guess 5,000 years of civilization didn’t prepare them for air travel…

Bedlam in the Air for China Flight Attendants

January 11, 2005

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.

Chen Qi, a flight attendant for a major airline, said:
“I’ve been a stewardess for 10 years now, and I think the
quality of the passengers has changed. I’ve had a passion
for this job, but I’ve been to a lot of places and seen a
lot of things, and my main feeling is the pressure just
keeps getting heavier on us all the time.”

In addition to legions of gruff business road warriors,
inevitably, given a population of 1.3 billion, on any day
many passengers are first-time fliers.

“We get tourist groups to places like Haikou, where most of
the passengers have never flown before,” said Bao Xiaochun,
another flight attendant. “They have to be watched very
carefully. Some have to be taught things like how to clear
the pressure in their ears, while others have tried to open
the emergency hatch in midflight.” Ms. Bao, who asked that
her airline not be identified, called her job “a mixture of
sweetness and bitterness.”

Industry attrition rates are not published, but the shock
of this job was so great for Yuan Jia, an otherwise
irrepressible 22-year-old, that she quit after three
months. “You work 22-hour days, always on your feet,
walking back and forth, with no time to even wash your
face,” Ms. Yuan said, pronouncing herself happily
unemployed. “My dream was to travel overseas, but you have
to wait 10 years for that.”