Copyright – The New York Times
SHANGHAI, Jan. 10 – It was just after 6 p.m. when China Southern’s flight CZ 3593, packed to capacity, backed out of the gate to begin a 90-minute run from Zhengzhou to Shanghai after a five-hour delay.
There were too many carry-on bags to fit in the overhead racks, so the flight attendants began stuffing them into one of the rear bathrooms, setting off protests by passengers sitting nearby. Hearing the hubbub, other passengers began to shout about how hungry they were, while others bellowed about how the delay had spoiled their business plans.
Under siege, the flight attendants withdrew behind drawn curtains to consider their options, finally deciding, with the cockpit crew, to return to the gate, where the excess luggage could be placed in the hold. At the gate, though, the situation steadily worsened over an hour or so, with some passengers demanding dinner even before takeoff, and others clamoring to simply get off the plane.
One passenger cornered an attendant in the galley and lectured her about crisis management procedures he had picked up in other countries. She broke down in tears.
“We are doing our best to take care of all of you,” the attendant said. “We are doing our best.”
Pity the Chinese flight attendant.
In a short time, China has spent a fortune assembling one of the world’s largest passenger airline fleets, building some of the most aesthetically pleasing and passenger friendly airports anywhere, many of them in the country’s secondary cities. The airlines are government owned and operated.
Yet passengers numbered 80 million last year, a fourfold increase from 1991. That means the flights have a circuslike quality, and the airline workers are stretched just to get through the day.
With so many new travelers, there is no culture of passenger etiquette, the kind in which travelers generally buckle their seat belts without being told, remain seated while planes are taxiing and defer to flight attendants.
China’s flight attendants, the frontline workers in the country’s mass air-travel revolution, say their jobs offer solid middle class wages, with $1,000-a-month salaries common. But the work shifts are brutal, often involving three or more unrelated segments to far-flung destinations in a day, and intemperate passengers. There are unions, but they are weak, and there is little regulation of working conditions. Most of the flight attendants are women.
“When I was very small, this was kind of a dream job: a beautiful woman’s profession, a life for a gentle person,” said Liu Lixia, a 21-year-old flight attendant. “But one dreams these things less and less. Daily life is full of difficulties and stress, and there’s no time to relax, really. Last year I had just seven days off.”
A typical day for Ms. Liu can involve a flight from Shanghai, her home, to Beijing in the north of China, a nation comparable in size to the United States, then to Kunming in the southwest and to Guangzhou in the southeast, before coming back to Shanghai at night.
On her interactions with passengers, she seemed to strive for a diplomatic tone.
“People’s level of education and culture isn’t always the same,” Ms. Liu said. “You say, ‘Please fasten your seat belts,’ and people don’t respond.” Sometimes the cabin is just extraordinarily noisy, with some passengers even singing. “You ask them to quiet down, and they just stare at you,” she said.
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