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China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

Posts Tagged ‘Airports

The Panic of Passenger Travel at Chinese Airports

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Tickle-me Elmo.  I get it.

Only so many in stock, and you just have to have that perfect present for little baby Bob.  It makes sense.  To some degree, it makes sense.

If there is some sort of caveat– while supplies last, first ten free– then I can understand a heightened level of urgency.  When you pour that cocktail into the collective bloodstream of a large group, somebody take their keys.

Nowhere is this chaos more coded into the DNA of derailed human beings than a Chinese airport.  It’s groupthink gone terrible awry– a bastardization of acceptable public behavior.  And I’ve lived to tell it.

The sitaution is even worse in train stations.  Pictured here, the waiting hall for a train from Chengdu to Chongqing.

The situation is even worse in train stations. Pictured here, the waiting hall for a train from Chengdu to Chongqing.

Chinese airports are, on appearance, most like any other countries’.  They are often a good distance outside of the city.  They have the departure and arrival levels, lines of counters, display boards.  It’s all there.

But the madness– the hair-pulling, eye-gouging mayhem– arrives with the passengers.  While people abroad laughed at Beijing’s “Line-up Day,” those of us here on the ground applauded the effort.  Lining up, a line.  Seems so simple.  Logical, rational.  Easier for everyone right?


It starts at the check-in counter.  The man behind me is standing so close that the hair on the back of my neck is practically in his mouth.  Garlic for lunch, that’s usually a given.  Something garlicky, or rotten, like a decade lacking a toothbrush, or stale cigarettes.  Another favorite.  Maybe all three, all there, and now, clouding around me.  The guy doesn’t want to lose an inch, doesn’t want to provide an opening where some daring derelict might slice in and steal a spot in our line.  This is tooth-and-nail territory.

I step forward, he steps forward.  Step, step.  Step.  Slam, slam. His bag whacks the back of my knee.  Something pointy.  What does he have in there?  Ice-skates?  Hard-covers?

Bogey ahead!  Old woman just torpedoed out of nowhere, ignored the entire line as if we are standing here on our own accord, a conga line with no music. Right to the front she goes.

Now, we suckers in line have a 50% chance of a positive outcome.  The attendant will either repel her sneak attack, telling her to head to the back, and point politely to our line.  The old woman will then turn and don a fantastic “Oh-my-gosh-I-didn’t-even-notice-how-silly-of-me” face.  Or, perhaps because of her old age or the sheer volume of how loud she is raving or how difficult it is to get her to stop talking in her city dialect, the attendant will fold, allowing her to cut.

Okay, boarding pass in hand and through security, the next real test is the gate.  You might look at the lounge and think to yourself, “Seems normal.  People reading, listening to ipods, sleeping.”  Don’t let them fool you.

No such problem boarding this bus to the middle of nowhere in Fujian-- just a hangover and a funky smell.

No such problem boarding this bus to the middle of nowhere in Fujian-- just a hangover and a funky smell.

They’re all in a very well-practiced Usian Bolt-esque sprinters squat.  In the millisecond between the airline attendant turning the mic on and actually announcing, “Flight XXX to YYY is now…”– in that millisecond of static and inhaling breath– bang!  147 people in “line.”

There are 150 seats on the flight.  Taking myself into account, two people must be late.  It’s a amorphous blob, not a line.  It’s eight people wide, and lumpy.  People lurk in the middle.  Architectural columns become terrain for flanking maneuvers.  Carry-on becomes a tool, wedging, prying, and pushing.  It’s grandmothers, it’s little kids.  Anything goes.

And the airlines, oh yes, they know; they’re co-conspirators!  Never once have I heard a Chinese airline board a plane by row, starting from front to back.  This, this lack of order, ensures once we all board, as people literally sprint down the jet way, we will all bottleneck in the aisle, which, of course, begets more pushing.  More grunting.  More unnecessary contact and anger.

We all have assigned seats.  We’ve booked the tickets.  We’re not leaving until everyone checked-in is on board.  And still.

Second to last time I was on a transport bus taking us to an awaiting plane on the tarmac.  There were two doors– front and back– on each side of the bus.  People had spent the last 5 minutes gnashing and prodding, climbing over each other to finally establish their ideal position.  With everyone else.  Going to the same plane.  Together.  But this time, the front bus door didn’t open.  Oh, shit!

A pair of middle-aged men absolutely frickin’ lost their minds.  First, the bus driver got it– berating, cussing, spitting.  How in the hell could he not open the front door!  They started punching the door, punching the glass.  One guy actually started kicking it, hard, and high.  This wasn’t like a tap along the baseboards.  This was a full-fledged, 90-degree, flat of the foot kick to the glass on the bus door.  So hard, he stumbled backwards a few steps to regain his balance.

Then, we all boarded the plane and sat there for ten minutes in our assigned seats before taking off.

William H. Whyte, Jr., the man who coined the term “groupthink” in a 1952 Fortune article, called it “rationalized conformity.”  The definition was amended later, to include the notion of “not causing conflict among peers.”  Well, the wheels on the Rational-No-Conflict cart have come way off.

You could bend the definition a bit.  Let’s assume people make the rational decision to allow this type of behavior by others in order to avoid confrontation with these maverick hooligans.  That’s actually very Chinese.  “I am only one person in a billion,” they like to say.

Merriam-Webster’s calls groupthink “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.”  Do I conform?

Hell yes I do.

Most of the time I am content to wait and be the last to board.  I put on a snooty look of belittling condemnation.  I frown and shake my head at people, like an elementary school teacher when a kid drops a can of paint in art class.

But sometimes I lose my cool.  I enter the line a bit too early and someone behind me Tonya Hardings my knee.  I’m a nice guy, so I let it slide.  Then, Same Person flat-tires me.  I turn, make a sort of half-loco growling face meant to intimidate, and find it is some mother holding a child.  For a second, I relent.  Then the baby reaches out and violently rip-chords an earphone out of my ear.  Mother says nothing to Child, but watches, not even amused, just emotionless, focused on pushing her way to the front.

She’s off the list.

There is no f-ing way she is getting in front of me.

The most peculiar part of the experience is upon actual arrival.  As the plane screeches and skips to a halt on the runway, before the roar of the jets even subsides, you can hear a massive exodus of belts from buckles– like a hand piano-jamming it’s way across an old IBM keyboard.  Click-click-click!  They’re ready to roll.

The plane slows, not stops, just slows.  Some brave soul leaps to her feet, pops open the overhead and grabs her bags in one fluid motion, a blink of an eye.  Blink.  Blink.  The entire aisle is full of people.  The plane is still moving, turning, people lose their balance, stumble, fall and lean on each other.  The speaker comes on and the flight attendant asks for people to remain seated.  Yeah right.

Now we’re stopped, and everyone is standing on each others’ toes in the aisle.  The door always seems to take forever to open.  Forever, probably, seems that way, because everyone has been standing in the aisle for so damn long.  Finally, we all deplane.

As we hit the jet way and turn to head down the arrival hall, a bizarre metamorphosis occurs.  The Chinese passengers revert to their normal, in-city, super-slow-walking selves.  For all the huff and puff, the shoving and sneering, now, actually arriving, it’s all for naught.  It seems no one really cares about arriving any faster.  Sure, you have a few strong-armers who hustle to the baggage claim, to, again, wait.

But after all that, after I flattened that mother and her child, had some strange man rub his crotch on me as he squeezed past in the aisle, had to sit in the sweaty stench filled cabin full of these intrepid plane-boarders– after all of that, no one wants to rush to their final destination?

Then get the F out of my way.  I do.


Written by Miles

September 5, 2009 at 6:17 am