Liu Shinan

Airlines need to buck up service levels

By Liu Shinan (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-05-12 07:54
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Angry over repeated flight delays, fliers last Friday resorted to violence, attacking staff at the Baiyun airport in Guangzhou and causing damage to some facilities.

When the incident was reported online on Monday, most netizens condemned the violence even as they accused the airport managers of failing to placate properly the frustrated passengers.

The violence certainly deserves to be condemned and the police were right to detain three of the troublemakers.

The authorities, however, have no right to shift the blame on to passengers. The airlines and airport officials must take sole responsibility for the incident.

The delays were caused by bad weather. Thunderstorms and torrential rains hit southern Guangdong province last Thursday and Friday, grounding nearly 300 flights at the Baiyun airport in the provincial capital of Guangzhou. Thousands of passengers were stranded for as long as 20 hours.

The airport management said they had taken enough measures to help the passengers and blamed "a small number of passengers" for rampaging through the waiting areas, smashing computers, telephones and security equipment and wounding 20 airport workers.

According to media reports, the airport and some airlines did take some measures, such as offering food and water and apologizing for the delay, to placate the passengers.

So, why did some passengers act violently?

The problem lies in the attitude with which the airport management and airlines handled the matter.

They offered help, but the help appeared to be mere routine, without much sincerity. This is evident even from a cursory understanding of the facts reported by the media and objective descriptions given by some passengers in their blogs.

Planes cannot land or take off in heavy rain and thunderstorms. This is common sense. All fliers understand this.

The passengers at the Baiyun airport too took it in their stride when told of the poor weather conditions. They waited patiently for the rescheduled flights to take off.

But "the information board stopped being updated" after some time, one passenger said. A foreigner was upset when all he got was a "wait a moment" in English by staff each time he asked for updates.

We have all experienced delays in flight schedules. We do not resent being told to wait, but we hate to be left in the dark without knowing when that wait would end. We want the concerned authorities to keep us updated about any change in the situation.

Yet, the Baiyun airport management seemed to have failed to do so. I don't believe the airport did enough to placate the passengers. My personal experiences with China's airports have led me to that conclusion.

What they usually do is broadcasting a statement through the loudspeakers: "Dear passengers, we are sorry to notify that due to inclement weather your flight has been delayed until " The announcement never changes, is never detailed and almost never indicates what the airport managers or airlines are doing to solve the problem.

Sometimes, the only thing we get out of that loudspeaker is an apology: "We are sorry for the inconvenience caused to the passengers."

But the recording sounds so dry. Everyone doubts the sincerity of the utterance.

In the Baiyun case, if the airport had kept notifying them of the change in weather conditions from time to time, the passengers would not have become so impatient.

If the airport had done anything at all to make the waiting less strenuous, the passengers would have felt better and would not have been so angry.

The authorities don't even need to do that much. For instance, when many passengers were forced to sleep on the floor, the airport could have sent some of its staff to clean the floor. That, by itself, would have made the passengers feel better during a time of anxiety. The airport managers simply did not move.

Another factor too contributed to the passengers' fury. Some passengers decided to head home and sought a refund. But they had a hard time getting the refund as only a few counters were equipped to deal with the matter.

"Why couldn't they open more counters for the refunds?" one passenger who had waited for more than 20 hours asked angrily.

And when some tried to retrieve their luggage, the process was made very cumbersome as the airport had dumped everyone's luggage (from different flights) at one spot, in a heap. Some people searched several hours but failed to locate their bags.

Since the incident happened at night, the airport may not have had enough staff members to help the passengers. But since it was a one-off occurrence, why did the airport not make special arrangements to help the passengers?

If the authorities were really sincere enough to apologize "for causing inconvenience" to the passengers, they should have done more than the routine to resolve the issue.

"Let the passengers be satisfied" is a slogan all airlines in China proudly display. However, it will remain a mere slogan if services are rendered insincerely.


(China Daily 05/12/2010 page8)