Passenger captures video of Beijing airport brawl between passengers and employees

May 13, 2013

The stress of flying, and the outrage of inexplicable and puzzling delays, cross all cultural boundaries, even if some people might express those sentiments differently. That's clear watching this video, which captures the emotional climax of one particularly harrowing tale of air travel delays at the Beijing International Airport, as told by Matt Sheehan of the great China-focused blog, Beijing Cream. The story began with outraged passengers and frustrating delays and, within a few hours, had an airline manager lifting a metal stool over his head, apparently to hurl at the customers.

Here's what happened: Passengers waiting to board a flight on China Eastern Airlines endure a long series of unexplained delays. Outraged, and after bouncing between several gates, they march en masse to the China Eastern ticket counter to demand an explanation, only to find it empty. They return later and find the staff back at their stations. There's a sort of mass confrontation, with the angry customers demanding answers and the China Eastern staffers getting caught in a few "bald-faced lies."

Things go from bad to worse when Chinese Eastern staff claim that airport monitors have consistently displayed the flight as departing from gate 40, suggesting that the passengers are lying about being forced to march from one gate to another as the assignment changes. The mob of passengers catch her lying, though: the monitor just over her shoulder lists a different number. They shout for her to turn around and confront her mistake but she refuses, staring straight ahead.

When a mid-level manager arrives to settle the dispute, he's calm but is at one point pelted in the head with a balled-up newspaper. When he too insists the gate number has never changed and refuses to acknowledge a nearby screen contradicting him, someone in the crowd throws a half-full plastic water bottle, hitting him right in the face. That's when the manager loses it and lunges at the crowd. That's also when someone switches on their camera phone and captures the above video.

Other China Eastern staffers grab the manager to hold him back but he's larger than they are and they struggle to keep his hands from reaching any customers. His shirt pulls free and, at one point, he lifts a stool above his head, apparently intent on launching it into the crowd but fortunately is thwarted by his fellow airline employees. He shouts some insults at the passengers, apparently including one referencing a customer's mother (happy Mother's Day!).

The shouting and finger-wagging continue for a while, Sheehan reports, until a senior manager arrives and calms everyone down just enough for most of the passengers to wander back to their gate where, eventually, the plane arrives and they can board. Ironically, departure is delayed by half an hour because some of the most outraged passengers had stayed at the China Eastern counter, refusing to leave without a more robust apology. It finally leaves about five hours late.

One aspect of this story that might seem particularly familiar to Americans is the passengers' frequent use of cellphone cameras and social media to attempt to hold the airline to account. "Everybody send out Weibos," one of the passengers shouted during the confrontation, apparently hoping that social media attention might pressure the airline into better behavior. That's surely something that American consumers do as well. One important difference, though, is that Chinese citizens are increasingly using these citizen-media tactics to pressure not just corporations but government officials as well, giving themselves greater power in a system meant to consolidate it in the hands of government officials. If they're good at this, it's because they're getting more and more practice.

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Max Fisher | May 13, 2013