AirAsia Drama Lands Unruly Chinese Passengers in Hot Water

Dec 15, 2014

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Korean Air’s “nutroversy” can take a back seat this week, as it’s AirAsia’s turn to make infamous headlines.

In an incident that CNN termed “hot watergate,” the combative behavior of a few Chinese passengers aboard a China-bound AirAsia flight forced the captain to return the plane to Bangkok, infuriating not only the 174 passengers and six crew members on board, but also the Chinese public and government.

Last week's hot-water-throwing incident aboard a Nanjing-bound Air Asia flight  is proving a headache for the Chinese people and its government.
Last week’s hot water throwing incident on a Nanjing-bound Air Asia flight is proving a headache for China.

Last Thursday evening, December 11, shortly after the plane took off for the normally 90-minute flight from Bangkok to Nanjing, a female passenger discovered that she wouldn’t be seated next to her boyfriend, and began to angrily complain to flight attendants. Soon after, her boyfriend asked a flight attendant for boiling water for his girlfriend’s instant noodles; after being told he’d have to wait for the plane to reach cruising altitude, the young man reportedly dumped food into the aisle, stomped on it, and yelled at other passengers, who tried in vain to calm him. He apparently remained incensed as another flight attendant brought him a cup of hot water and charged him 60 Thai baht ($2 US) for it.

Just when it looked like the drama might dissipate, the passenger demanded his change in Chinese currency as well as an official receipt, both of which the flight attendant refused. Tempers flared again, and the man’s girlfriend threw hot water on the back of the flight attendant, reportedly scalding her.

When the plane’s purser demanded that the girlfriend apologize to the wounded flight attendant, her boyfriend began shouting (in Mandarin), “You don’t think I have money? …You caused all the problems and I’m going to blow up the plane!”

A fellow passenger shot a cell phone video of this scene and posted it on YouTube, depicting the belligerent young man wearing a gray T-shirt and jeans. Though the video offers no English translation, you can see the actions of the passengers and flight attendants on the video:

This particular outburst prompted the flight’s captain to turn the plane—which hadn’t yet left Thai airspace—back toward Bangkok. When the couple realized the flight was being turned back, the woman reportedly grew hysterical, hitting windows and threatening to jump from the aircraft. In a later statement, the airline said that the captain deemed the passengers’ actions “endangering to other passengers and impeding in-flight service.”

Shortly after landing, Thai authorities questioned the couple—along with two of their friends who were also involved in the incident—and ordered them to collectively pay the flight attendant 50,000 baht ($1,500 US). The girlfriend was also fined 200 baht ($6 US) and the other three passengers 100 baht ($3 US) apiece as penalties for disturbing public order.

As news of this incident spread across Chinese social media site Weibo, users expressed regret that the airline didn’t press criminal charges, referring to the Thai authorities’ fines as a mere slap on the wrist; perhaps they’re getting weary of bad in-flight behavior from their fellow citizens. In the last decade, China has seen considerable growth in domestic air travel, and reports of similarly dramatic events have become common, ranging from angry passengers engaging in fistfights with airport employees to blocking moving aircraft on an active runway.

Now that outbound tourism has begun to skyrocket in China, this trend in air rage seems to be traveling overseas as well. In February 2012, a Chinese couple was kicked off their United flight from Guam to Shanghai (without their 12-year-old daughter in tow) after repeatedly yelling at a flight attendant when she attempted to move their luggage within the overhead bin to accommodate other passengers’ bags. That same year, a Beijing-bound flight out of Switzerland was forced to return to Zurich when a fight broke out between two Chinese men over a reclined seat.

In February 2014, an altercation erupted between two groups of Chinese passengers before their China Eastern Airlines flight could depart from Phuket, Thailand, resulting in 27 people being escorted off the plane. Then in April, three Chinese men got into a violent brawl aboard a Thai Airways red-eye from Bangkok to Beijing.

Regrettable behavior from  Chinese tourists while traveling abroad has even inspired Presidenr Xi Jinping to urge Chinese travelers to be better global citizens while traveling abroad. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)
Regrettable behavior like this “hot Watergate” incident has inspired China’s President Xi Jinping to urge Chinese travelers to be better global citizens while traveling abroad. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Last year, the government released a lengthy list of suggestions aimed at turning Chinese travelers into “civilized tourists.” However, the continuation of hostile in-flight incidents and other regrettable behavior, including a propensity to shun local cuisine in favor of Chinese-made instant hot noodles, prompted Chinese President Xi Jinping this past September to make a public request that Chinese tourists become better global citizens while traveling abroad.

However, not everyone seems to have received the message. Shortly after the four AirAsia passengers finally arrived in Nanjing on Friday, December 12—aboard the same Thai AirAsia flight they disrupted the previous day—they refused to disembark until they received a written statement from the airline that would exonerate them from having caused Thursday’s delay. One day later, China’s National Tourism Administration released a statement on their website, saying that the actions of these ill-behaved AirAsia passengers have “severely damaged the overall image of Chinese people” and calling for local Thai and Chinese authorities to review the case.

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