoritative action here could have flipped an angry mob into a rioting horde.
One passenger insulted the cop for being a traitor.
“It’s just a job,” the cop snapped back as he watched the manager being screamed at from all directions like everybody else.
Such mobs had formed around airline employees at other gates as well, and the sounds of roaring passengers could be heard echoing in intervals all down the terminal. Sometimes two or three different upheavals could be heard raging in unison. The curious or bored bystander had the choice as to which mob to watch, and voyeurs could be seen gravitating towards the most volatile gatherings.
The passengers were verbally abusive though only slightly violent. They seemed to have known their limits. They could yell and insult, push, and shove; they could put a manager in a headlock and drag him out from behind the counter, but anything more was a no go.
This wasn’t a completely abnormal scene in a Chinese airport. I’ve seen this before, and it was easy to have the impression that this was merely a charade where all players knew their respective roles. The crowds would vent their rage, the airline employees would mutter pathetic rebuttals, a random passenger would make a particularly witty or insulting comment, and the mob would start laugh. Sometimes the passengers would chant altogether, reveling in a newfound unity.
In an way this mobbing of airline employees seemed to defuse the situation. It also provided an odd form of amusement. The airline really couldn’t do anything — they were grounded by the airport authorities. They were merely scapegoats, targets to absorb consumer rage. There didn’t seem to be any other real reason for airline employees to be at these gates at all. They certainly weren’t doing anything. They claimed to not know anything, they couldn’t provide anyone with information, they couldn’t pull the trigger on their own and start opening flights for boarding. They were sacrifices on the gray plastic alters of the counters they clung to for dear refuge.
The passenger’s rage was only half moronic. It is standard practice for Chinese airlines to give passengers as little information as possible. “I don’t know” is their go-to reponse. So you don’t get estimates as to when — or if — your flight will leave as you do in most other countries. Your plane could be boarding in ten minutes or ten hours. So taking a nap, getting a meal, or doing something else carries the very real risk of being left behind. There is really nothing you can do but stand around and wait.
“What if I fall asleep? Are you going to wake me up?” one irate passenger asked about this abject lack of information about potential boarding times.
My flight was then moved to another gate. Like a herd we galloped down the terminal happily, feeling that the wait was over. When we arrived the airline employee looked up at us and asked what we were doing. She said she was boarding Xi’an, not Xiamen. We all went and sat back down.
“You may as well fall asleep, we are going to be here for many more hours,” a fellow passenger who had just had a conversation with an airline employee told me. I stretched out on the benches and burrowed into my jacket. 10 minutes later my flight was called again. We were moved to another gate. This time we boarded.
As I walked through the terminal on my way out I passed by a trio of airline workers who I had just watched being pummeled by a mob. They were talking nonsense, and none of them seemed to have been adversely affected by the experience. It all seemed to be part of the day’s work of an airline employee in China.