The world’s most frequent flyers enjoy a privileged status. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific treats its Diamond Plus members like royalty, offering dedicated service teams and perks. Not to be outdone, Singapore Airlines claims its own top-tier Solitaire PPS Club “stands in a class of its own”.
But even members of these elites cannot telephone air traffic control and ensure that their own flights get cleared for take-off before the rest.
This is exactly what happened in Ningbo recently, sparking controversy about a frequent flyer group that enjoys some of aviation’s most extraordinary privileges, namely China’s senior Party officials.
A passenger on Hainan Airlines flight HU7197 first reported the incident on his weibo (a local Twitter equivalent). His flight was due to take off from Ningbo at 6pm but had been delayed due to bad weather. So far, so normal. But he and his fellow passengers became annoyed when flight HU7297 – scheduled to take off after HU7197 – boarded and departed first.
The passengers then berated Hainan Airlines staff. The crew initially tried to blame air traffic control, saying it may have made a mistake because of the similarity of the flight numbers.
When that explanation failed to convince – passengers started arguing that, if air traffic control could make such a basic mistake on flight numbers, what did that say about safety in general – staff finally capitulated.
According to Xinhua (yes, the state news agency), the airline staff admitted that a senior leader was on the other flight. The airline asked him to transfer to HU7197 but he declined for security reasons, and then insisted that his plane took off first.
Zhejiang Online reports that when Ningbo Airport was asked about the incident, its spokesperson said the move complied with the relevant provisions promulgated by the CAAC (Civil Aviation Administration of China).
These declare that cadres above the rank of vice-minister are VIPs and have priority in flying.
Southern Weekly says the regulations were created in 1993 to cater to the needs of senior political and military figures.
Apart from reclining in the usual VIP lounges and such like, the privileged few can also be driven out onto the runway apron. Complaints about inflight service aren’t made on a questionnaire but go directly to quaking senior airline management. Previous cases have ended in official reprimand (which is to say, career over) as well as personal fines (so better make sure that inflight TV works).
Internet users were enraged by the Ningbo incident. Tens of thousands even forwarded a weibo remark playing on the title of a popular film (Let the Bullets Fly, see WiC90): “Let the bullets fly, house prices fly, garlic prices fly, so that the leaders are the first to fly.”
Zhejiang Online also worried that cases like this show that China’s political elites are expanding their privileges.
The Beijing News was also aggrieved: “Compensation for passenger losses and punishment of the responsible people should be made public, because this is not just against the interests of passengers but it is also a significant threat to aviation safety; after all, changing a flight is not a trivial matter.”
All a bit of an overreaction to a delayed flight in Ningbo? After all, senior political figures in other countries hardly push their own trollies into airport check-in queues…
Perhaps, but as WiC has been reporting in recent months, the furore hints at something more: a simmering dissatisfaction among locals with everything from official corruption to rising prices, as well as a greater confidence among the public to vent their annoyance – particularly online.
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