FRED WOLFERMAN: Future Shock: Chinese Learn About Modern Air Travel
The Chinese may be industrializing at a breakneck pace; they may be threatening to commandeer the world economy; they may be hosting the grandest, smoggiest Olympics in history. But they still have a lot to learn about at least one aspect of modern civilization: air travel.
Something over 170 passengers were recently stranded at the Kunming airport when three flights to Beijing were canceled by China Southern Airlines. The announced cause was bad weather. Who knows? Maybe it actually was.
Some passengers had to spend the night on the planes or in the departure lounges. No food was provided. Around 2 a.m., some passengers took taxis, at their own expense, to a hotel where rooms had been promised, but when they got there, none were available.
The passengers were so incensed by all this that the next morning some of them got into a melee with airport police and smashed the airline's desks and computers. Apparently this sort of thing occurs around China fairly regularly when there are delays while flying.
Welcome to modern air travel; get used to it.
The Western world has been flying routinely for decades and has grown accustomed to this stuff. Of course, we enjoyed a golden period back somewhere in the Eisenhower years when airline personnel were courteous, stewardesses (we called them stewardesses then) were good-looking and planes flew mostly on time, if a good deal more slowly. When I was a kid, my parents put me into a suit to fly. My mother wore white gloves.
China missed all that and went directly to the modern airborne-cattle-car concept of commercial flight.
You would think that with no cultural memory of the good old days, the Chinese would be more accepting of current practices, but apparently not. Maybe it's like the old frog-boiling-in-water thing; wretched flying has just crept up on us and we have learned to tolerate it. The Chinese have been plunged directly into the kettle, and they don't like it.
We were taught years ago that the Chinese were simple peasants, mistreated and herded around by their evil communist dictators. In the past couple of decades, of course, those evil dictators have become closet capitalists, and whatever may have been true about the old stereotype has largely disappeared.
Disgruntled airline passengers are hardly on the level of the Tiananmen Square protesters, of course, but if a mere 170 people can raise such a fuss, and the news can get onto the Internet, then the old-guard Chinese leaders may have more to worry about than a smoggy Olympics.
It would be ironic if, as hundreds of thousands of people descend on Beijing for the games and have to deal with the inevitable chaos and snafus of traveling to and around the city, it were the native Chinese who made the most complaints. The powers-that-be would certainly be reluctant to roll out tanks and aim their guns at hordes of irritated Chinese sports fans as the world looks on.
There is an opportunity for the Chinese to take the lead in another part of the global economy. Maybe, in addition to owning the world, the Chinese could goad it into traveling more efficiently. Or, maybe not. I'm not sure they've quite mastered the concept.
It appears that, frequently, when a plane arrives very late, the passengers show their displeasure in a way that would seem a bit odd to us: they refuse to get off when it reaches the gate. Their Westernization is obviously not yet complete.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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